Thursday, March 28, 2013

Tigers' Bullpen Situation Gets Hairy

The Tigers have sent Bruce Rondon down to Toledo so he can get a little more development before hitting the big time. I think it was the first genuine surprise of the spring for me. I thought for sure Rondon would pitch well enough to allow the Tigers to see how his stuff played in the majors.

What does this mean for the Tigers? Well, they are on record as saying they're going to have a closer by committee approach. I would be a little more excited about this if I thought that arrangement was actually going to last. After all, if you're not beholden to the "role centric" bullpen that has come to dominate baseball's late innings, you can use any pitcher any time.

You won't necessarily leave your best pitcher out in the bullpen when you have a one run lead, one out and runners on second and third in the seventh inning. You are more likely to look at what you have in the pen, guess this is as tough a situation as your bullpen will face this night, and go with the appropriate arm.
There's just a lot more uncertainty with this approach. If nobody has set roles, fans will be prone to question every decision. "He's going with Benoit now? Isn't this a good situation for Alburquerque?" All the time, every decision, fans will ask those kind of questions. Compare that with setting roles for your guys.

Take last year, for example. One of the starters goes six innings and leaves the game with a two run lead. In the seventh, out comes Alburquerque or Dotel. They either do their thing, or give the ball to Phil Coke because the third out is going to have to come from a tough lefty hitter. In the eighth, it's Benoit. If the lead holds up to that point, go with Valverde in the ninth.

If you follow that recipe and it falls apart at any point along the way, blame is more likely to fall on the pitcher who failed to do his job in his set role. Yes, there will always be questions about bullpen usage but roles are a good way to silence the harping for the most part. Evidence of Leyland's desire to show the reasoning behind his bullpen usage - and therefore reduce complaining - is shown when before the games, he lays out who isn't available and why. In effect, he's saying, "Just so you don't freak out when I don't use Benoit in the eighth, I'm telling you right now he's not available tonight." That gets to the real reason I think managers become slaves to their relievers' roles.

It's easier for the manager. If there aren't set roles, the manager has to evaluate every situation and make the best decision. When he makes that decision, he has to measure not only if it's best for today's game, but whether it will hamstring his bullpen the next day.  It's much more of a juggling act. With roles, it's more of an "if a and not b, then c" situation. I'm not saying roles make bullpen management as easy as paint by numbers, but it seems to take a lot of the heat off the skipper.

That's why I think that what will be called "closer by committee" for the first couple weeks will quickly fall away to giving the job, perhaps unofficially, to the pitcher who shows himself to be best suited to the role in the early going. I hope I'm wrong. There are few things more frustrating than a pitcher being allowed to blow the game after the wheels have come off just because he's in his allotted situation.

Be that as it may, I don't think it will be long before the roles come out because Leyland (and most managers) thinks it helps the pitchers prepare. This is probably a good time to point out they very well could be right, my own preferences and skepticism aside. I'm still excited to see how it plays out. Maybe Leyland will resist the urge to play it safe. Maybe he'll enjoy the challenge of playing the alchemist who has to find the right mix every night. I hope so. I think the Tigers would be better off for it in the long term. Like I've said, though, I just don't expect it.

You know what I do expect? For Rondon to be the team's closer for good some time in May.

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