I expected to see that reliever Brayan Villarreal was being demoted to Triple-A Toledo.
Wednesday’s 8-6 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays at Comerica Park is an early candidate for worst loss of the season. Detroit had a 6-1 lead after the fifth inning, a margin that virtually any major league bullpen should be able to hold.
But the Tigers and manager Jim Leyland are still trying in this early stage of the season to figure out their bullpen. Who is best suited for which role? Which member of the relief corps is eventually going to seize the closer role that the team wasn’t able to fill during spring training?
Though Villarreal wasn’t really considered a candidate to be the Tigers’ closer, I think we can all safely eliminate him from consideration at this point.
His strikeout stuff (averaging 10.4 Ks per nine innings in 59 career appearances) made him an intriguing possibility for the role. However, he and Al Alburquerque are arguably more effective when deployed at different points of a ballgame, rather than restricted to the ninth inning. If Detroit needs to get out of a jam with a strikeout in, say, the seventh inning, Leyland can use either pitcher in that situation.
Or one of them can come into a ballgame with a runner on base and walk three consecutive batters, as Villarreal did on Wednesday. Rather than put out the fire, the 25-year-old right-hander poured gasoline all over the mound and lit a match — much like Jason Grilli used to during his three-plus seasons in Detroit.
After issuing his third walk — which drove in a run, with the bases loaded — Villarreal was mercifully pulled from the game. Octavio Dotel came in to face a situation very few relievers can escape successfully and promptly served up a bases-clearing, three-run double to J.P. Arencibia. All three runs were charged to Villarreal. His line for the day: three runs, three walks, zero hits.
And since he didn’t record an out, how many innings did Villarreal pitch, Dean Wormer?
Giving up three runs and three walks without getting anyone out is no way to get through life, son.
That was the second terrible outing for Villarreal. In his previous appearance, he allowed five runs, four hits and two walks in two-thirds of an inning to the powerhouse Minnesota Twins.
Yes, it’s early in the season. Go ahead and point out that Villarreal has provided a small sample size, one that doesn’t provide enough data to properly judge. That’s fair. MLB.com’s Jason Beck reported that Villarreal found a hitch in his mechanics that needs to be straightened out. But can the Tigers afford to have him work on his delivery in the majors and watch late-inning leads get blown?
No, Villarreal is not the only Detroit reliever struggling. Phil Coke can’t get right-handed hitters out. Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel look like they still have some kinks to work out early in the season. Fortunately, Drew Smyly, Darin Downs and Alburquerque have pitched effectively to this point.
Though sending Villarreal to the Mud Hens seems like an easy decision at this point, who would the Tigers call up to replace him?
Bruce Rondon would probably be the first answer, but if Detroit thought he was ready to pitch in the major leagues, he would’ve been on the team out of spring training. The Tigers surely want to see more than three outings in Toledo from him. The same almost certainly applies to Jose Ortega, Luis Marte or anyone else Detroit could possibly call up.
Maybe Marte should be scratched from that list for now, after allowing two runs, five hits and two walks in two innings during his first two appearances of the year.
At this early point of the season, perhaps the Tigers just need to give their bullpen a chance to get itself right. Putting 11 runs on the board and having Doug Fister go eight innings in Thursday’s win over Toronto gave the relief corps a breather that was probably needed.
Of course, Detroit’s relievers will need to get some work to get sharp. That will surely come during the Tigers’ West Coast road trip beginning this weekend. We’ll see if Villarreal is still on the team as it flies out to Oakland.
Maybe pitching in the relative obscurity of 10:00 p.m. ET game times and getting away from the pressure of local media and fans will help. The Tigers certainly have to hope so.