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Tigers bullpen: Detroit relievers off to a slow start

Joe Nathan, Al Alburquerque, Joba Chamberlain, and Phil Coke could hold the Tigers back if they don't improve.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers' bullpen would be a good place for hoboes to gather for warmth at this point, but when summer rolls around, Detroit won't even have that benevolent excuse for the dumpster fire raging just beyond the left field fence.

They lead the American League Central at 13-9. Much of the rest of the division is hovering around .500.

In the early going, there hasn't been much margin for error, and if the division continues to be closely contested, Detroit's rickety bullpen could cost them their fourth consecutive AL Central title.

Joe Nathan has saved four games for his new club, but his 5.06 ERA is not what the Tigers were expecting when they signed him to a two-year, $20 million deal this winter. He seemed like the perfect prodigal son for the AL Central after resurrecting his career in Texas. For the Rangers, he saved 80 games and posted a 2.09 ERA in 129 innings over the last two seasons. He put up a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 151 to 34 and somehow managed to allow just nine home runs over that span desire pitching a majority of those innings in the Bombpark at Arlington.

He hasn't had much help from fellow free agent signing Joba Chamberlain. Chamberlain and Al Alburquerque both have ERAs over 5.00 and have allowed more than 1.50 base runners per inning. Lefty Phil Coke's ERA is currently at 8.10, making the group's ERA 5.67 as a unit. Compared to the 3.07 figure posted by the club's rotation, that's not exactly relief.

Of course, most of those guys have thrown 10 innings or fewer so far this season, so it's much too early for first-year manager Brad Ausmus to go into hysterics yet. But the unit's performance could end up being the difference in what might be a very competitive -- or ordinary -- division.

The team is expected to consider signing Stephen Drew after the amateur draft in June, but they might shift their focus to adding bullpen pieces if the late innings continue to cause them headaches. Andrew Romine is filling in admirably forJose Iglesias Alex Gonzalez, but his production could decrease just as the bullpen's could improve. That improvement could come from inside the organization in the form of Justin Miller or Luke Putkonen (currently on the disabled list) -- if either pitcher sees an increased workload -- or minor league reinforcements form Erie and Toledo. Corey Knebel, Merk Belfiore, Duane Below, and former Detroit starter Nate Robertson have all had early success out of the bullpen.

However, if Detroit decides to comb the market for relievers this summer, the team could target veterans such as the Diamondbacks' Brad Ziegler or the Cubs' Wesley Wright. Those two teams are the only clubs that seem destined to be sellers at the moment, but things can certainly change for them, and just about every other team in the league, between now and the end of July.