The Tigers have a bullpen problem. Not only have their relievers been largely ineffective, but now they are dealing with depth issues after placing Octavio Dotel on the disabled list. These struggles should come as no surprise because the Tigers had bullpen problems in 2012 as well. What will come as a surprise is that the Tigers seem to think that they can solve their 2013 problems by relying on a pitcher from their 2012 bullpen that was arguably their biggest problem. That would be the recently called up Jose Valverde.
As you might recall, the last time we saw Papa Grande, he was "closing" for Detroit in the 2012 playoffs, only he wasn't getting anyone out. He showed a marked decline in skills all throughout last season before finally cratering in October. As such, Detroit did the smart thing and kicked Valverde to the curb. That was where the smart moves stopped. Despite the loss of their closer and a bullpen already thin on talent, the Tigers did literally nothing to address their relief corps. They neither signed nor traded for anyone. Their apparent plan was to rely on rookie Bruce Rondon to close and maybe find some depth from a healthy Al Albuquerque.
The latter one of those moves worked out as Albuquerque has been electric thus far, though he has not yet earned enough trust from Jim Leyland to be used much in high leverage situations. Rondon, meanwhile, lost the closer job that was gift wrapped for him in spring training and was sent to the minors only to be called up again on Tuesday. But Rondon is not being promoted to fulfill his manifest destiny of closing games, no that will be a job apparently reserved for Jose Valverde who the team signed before the season started and had him work a few innings in A-ball. This can't possibly end well.
This is a mess, a mess created either by a lack of imagination or a lack of understanding of their own players' ability. Detroit management quite obviously misread how ready Rondon was for the majors. But they also misread their incumbent relievers who have thus far delivered the third-worst bullpen ERA in the American League. Phil Coke was foolishly considered as a viable late inning option because he had a good week in the 2012 playoffs. Forget that he has been in the majors for 309+ innings and has a 4.07 career ERA to show for it. They also misread Joaquin Benoit who was just as bad, if not worse, than Valverde late in the 2012 season. Benoit has managed to survive with a 2.00 ERA thus far in 2013, this despite walking a distressing 6.00 batter per nine innings.
There really never was anything to like about the Detroit bullpen, yet Dave Dombrowski saw fit to stick with the status quo. Now they are doubling down on the same wrong-headed strategy by reverting back to Valverde as a late inning option despite a complete lack of evidence to suggest that he will be much better than the guy that they happily parted ways with just a few months ago.
The shame of it as that the Tigers have a chance to address this glaring hole in their roster before it hurts them too badly. For all the bullpen's struggles, they have only blown three saves and been on the hook for four losses. That isn't good, but it could be worse. If they can get some real help in the near future, they can prevent the bullpen from dragging down their entire season. Calling up Rondon, not Valverde, is a good first step, especially if they actually give him, not Valverde, a chance to pitch in high leverage situations. There may be concerns about Rondon, but it can't hurt to see what he can do since he, not Valverde, has some real upside.
But they still need more help even if Rondon pans out. It is never easy to make trades this early in a season, but it isn't impossible. The LA Angels acquired Ernesto Frieri early in 2012 and he proved to be something of a savior for their decrepit relief corps. Finding someone as impactful as Frieri is probably more the exception than the rule, but that doesn't mean there aren't some solid middle relief options that non-contending teams could be convinced to part ways with. After all, the Tigers aren't just searching for a closer here, they need help in the setup and middle relief roles as well. As fungible as relievers can be, the Tigers really just need to have some options to rotate through until they find a set of guys that they can finally rely on.
Repeating their mistakes of the past does not qualify though. After all, do we not study history so that we do not make the same mistakes? Study up, Detroit, and try something new before it is too late.