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MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Questions remain for Tigers' 'pen as Deadline looms

Questions remain for Tigers' 'pen as Deadline looms

Questions remain for Tigers' 'pen as Deadline looms

When the Tigers didn't specifically address their ninth-inning situation last winter, there were eyebrows raised in the industry.

Why, rival executives asked, would a club that has poured so much financial might into its rotation and lineup leave itself so exposed and uncertain in the back end of its bullpen?

The question, it turns out, was justifiable. Detroit is the elite team we all expected it to be, but the club's record is not what it ought to be. The bullpen has blown nine saves this season, which is not awful, in and of itself. But each and every one of those blown saves has led to a loss.

Based on their season run differential (plus-87), the advanced metrics indicate that the Tigers ought to have at least four more wins than they do now. That makes a big difference in a surprisingly tight division race with the Indians, who sit 2 1/2 games back in the American League Central going into Monday's finale of a four-game series between the two clubs.

Still, team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski insists he doesn't have any regrets about passing on Rafael Soriano and the rest of the winter closing class before eventually signing up, at the start of the season, for an ill-fated Jose Valverde return. And though things might have worked out quite a bit better for Detroit in the first half had they signed Soriano (or had the 20/20 foresight it would have taken to sign, say, Jason Grilli or Kevin Gregg), Dombrowski's approach did make strategic sense.

Bullpens, after all, are flaky areas ripe with overpays. And given the enormous contractual commitments they've doled out elsewhere, the Tigers had plenty of reason to work through the internal alternatives before doing anything drastic.

"We didn't feel there was a lock-down, shut-down option in the wintertime that fit in with what we were trying to do, role-wise and financially," Dombrowski said. "Other people may think differently, but there weren't a lot of guys out there, and we felt we had options internally.

"Now, it may have taken some time, but we still have a chance to do that."

It took some time, some headaches and some painfully-awkward exchanges between an exasperated manager Jim Leyland and reporters. But Joaquin Benoit has calmed things down considerably, despite concerns about the 35-year-old's ability to go three days in a row, if needed.

Whereas power-pitching prospect Bruce Rondon was at least part of the impetus behind Detroit's inactivity in the closing market last winter, now it's the veteran Benoit, an MLB.com Final Vote candidate, who has Dombrowski talking like a man with little intent of going all-in on an outside closer option before the Trade Deadline.

This, too, might raise some eyebrows, because the general expectation is that the Tigers will be aggressive in their pursuit of any closing commodities the market might present, be it the surprisingly sturdy Gregg or more proven veterans like Jonathan Papelbon or Francisco Rodriguez.

"Where are you going to go out and get a guy with better stuff than Benoit?" Dombrowski said. "He throws mid-90s with a good changeup, and he has a slider that's pretty good, too."

Maybe Dombrowski is just posturing, or maybe he's simply unwilling to invest any further in the back end.

If it's the former, well, that's understandable, because what good would it do for his bargaining position to publicly announce his need for a closer?

If it's the latter, well, that's somewhat understandable, too. Because the reality is that with Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder and Anibal Sanchez all signed through at least 2017 at decidedly non-discount rates and Miguel Cabrera very likely to be extended prior to that point, Detroit can't keep moving young bodies out of its farm system in order to land short-term fixes. The team is going to need to develop as many supplemental pieces as possible.

The benefit of what Benoit has done these last few weeks is that if the Tigers do decide to dabble in the relief market, perhaps they can settle for a more cost-effective setup arm (both in terms of salary added and talent yielded), rather than being compelled to pull the trigger on a Papelbon blockbuster.

Whatever the case, it's not outlandish to suggest Detroit ought to do something with regard to relief help this month, even if it's just a depth addition. Benoit's move to the ninth created a hole in the eighth that the Tigers feel Al Alburquerque and Drew Smyly have handled well. They also feel Rondon has made some developmental strides and that Valverde can still be a late-inning option for them this season if he successfully tinkers with his split-fingered fastball at Triple-A Toledo.

But as was illustrated Sunday, when Alburquerque returned to his early-season command woes by walking the first batter he faced in an eighth-inning tie and then serving up a go-ahead homer to Michael Brantley, there are still growing pains at play here.

Certainly, the last two World Series winners -- the 2012 Giants and the '11 Cardinals -- proved a championship bullpen can be slow to evolve, so I, for one, can't fault the Tigers for their patience with the process. But if they completely stand pat in the 'pen, suffice to say, it would raise eyebrows yet again.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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