Tigers should consider a radical idea with their pitching staff

Some experts think baseball is headed toward an "all-bullpen" approach to pitching games.

Some baseball experts think we’re heading toward an “all-bullpen” approach to pitching games. Could Alex Wilson, Alfredo Simon, and Blaine Hardy share nine innings in a pre-planned format?

Halfway through the season, it’s clear this Tigers team isn’t going to meet pre-season expectations. They’re a long shot now to win the Central Division title but still in the race for a wild-card spot and a possible pathway to the World Series—meaning only, of course, that they are treading water near the .500 mark. Thanks to the current format, you are in the hunt if you still have a pulse in July and August. But hopes for catching Kansas City are unrealistic.

Price and pray for rain

Given that the Tigers are a 14-3 juggernaut when David Price gets the start, you can be sure Price will be on the mound for any one-game wild-card playoff, making Detroit a favorite to leap that initial post-season hurdle. If they win that game, it won’t matter that they didn’t win the division; they’ll be in as good a shape as any contender (except that they won’t be able to use their ace twice in the first playoff round). There are no great teams in the American League this year. In October it’ll be anyone’s pennant for the taking.

To get a wild-card berth, however, the Tigers will need a better record than all but one of the other contenders: the Angels, Rangers, whichever three teams lose the Eastern Division dogfight, the Twins (though I still don’t think they’re for real), and possibly the Indians, if they surge. So when the Tigers took two out of three from one of those teams, Toronto, over the Fourth of July weekend, it meant something.

To land that wild-card spot, the Tigers have to at least play .500 ball in the non-Price starts and keep playing .800 ball when Price takes the mound. However they do it, they’ll need to win at least ten more games than they lose from here on out.

Team needs to tread water while Miggy is out

But just as the club looked ready to turn it around, with four key players—VMart, Verlander, Avila, and Rondon—finally back from injuries, the Tigers suffered the biggest blow imaginable—losing their MVP, the game’s best hitter, for six weeks. Certainly this team has excuses, but injuries are part of the game, and one is entitled to ask: why was Miguel Cabrera involved in a hit-and-run anyway?

The Tigers can address their first base problem in short order—putting Avila there is not a bad move at all, not when you have a very capable alternative at catcher. Also, I’ve always wondered why someone couldn’t teach J.D. Martinez to play first base; that would give the team some more flexibility.

And while I like the move of Yoenis Cespedes to second in the order, I’ve been wondering why Jose Iglesias isn’t batting leadoff. His batting average and on-base percentage are best among current healthy Tigers. Why bat him last?

Starting pitching is the biggest problem

In any event, it’s going to be mid-August before the Tigers’ lineup is no longer patchwork, so that makes it all the more urgent for the Tigers to fix their pitching staff immediately. It’s obvious that pitching is this team’s biggest weakness. There’s hope for improvement, of course, because Anibal Sanchez shows flashes of brilliance and people still fantasize that Verlander will be the pitcher of old and Shane Greene can revive. But hope is not a strategy.

Actually, the Tigers’ starting pitching is in even worse shape than is apparent from a quick glance, because Alfredo Simon has already started his very predictable downturn. Simon never shouldered a workload as a season-long starter until last year. “Big Pasta” is very hittable the third time through the batting order, when opponents’ batting average jumps way up (.391 for pitches 60-75, through games of July 5). Also, while he’s very good vs. righties—.603 OPS—lefty batters tattoo him at a .842 clip (before last night’s game). In other words, Simon is a very useful relief pitcher masquerading as a starter. His career year as a reliever in 2013—and his history as a spot starter—persuaded Cincinnati to turn his eighty-eight innings pitched in ’13 to 196 last year. And while, like this year, he was quite good in the first half, he was very mediocre in the second half. The same thing is certain to happen this year.

The Tigers will likely try to acquire another starter, but how much would that help? You may have read the report that they’ve scouted the Marlins’ staff. But will the likes of a Dan Haren or Mat Latos really provide much help? And if the club was going to spend what is needed to get top-of-the-line starters such as Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto, they could have kept Max Scherzer. Here’s another chance—grab one of those two if you really want that World Series ring, Mr. Ilitch.

Use your bullpen the entire game

But there’s an alternative, more radical, solution: put Simon back in the bullpen, where he belongs, and train your sights on acquiring three good relievers for the same price you’d pay for a cheap starter. Relievers are abundant. Go grab some from the rosters of the non-contenders. Use your non-closer relievers to go no more than once through the order—when all pitchers are most effective—in other words, two or three innings apiece. Others besides me (Brian Kenny at MLB Network, for one) think such “all-relief” games are the wave of the future. Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson have already proven they can pitch multiple innings effectively. And Simon can easily pitch two or three innings in relief two or three times a week.

Some club is going to do this eventually—why not the Tigers now? They have to find a better way to use their limited pitching resources—and fairly urgently—or it’s going to be another lost season.

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