Tigers’ bullpen faces familar struggles in 2017

Halfway through the month of May, the 2017 Detroit Tigers have run into many of the problems that have plagued past teams. After completing 89 percent of his save situations last season, 35-year-old Francisco Rodriguez has started 2017 about as poorly as a closer can, blowing four saves and losing his closing role to Justin Wilson, a hard-throwing left-hander in his second season in Detroit. Rodriguez has lost velocity on his fastball, which topped out at 95 mph in his prime, but now struggles to reach the 90 mph mark.

Rodriguez’s struggle underlies a bigger problem with the Tigers bullpen, which any long-time fan can diagnose as a problem for the organization. Since 2010, the bullpen has finished firmly in the bottom-half of the league in ERA, including four straight seasons with an ERA above 4.00 from 2013-16. This year’s bullpen has allowed 5.22 runs per game, a mark that is fourth-worst in the entire league. When the bullpen has been such a problem for so long, fans must wonder how the playoff teams of the early part of the decade would have fared with above-average bullpens in their place.

With baseball trending towards plenty of pitching changes in every game, teams such as last year’s World Series finalists, the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, possess deeper bullpens, four or five-deep of arms that managers can trust to get key outs regardless of situation. Cubs manager Joe Maddon has even gone to aggressive lengths in the postseason, using the arrival of star closer Aroldis Chapman to strengthen a bullpen that put the previously-cursed franchise over the top.

This simply hasn’t been in the case in Detroit. The only members of this season’s bullpen that Tiger fans can feel comfortable about so far are the two Wilsons: Justin and Alex. Until giving up a game-tying home run Tuesday night in the ninth inning, Justin Wilson had given up four hits all season. Justin currently holds a 1.59 ERA in 17 innings pitched, while Alex sports a 1.76 ERA in 15 1/3 innings. Shane Greene has settled into the bullpen well enough, allowing just three runs in 18 appearances, but Anibal Sanchez and Rodriguez have been the main source of problems for the Tigers so far in 2017.

Rodriguez has allowed five home runs in 14 1/3 innings. He allowed the winning runs in the 13th inning of Tuesday’s game with Baltimore, a 13-11 loss in which the Tigers were up 8-7 with two outs in the ninth inning before Justin Wilson allowed a home run to Mark Trumbo.

It seems that, with the return of J.D. Martinez bolstering the Tigers’ lineup, the bullpen could be the only hurdle towards becoming a playoff team. It is too early to project the standings at the trade deadline at the end of July, but it is easy to imagine a scenario in which the Tigers are only a couple games behind Cleveland and are buyers at the deadline.

Here are a few options for the Tigers to pick up some budget relievers that could lock down games in the latter half of the season.

Chase Whitley, Tampa Bay

Whitley spent two years in New York with the Yankees before moving to Tampa in 2016. While in Tampa, he posted a 2.51 ERA in limited action in 2016 and has a lights-out 1.53 ERA so far this season. Whitley currently serves as a sixth and seventh inning reliever for Tampa, and would likely be expendable for a Tampa team that can’t match the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East. Despite being eligible for a pay raise at the end of the year, Whitley is currently just 28 years old. He will not strike out many batters, but will definitely keep the ball in the park, surrendering no home runs in 2017 despite pitching 17 2/3 innings, something only Chad Bell has managed for the Tigers.

Drew Storen, Cincinnati

Storen is a familiar name to many avid baseball fans, having been in the league since 2010. Storen was a solid member of the Nationals bullpen, picking up 43 saves in 2011, but he struggled with consistency in the following years. His ERA has been high at times, and he may not be a hugely consistent option, but the 29-year-old righty has numbers that suggest he would be a better option than Sanchez or Rodriguez. The Reds are also in a competitive NL Central, and at $3 million, Storen may be a decent option come deadline time.

Felipe Rivero, Pittsburgh

The left-handed Rivero is just 25 years old, and keeps walks and hits down compared to the rest of the Tigers bullpen. Rivero is a highly valued reliever, and it makes sense, as he holds a 0.87 ERA in 20 innings. It would probably take a package of players and prospects to land Rivero, but Detroit doesn’t have too much in the farm system to offer the Pirates. At a league minimum salary, it may be worth inquiring if the Tigers are in position to contend for a Central Division title.