Thoughts On The Reliever Exodus And Tigers ‘Shakeup’

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

On the day before the 4th of July, the Tigers cut their entire free agent bullpen loose after just 78 games. Joba Chamberlain and Tom Gorzelanny are out after 46 innings of 5.48 ERA/5.08 FIP combined baseball, and Jeff Ferrell and Drew VerHagen are in (and Avila is back for Holaday, but that’s not really news).

The first thing to remember is that signing Joba and Gorzelanny weren’t bad gambles. They hardly paid them anything, so the financial cost of DFAing them is minuscule. The real cost here is that the Tigers signed only Joba and Gorzelanny rather than the five or six relievers they should have signed. The Tigers, like the typically do, overrated their in-house options, leading them to think two flyers was enough for the bullpen. It obviously wasn’t, and now they’re back where they started. Opportunity cost and all that.

Thankfully, Alex Wilson appears to be a versatile and useful reliever so the entire offseason relief effort wasn’t totally for nothing. But the past is the past. Obviously, the Tigers whiffed at building a bullpen again. That was pretty clear from the start and remains clear today. By park adjusted ERA, they’re the 11th worst bullpen in baseball. By park adjusted FIP, they’re 5th worst. Nothing about that is surprising or unexpected. It was a bad bullpen on Opening Day and it’s a bad one now. Such is the life of a Tigers fan.

In past years, they’ve had the starting pitching and offense to offset the late inning issues. The starters have the 12th worst park adjusted ERA and 14th worst park adjusted FIP. They aren’t the worst staff in baseball, but they’re no longer a force, even if you factor in some positive regression from underperforming arms.

By wRC+, they’re still the 4th best offense in baseball. The run scoring isn’t quite there, as they’ve hit into tons of double plays and tend to give away chances by making other outs on the bases. The former will get better, the latter won’t. They’ve played like a .500 team and they’ve been a. 500 team.

There will be other roster moves, but FanGraphs rest of season winning percentage is .509 for the Tigers. On paper, the numbers suggest they are still better than the Royals, but they’re not so much better that they can make up 6 games in three months. At the moment, they have a 25% chance of making it to the ALDS, assuming the Royals regress and the Tigers progress.

These are all just estimates and things can change quickly if key players get hot or if Dave Dombrowski makes a big splash. But the reality is that this was a fringe playoff team when the season started and they haven’t done anything to shift that opinion. JD Martinez is for real, but we kind of thought he was. Victor looks healthy, but we were kind of counting on that. Cabrera hasn’t broken down, but the same is true there.

There’s a path to the postseason for this team, but it requires strong second halves from Verlander, Sanchez, and Greene, a more stable pen, and some kind of recovery from Castellanos and/or Gose. And on top of all of that, the Royals have to stumble a bit.

I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t really see it coming together. It wasn’t a great team at the outset and nothing has happened to change my mind so far. Cutting Joba and Gorzelanny doesn’t really mean anything. Maybe Ferrell and VerHagen will be great, but this team with a slightly better bullpen still isn’t going to challenge any of the powerhouses in the NL, and getting to the World Series isn’t very likely either.

The trade deadline is in four weeks. The Tigers have that long to turn things around before they have to make a decision. If they’re in it by then, you play your hand and hope for the best. If the gap is this wide or wider, you evaluate the offers for Price, Cespedes, Davis, and Soria.

It’s not a happy thought, but it’s a realistic one. I think a lot of people are disappointed and frustrated by this team, but honestly, I’m not. They should be like 41-37 right now and they’re 39-39. That’s hardly worth the angst. Two weeks ago, I was talking to my father and said something to the effect of, “it’s not that they’re playing much worse than I thought, it’s just that a lot of the games aren’t very interesting.”

I think that’s the right view of the team. This is who they are, and it’s not a very exciting or interesting brand of baseball. The elite starting pitching we got googly eyes over in 2013 is gone. Cabrera and JD Martinez are mashing, sure, but there are a lot of mediocre at bats and horrible base running plays. Ironically, the defense has been good, but defense only gets you so far.

I’m not ready to throw in the towel, but when your big shakeup is to replace two bad relievers with two non-exciting prospects, there isn’t much you can do. I’m hard on Ausmus, and I think for good reason, but even if he managed this team perfectly, they wouldn’t exactly be lighting the world on fire.

It’s not over for anyone but Joba and Gorzelanny on July 3, but the clock is ticking for the other 23 as well.

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One response

  1. Will you have an analysis of the Cabrera situation some time in the future, i.e., what you would do if you were D.D.?

    I kind of like the idea of Avila at first. Don’t know if it’ll make the team better (defensively probably a little worse), but it should make the games more interesting.

    I can’t imagine the Tigers being sellers (esp. with Minnesota bound to regress), but as you wrote in the offseason, the Tigers could use some retooling and restocking. So who knows.

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