Bullpen disarray is an unfortunate fact of life in the majors these days. It has the potential to undermine pennant aspirations, cost managers their jobs and force baseball executives to rack their brains in search of solutions.
If you don't believe that, just ask the 2006 Cleveland Indians, former Baltimore manager Sam Perlozzo or Detroit general manager David Dombrowski.
Last year, as the Tigers invigorated a city while playing in their first World Series since 1984, the bullpen was a lockdown, airtight, monument to consistency. Detroit's relievers ranked fourth in the majors with a 3.51 ERA and held opponents to a .242 batting average, second-lowest in the majors behind the Mets' bullpen.
This season is a different Tigers tale. The Detroit bullpen ranks 27th in the big leagues with a 5.22 ERA and should be marked "flammable." The Tigers have gone from the Academy Awards red carpet to the Razzies -- from Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball" to Halle Berry in "Catwoman."
Fans, bloggers and local columnists are already wondering what Dombrowski has in store between now and the July 31 non-waiver deadline. The Tigers made an intriguing below-the-radar move Wednesday, sending Wil Ledezma to Atlanta for Macay McBride in a swap of young left-handers.
On Friday, the Tigers sent left-handed starter Mike Maroth to St. Louis for a player to be named later.
Is there a bigger move in Detroit's short-term future? It won't be easy to pull off. For every Chad Cordero or Eric Gagne who's mentioned as a midsummer cure-all, Dombrowski knows a lot of other teams are making exploratory calls to Washington and Texas. And when supply and demand are that far out of whack, big acquisitions tend to be cost-prohibitive.
In Detroit's case, teams with significant bullpen pieces to trade are likely to ask for pitcher Andrew Miller, hot outfield prospect Cameron Maybin or even no-hit author Justin Verlander in return. Note to potential trade partners: Dream on.
"Not many teams are out of it at this time of year because of the wild card, and teams that are willing to make trades are basically surrendering for the year," Dombrowski said. "The price they're asking is so severe, nobody really wants to pay the price."
Detroit's woes are a product of several unforeseen developments:
• When lefty specialist Jamie Walker signed a three-year, $12 million deal with Baltimore, the Tigers tried to address the sixth- and seventh-inning void with righty Jose Mesa. He was a disaster from day one, and the Tigers released him two weeks ago. Mesa is now with the Phillies.
• Fernando Rodney, so formidable last year as the third man in the 'pen, has been inconsistent with his velocity, prompting people inside and outside the Detroit organization to wonder if he's hurt. And opponents are batting .304 against Tigers closer Todd Jones.
• The Tigers lost starters Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson for extended periods with injuries, putting more of a strain on the relievers. Rogers will make his 2007 debut Friday against John Smoltz and the Braves, and Robertson is currently on a rehab assignment.
• Joel Zumaya, who grabbed the baseball world by the throat last season, appeared in 13 games before undergoing surgery in May to repair a ruptured tendon in his finger. He recently had the cast removed from his hand and is expected back in mid-August.
Even Leyland, who is loath to dwell on injuries or use them as an excuse for poor performance, concedes the loss of Zumaya has had a significant impact on the bullpen dynamic.
"Being Zumaya-less has put a little extra pressure on guys," Leyland said. "We're asking them to do a little more. Some days they've passed the test, and some days they haven't. Sometimes they're out of their comfort zone, and that's understandable."
Even in an age of velocity-related hype and inflated radar gun readings, Zumaya casts a giant shadow. According to "The Bill James Handbook 2007," Zumaya was clocked at 100 mph or more a total of 233 times last season. Yankees reliever Kyle Farnsworth was second on the list with 26, and Verlander was third at 19.
"He's the ultimate fireman," Detroit first baseman Sean Casey said. "You don't have to bring the whole engine. Just bring Zumaya, and he'll put that thing out."
Casey, who came to Detroit from Pittsburgh via trade in July 2006, saw how imposing Zumaya could be during an interleague encounter with the Tigers last June.
"I had never heard of him, and the first pitch was 101," Casey said. "I was like, 'That must be a typo. There's something wrong with the gun.' Then the next pitch was 101, and I'm thinking, 'OK, this guy is throwing 101.'''
When Casey grounded out to shortstop, he regarded it as a moral victory of sorts.
"It's the first time I was ever proud of making an out in the big leagues,'' he said.
If anyone is able to bring order to chaos, it's Leyland, who has a history of squeezing every drop out of his bullpen going back to his days with Pittsburgh. The Pirates won three straight NL East titles from 1990 to 1992 while relying on the likes of Bill Landrum, Stan Belinda, Bob Patterson and Bob Kipper. They were professional guys, for sure, but a long way from Cincinnati's "Nasty Boy'' bullpen in 1990.
Detroit first base coach Andy Van Slyke, who played center field for those Pittsburgh clubs, cites two attributes that set Leyland apart: (1) He has an uncanny knack for knowing when to rely on statistics and when to trust his instincts in determining pitcher-batter matchups; and (2) he goes to great lengths to keep his bullpen fresh and avoid abusing relievers.
"He's as good as anybody who's ever managed as far as protecting and overusing guys,'' Van Slyke said. "I've heard guys tell me this year that they want to pitch for Jim Leyland the rest of their careers. I'm sure there are a lot of pitchers with other teams saying, 'I never want to throw another pitch for this guy.'''
I've always learned that you earn what you get, whether it's cheers or boos. If you don't want them to boo you, then pitch better.
Tigers closer Todd Jones
Leyland is always good for cultivating a quiet success story or two. This year it's journeyman Tim Byrdak, formerly of the Kansas City, Cleveland, San Diego and Baltimore organizations, as well as the Joliet Jackhammers and Gary Southshore Railcats of the Northern League. He's done a serviceable job as one of three lefties in the Detroit bullpen.
From one day to the next, the personnel merry-go-round keeps spinning. Earlier this week, the Tigers sent down Yorman Bazardo and replaced him with Eulogio "Frankie'' De La Cruz, a 5-foot-11 Dominican with a 95 mph heater. Reliever Zach Miner is on a rehab assignment, and if all goes well for Zumaya, he could be cleared to resume throwing after the All-Star break.
Dombrowski has some pivotal questions to address in the coming weeks. Will Zumaya be his old dominant self when he returns mid-August? If so, does it make sense for the Tigers to swing a trade in late July?
For the moment, Tigers fans are conditioned to fret -- and complain. After a rough weekend for the bullpen in Philly, they watched Jones nearly blow a four-run lead Monday in a 9-8 win at Washington. You could practically hear them booing through their TV screens.
Jones, ever the stand-up guy, is philosophical over his declining popularity in Detroit. His beleaguered teammates might be wise to take note.
"I've always learned that you earn what you get, whether it's cheers or boos,'' Jones said. "If you don't want them to boo you, then pitch better.''