Lack of a decent bat off the bench could hurt the Tigers

Don Kelly has barely hit over .200 the last two seasons, yet he's regularly pinch-hitting for the Tigers in 2014.

Don Kelly has barely hit over .200 the last two seasons, yet he’s regularly pinch-hitting for the Tigers in 2014.

In a game against the Cleveland Indians recently, the Detroit Tigers trailed 3-2 when Alex Avila got to third on a double and an error in the bottom of the ninth. The rookie Detroit manager looked down his bench to find a pinch hitter for the late, great Alex Gonzalez. A fly ball would tie the game. The best guy Brad Ausmus could find in this key situation was none other than Don Kelly (a career .231/.291/.347 hitter). The utility man, who has always been a fringe major leaguer, went down on strikes.

To say Ausmus’s offensive options in this case were limited is like saying there aren’t a lot of good beaches for sunbathing this time of year in Saskatchewan. Amazingly, though, the Tigers’ four-man bench (which shrunk to three a few days later!) is very typical in the majors now—because it’s thought you need seven or eight relief pitchers on your roster.

The overstuffed bullpen is one of the most bizarre current fashions in baseball today. Ausmus has been doing a good job handling his reliever match-ups, but he could certainly be doing just as well with one fewer hurler. After all, at the time of his decision to pinch-hit Kelly, the Tigers were playing their eleventh game of the season, and Luke Putkonen had been on the roster every game and had pitched a grand total of two-thirds of an inning. Sure, he did go two entire innings two days later in a blowout loss to the Los Angeles Angels. But was his roster spot really needed for that assignment?

If the only reason you are carrying that twelfth pitcher is to use him in blowouts, then find a position player who can pitch. Or if you want him just in case the game goes 16 innings, couldn’t you find a starter to pitch on his regular between-starts throwing day?

You can argue that pitch counts are a good thing for starters — and muster some logic and empirical evidence to support that argument — but who thinks relievers who pitch an average two or three innings a week are in any danger of being overworked?
Why in the world can’t relievers pitch two innings at a time, or even three sometimes? Why can’t they pitch three days in a row if they’re being used only for an inning or less? Are their arms going to fall off? How is it a good use of resources to carry a twelfth pitcher for emergencies—when, because of it, you don’t have anyone capable of pinch-hitting in a game-on-the-line spot?

The way the Tigers’ roster is now constructed, the bench is really, really weak. Ausmus has only Andrew Romine, who can’t hit and who he employs mainly as a pinch runner; backup catcher Bryan Holaday; or Kelly. And none of them are anything to write home about on offense or defense. Unproven rookie Tyler Collins, a reserve outfielder, was sent down last week to make room for (you guessed it!) another relief pitcher. we’re assured by Tigers’ brass that a position bench player will be recalled soon, but by rule, Collins must stay in Toledo for 10 days before he can return. (J.D. Martinez, who spent parts of three seasons with the Astros and hit 10 homers for the Mud Hens this April, was called up yesterday.)

Detroit is the epitome of a team that dishes out huge multi-year contracts to its superstar players but skimps when it comes to its substitutes. And no matter how good your starting crew is, a decent bench is worth its weight in gold, because it may win you several important games a year.

Ausmus is a smart manager, and he has been using his limited resources very well. But he and Dave Dombrowski should take a look at how the pitching workload on his team — or really any typical MLB squad — is divided these days. Then figure out how to distribute the seventh reliever’s workload of thirty or forty innings a year to the remaining six relievers. I doubt whether an extra inning a month will send any of them in for Tommy John.

Open up another roster spot, and scour the bushes. Surely someone out there is better than a 34-year old who’s a proven lightweight like Kelly. Danny Worth has been recalled too, on Sunday to replace Gonzalez. Worth has shown previously in many chances that he’s not a big leaguer in any way.

Ausmus deserves a big bat on his bench — or at least a medium-sized one. If he doesn’t get one, are we soon going to see the current 2014 Tigers’ batting leader — the one who is hitting .667 and dating Kate Upton — emerge from the dugout in a tight spot with a bat in hand? Now pinch-hitting, #35 Justin Verlander!

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About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.