By Marc Normandin
Entering play on Wednesday, the Tigers were a half game out of first place in the American League Central, trailing the Indians. It doesn't matter that the Tigers have scored slightly more runs and have allowed significantly fewer: What matters is that the Indians' wins and the Tigers' losses are already in the bank, and even if the Tigers more closely match their run differential going forward, they're still going to have to overcome the ground they've given up in the season's first half.
That might not happen unless they fix what caused this to happen in the first place: the bullpen. The Tigers have one of the American League's best offenses, ranking sixth with an OPS+ of 108. Their rotation is absolutely filthy: minimum 75 innings, Anibal Sanchez ranks third in the AL in ERA+, while Max Scherzer ranks ninth. That doesn't include Doug Fister, who has been well above-average at 113, or Justin Verlander, who, even in a down year thanks to a mechanical flaw, has been Fister's equal in that arena. Only Rick Porcello has been below-average in the rotation, and the rest of the bunch more than makes up for his deficiencies, as they are 15 percent better than your average rotation, according to Baseball Reference.
The bullpen, on the other hand, has an ERA of 3.99, and comes in exactly average in terms of OPS+ allowed. That doesn't tell the story accurately, though: A few very good pitchers mixed with more awful pitchers does not equal average, even if that's what the numbers show. Drew Smyly has an ERA+ of 200, and Joaquin Benoit is at an even more impressive 236. They're also the two team leaders in bullpen innings. Things get a little less feel-good after that.
Darin Downs is third in innings, and has a below-average ERA+ of 93. On top of that, he's inherited 23 runners, and allowed nine of them to score. Al Alburquerque has a 2.25 ERA in his 20 innings out of the pen, but he's already allowed six of his 13 inherited runners score. If you made those his responsibility in his ERA, it would be an awful 4.95 instead. Go down the list, and it's the same story. Phil Coke has inherited 12 runners and let four of them score, on top of his 6.29 ERA in the fourth-most innings of any Tigers' reliever. Evan Reed looks like an impressive alternative so far thanks to just three runs in 10 relief innings, but he's let half of his six inherited baserunners in. Octavio Dotel let three of them score in just 4 2/3 innings of work. Like I said, the list goes on.
So, by ERA, the bullpen doesn't look terrible, just not great. When you start to factor in that they're actually making the rotation look worse, though, their won-loss record starts to make more sense. They aren't doing the rest of the club any favors either, of course. In extra innings, the Tigers are just 2-9, the worst winning percentage in extra innings of any team in the majors. In one-run games, they're 9-12, which, while not terrible, certainly isn't helping matters. It's easy to see how their expected record of 48-34, based on their run differential, has only resulted in a 44-38 record and second place, given how things have gone for them in situations where their bullpen truly matters.
For specifics in that vein, look no further than the blown saves. While they rank just ninth in the AL, the Tigers didn't do so well in the contests where a blown save occurred. Jose Valverde blew three of them (and is now in Triple A), and the Tigers lost each of those three games. Smyly blew one of his save opportunities, resulting in a Detroit loss. Jose Ortega's blown save became a Tigers' defeat. Detroit lost both of Coke's blown saves, lost Bruce Rondon's one blown opportunity and lost Dotel's. The Tigers have lost every single game they have blown a save in. Every team blows saves -- hell, the Yankees have three of them this year, and they have Mariano Rivera -- but generally those teams at least occasionally come back to win. The 2013 Tigers, though, have come away with a loss they probably wouldn't have more often than they should, a scenario that could have been avoided if they had just had a capable relief option in place for the ninth.
With just Smyly and Benoit to truly rely on in the bullpen, the Tigers are going to need to bring in relief help before the trade deadline. The lineup can only hit so much, and the rotation isn't guaranteed to throw 7-8 innings every time out, so plugging the massive hole for a third reliable reliever in the pen makes sense. Just who it will be is a question that probably can't be answered this early in the month leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline. But it's clear, given that it's the one obvious weak point on the roster, that the pen needs to be addressed, and soon, before any more ground is given up to the Indians.
The Tigers are just two games back of the wild card, so it's not as if the AL Central is their only avenue to the playoffs. However, in the Central, they only need to chase the Indians. For one of the two wild cards, the East and West get involved and complicate things. The Rangers have a 1.5 game lead on the first wild card spot, while the Orioles hold the second. The Rays are also just two games back, and the Yankees, who will get healthier and more productive at the plate than they've been soon, sit just 2.5 back. The Blue Jays are 3.5 behind the Tigers, but they've already rebounded from an awful start, and are 31-25 since May began. They might be playing catch-up, but it's just one more team within striking distance of a wild card that the Tigers don't need to worry about in the Central's race.
It's realistic that the Tigers could have the best record in the American League, if not the majors, if they already had a worthwhile relief option to join forces with Benoit and Smyly. There are still three months of baseball to play like that team and secure the AL Central title, before the lack of a complete bullpen can cause any more damage to what should be the best Tigers' roster of the last few years. The rotation is the best it's been, even with Verlander's problems. The lineup, in spite of a slow start from both Alex Avila and Victor Martinez, has produced one of the better offenses in the AL. Far more of the bullpen has held this team back than has not, though, and it's making it more difficult for the successes of the rest of the team to mean something.
The Tigers have gone all-in before, though, knowing that the postseason was in sight. They are very likely do so once more this month, and have already gone so far as to talk to the Phillies about one of the game's best closers, Jonathan Papelbon. This is a problem that very likely won't exist in just a few weeks' time. However, plenty of damage has already been done, and that damage can't be erased, only insured against repeating in the future.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.