Tigers struggling to evaluate pitching talent in post-Jones era

Pitching coach Rich Dubee works with Daniel Norris during spring training in Lakeland.

For nine seasons Jeff Jones was an interested observer of the Detroit Tigers pitching staff. In five of those seasons he was their pitching coach. The team won four division titles with Jones guiding the pitching corps. He retired after the disappointing 2015 campaign, saying that the game “had taken its toll.”

Now nearly two years later, the Tigers are struggling to find their footing after the exit of Jones, as witnessed by several miscalculations. The most recent is the confounding decision by Detroit brass to put Bruce Rondon in the setup role. That dunderhead move leaves little confidence in the current group of men evaluating Tiger pitching.

On Sunday, there was Brad Ausmus running Rondon out to the mound for the eighth inning as his setup man with a one-run lead. Three batters later the bases were loaded and Rondon was walking to the dugout having finished what might be his last appearance as a Tiger. Looking about ten pounds over his listed weight of 275, Rondon is obviously out of shape, out of sorts, and after being shipped to Toledo Monday, out of the big leagues.

Who saw the troubled Rondon in spring training and thought it was a nifty idea to make him a crucial part of the bullpen? Who watched him in Lakeland and determined he’d finally become a major league pitcher? Because he hasn’t. Rondon is still a thrower. He can throw 99 miles per hour, true. But he’s not a pitcher.

Last season, the first full year in the Post-Dombrowski Era, the Tigers missed the playoffs when they lost three close games to the lowly Atlanta Braves in the final weekend. Another win or two and the Tigers would have secured a wild card spot. While you can look at the entire season and choose a game here or there, a game decision here or there, it’s a lot easier than that. In 2016 the Tigers shot themselves in the foot because they didn’t make good decisions with their pitching staff.

Jordan Zimmermann missed the entire month of July with spasms in his neck. In his last five starts in June before going on the disabled list, his ERA was 7.06. On August 4th the Tigers brought Zimmermann back and tossed him on the mound to face the White Sox. At that time the Tigers were three games out of first place. Zimmermann recorded five outs before exiting the game with the Tigers trailing 6-1. Buried in a hole, Detroit lost the game 6-3. Most troubling, after the game Ausmus mentioned that Zimmermann “was tight” at the start of the game and never got comfortable. Yet, the manager, his pitching coach Rich Dubee, and general manager Al Avila gave Zimmermann the ball anyway.

A month later they made the same mistake. Zimmermann had spent five more weeks on the DL after that premature outing against the White Sox. On September 10th the Tigers were tied in the standings with Baltimore for the second wild card spot. It so happened that Detroit was hosting the O’s for a Saturday game at Comerica. Ausmus handed the ball to Zimmermann, and once again the righthander was roasted. He faced ten batters and retired only three. The Orioles hit three homers off him and led 6-1 when Ausmus finally walked to the mound to end his pain. The Tigers never recovered and lost 11-3, falling a game back in the wild card hunt.

Amazingly, on October 1st, the Tiger brain trust gave Zimmermann another start, this time against the Braves in Game #160. Detroit entered the contest 1/2 game behind Baltimore for a wild card spot. Zimmermann struggled through four innings, never settling in, battling his control, throwing nearly as many balls (32) as strikes (34). The Tigers lost 5-3.

Who gave the green light to put an injured starting pitcher on the mound not once, not twice, but three times? Zimmermann was never fully healthy after his neck problems surfaced in the spring. He spent two extended periods on the DL. Yet, Avila, Ausmus, and Dubee gave the thumbs up, and it cost the Tigers. If Detroit had won one of those starts made by Zimmermann, they would have at least earned a playoff game for a postseason spot.

Jones is a solid, relatively quiet figure who thrived in the shadow of Jim Leyland. He has the measured demeanor of a man who doesn’t let his ego guide him through life, therefore he never clashed with the millionaire pitchers he worked with. He knew how to work with studs like Justin Verlander, and he knew how to tinker with projects like Drew Smyly. He understood how to coax young pitchers like Rick Porcello, and he was able to help veteran guys like Doug Fister. Jones helped bring out the Cy Young talent that was inside Max Scherzer. A former reliever, Jones was capable of walking the temperamental emotional tightrope that can manifest itself when young arms are working out of the bullpen.

Last season the Tigers were next-to-last in the league in bullpen ERA. The much-maligned Rondon was one of the few relievers who pitched fairly well for the club. The Tigers had taken the highly unusual step to send the righthander home early at the end of the 2015 season, citing his “lack of effort.” That disciplinary action occurred in the last days of Jones’ tenure with Detroit. It might have contributed to his decision to retire. If he wasn’t getting through to a lug like Rondon, a pure thrower, what could Jones do?

Rich Dubee is probably a really nice man. We know Brad Ausmus is a good guy. But so far in their time together under the eye of Avila, the Tigers have failed to show the ability to judge pitching talent. Last season the team did something that would have seemed impossible with Jones at the helm of the pitching staff: they let Mike Pelfrey make 22 starts, despite the obvious fact that he was not a big league pitcher. The Tiger offense bailed him out a few times, but in the games he started that the Tigers lost, Pelfrey bled runs, allowing 94 baserunners in 49 innings. He was a one-man losing streak.

Anibal Sanchez has been flopping around the last few years. They say he isn’t injured. They say he can still pitch. The Tigers are still giving him a chance. Would it be different under Jones? Possibly.

The 2017 season is probably the last one where this core of players has a chance to make a deep run in the playoffs. Possibly even win the elusive fifth World Series title in franchise history. But if they are to achieve such success, the Detroit front office and coaching staff will have to show that they can make better decisions with their pitching staff.