Joe Nathan's Struggles Show Closer Is Still Tigers' Roadblock to Title Chase

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Joe Nathan's Struggles Show Closer Is Still Tigers' Roadblock to Title Chase
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Joe Nathan was supposed to be the answer in the ninth inning for the Detroit Tigers, the missing piece that could finally make their bullpen a legitimate weapon behind their terrific starting rotation. So what happened?

With another rough outing Tuesday night, his third straight appearance in which he has allowed at least two earned runs, Nathan has now seen his ERA swell to 6.86 on the year.

For the time being, manager Brad Ausmus appears to be sticking by Nathan in the closer's role, but one has to wonder for how long.

"Joe's been very good for a very long time, and I expect him to be very good for the Tigers," Ausmus told Tom Gage of The Detroit News. "And he expects himself to be very good. But even the best have rough times."

This is a Tigers team with legitimate title hopes here in 2014, and after watching their bullpen implode against the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS last season, this has to be the worst kind of deja vu for the team.

The Nathan signing seemed like a brilliant move this past offseason. Sure, he was entering his age-39 season, but he was also coming off one of his best seasons as a pro, converting 43 of 46 save chances and posting a 1.39 ERA in his final season with the Texas Rangers.

After suffering through some dead arm early on and posting a 12.27 ERA with two blown saves in his first four appearances, Nathan looked to be rounding into form. From April 12 to May 16, he converted all 10 of his save chances, pitched to a 0.69 ERA and allowed just five hits and four walks in 13 innings of work.

Things unraveled from there, though, as he has now allowed 10 earned runs in 4.1 innings with a pair of blown saves and a pair of losses in his last six games.

When the Tigers handed Nathan a two-year, $20 million contract with a club option for 2016 this past winter, it looked like a terrific addition. But at this point, they would have been far better off matching the two-year, $15.5 million deal the San Diego Padres gave Joaquin Benoit to sign him away from the Tigers.

Uncredited/Associated Press
The Tigers have to miss Joaquin Benoit right about now.

Benoit was 24-of-26 on save chances last season with a 2.01 ERA after taking over closer duties in July, and he has a 1.75 ERA and 0.78 WHIP in 25 appearances pitching in a setup role this season for the Padres.

Looking back, the Tigers have not had someone fill the closer's role for an entire season since Jose Valverde put up brilliant numbers back in 2011, converting all 49 of his save chances to finish fifth in AL Cy Young voting. Valverde remained in the role for much of the regular season in 2012, but it was Phil Coke who closed games in the playoffs that year.

The plan last year was to turn things over to flame-throwing prospect Bruce Rondon, but when he struggled in the spring, the team opened the year with a closer-by-committee. When that failed, the Tigers brought Valverde back, and when he flopped, they finally gave Benoit his opportunity.

Now, they once again find themselves in a precarious position as far as their bullpen is concerned. While their terrific rotation currently ranks second in the AL with a 3.60 ERA, their bullpen sits 13th with a 4.52 mark.

So what is the answer for the Tigers here at the beginning of June should they eventually remove Nathan from the role? Jay Clemons of Fox Sports South thinks it may simply be an unsolvable problem:

There may be something to that, but it's fair to assume the Tigers are going to keep throwing guys at that job until someone sticks. There are some in-house options they could explore, so let's take a look at how the rest of their relief corps has performed this year:

Detroit Tigers Current Bullpen Statistics
Pitcher 2014 Stats Career Sv
Evan Reed 20 G, 0-1, 3.57 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 2.0 BB/9, 7.5 K/9 0
Corey Knebel 3 G, 0-0, 7.36 ERA, 1.64 WHIP, 4.9 BB/9, 9.8 K/9 0
Phil Coke 16 G, 0-1, 6.50 ERA, 1.78 WHIP, 4.0 BB/9, 5.0 K/9 7
Al Alburquerque 30 G, 2-1, 3.38 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 3.0 BB/9, 10.9 K/9 1
Ian Krol 28 G, 0-0, 2.29 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 1.8 BB/9, 5.9 K/9 0
Joba Chamberlain 26 G, 1-2, 2.59 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 2.6 BB/9, 10.7 K/9 7
Joe Nathan 23 G, 2-2, 6.86 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 1.7 BB/9, 4.7 K/9 354

Baseball Reference

Joba Chamberlain has been a nice reclamation project this year after signing a one-year, $2.5 million deal in the offseason, and he could be next in line for the ninth-inning job. It's easy to forget just how good he was when he first broke into the league, as his struggles the past few seasons were magnified by his playing for the New York Yankees.

Al Alburquerque is also a viable option, as he has prototypical closer stuff with a mid-90s fastball and a wipeout slider that he throws 69.6 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs. Experience is the obvious question mark with him, but the stuff is there.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Could Joba Chamberlain be the answer to the Tigers ninth-inning woes?

Looking away from their current bullpen group, Joel Hanrahan was signed to a one-year deal back on May 2, and while he continues to rehab from Tommy John surgery, he is expected to be an option at some point in 2014.

Hanrahan struggled in Boston last year prior to hurting his arm, but he saved 40 and 36 games the previous two seasons, respectively, making back-to-back All-Star appearances for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He'd no doubt have to be eased back into that role, but he's a potential candidate to help out there by the second half.

Finally, and this is just thinking out loud, could the team consider moving Drew Smyly back to the bullpen and giving him a try in the ninth?

The 24-year-old southpaw posted a 2.37 ERA over 63 appearances as the team's left-handed setup man last year before moving to the rotation to replace the departed Doug Fister this season. He's currently 2-4 with a 4.10 ERA in 11 starts, with just three quality starts to his credit, so it's not like he's setting the world on fire in the rotation.

Who is the Detroit Tigers best option to close if Joe Nathan is removed from the role?

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Meanwhile, Robbie Ray looked great in two starts filling in for Anibal Sanchez when he was on the DL, before getting roughed up for nine hits and seven runs in his third start. It's at least worth considering giving him a longer look in the rotation and potentially moving Smyly back to the bullpen, where he thrived in 2013.

If none of those options sound good, Valverde is back on the market after being released by the New York Mets. Perhaps the third time is a charm? Just kidding.

There's no clear-cut answer for the Tigers at this point, that much is abundantly clear. Perhaps Nathan will put this behind him and get back on track and the problem will simply work itself out. But the Tigers have to start looking at a Plan B if that doesn't happen.

The American League is wide open right now, with the Oakland Athletics and Toronto Blue Jays really the only two teams separating themselves from the pack. The Tigers' title window is still very much open, but they have to sort out the ninth inning or risk coming up short in October once again.

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