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Eric Thomas: The Bullpen Is Still The Biggest Problem

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DETROIT, MI - JUNE 9: Drew Smyly #33 of the Detroit Tigers tumbles to the ground trying to field a pop-up hit by Michael Bourn of the Cleveland Indians behind the mound in the eighth inning at Comerica Park on June 9, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

DETROIT, MI – JUNE 9: Drew Smyly #33 of the Detroit Tigers tumbles to the ground trying to field a pop-up hit by Michael Bourn of the Cleveland Indians behind the mound in the eighth inning at Comerica Park on June 9, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

Ericface Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas spent most of his career in Flint working as a rock r...
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By: Eric Thomas

So the Tiger’s bullpen is fine now?! What a difference two weeks makes. Detroit has apparently been satiated—suddenly the ascension of Smyly and Benoit as the late inning tandem has fans feeling relaxed, free to aim their ire in the direction of the lineup’s limp bats. It might be a little premature, but that’s never stopped Tiger fans.

No argument here on the bats, they’ve been terrible lately. Many fans are waving away flashbacks from last year’s World Series, when a series of strikeouts sent the Tigers to a depressing sweep at the hands of the San Francisco Giants. Up until last night, the Tigers had been ten of their last fourteen, and they scored three runs or less in seven of those. Few things are as boring and frustrating as watching your home team score one stinking run in a three hour baseball game, so it’s easy to understand the acrimony.

It’s easy to understand how people feel better about the pen. Al Albuquerque has been a sight for sore eyes—he’s thrown a little less than six innings since his return and allowed only one hit. Drew Smyly continues to impress, and Joaquin Benoit hasn’t been plagued by the propensity to give up home runs. Jose Valverde is gone, and Phil Coke is only necessary on a situational basis.

Cancel the ticker tape parade on that bullpen. What makes you think this lasts? Let’s not forget that Albuquerque is back from a recent stint in the minors; a well-earned assignment when he completely lost his ability to find the strike zone. Benoit has been good this year, but we’ve seen this before haven’t we? He was great last year before he fell apart toward the end. Only Smyly doesn’t have the track record of inconsistency. To mark the bullpen as “done,” and move on to other issues ignores recent history. Didn’t the hubris of ignoring arms in the bullpen cause this mess in the first place?

Yes, the bats have been anemic lately but there’s reason to hope. Of that 148-million dollar payroll, four of the top five are bats. Prince Fielder has been struggling, but that can’t be long term. You have to assume that your stars will step it up eventually because that’s what you pay them to do. Prince Fielder has pulled himself out of slumps before—World Series 2013 notwithstanding—so there’s no reason to think his struggles will endure in the second half. Same for Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter and maybe even Alex Avilla, you pay these guys to produce.

The Tigers have made this mistake too often, pumping money into the starting pitching rotation and adding more bats while leaving the bullpen to chance. The two teams that have beaten the Tigers in the last two post-seasons have had great bullpens. The names Tim Lincecum and Alexi Ogando can still strike fear in the hearts of most fans in Detroit, they made short work of the Tigers in embarrassingly efficient fashion. After both of those series, fans around here had an alcoholic moment of clarity—they saw with alacrity that if Detroit wanted to win their first World Series since 1984, they would need to address the bullpen in the offseason.

They didn’t. Are they going to make this mistake again?

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