Loose bullpens sink ships

With all the heavy rain in Marquette County on Monday, an analogy occurred to me about the current state of the Detroit Tigers.

It has to do with water, as in a sinking ship, more specifically a sinking ocean liner.

For those who like movies from the 1990s, there’s “Titanic.” If you go back to the 1970s, think “The Poseidon Adventure.”

This isn’t a perfect analogy, but thinking of these Tigers takes me back as a young teenager watching on TV when Shelly Winters, Ernest Borgnine and Red Buttons were desperately trying to work their way up to the bottom of their overturned ship.

Motown’s baseball team is like an ocean liner that’s “too big to sink,” as evidenced by MLB experts thinking this team with a payroll approaching $150 million was a foregone conclusion to make the playoffs even before the season began. Detroit has been in the playoffs more often than not for the past decade, including twice in the World Series. So it’s not a far-fetched idea.

But our great ship has been hit by a tidal wave – probably a tsunami – or maybe an iceberg.

Entering this year, the staff included not one, but two Cy Young pitchers, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, not to mention last year’s American League earned-run average leader, Anibal Sanchez.

Offensively, there’s Miguel Cabrera. What is he, a three-time batting champion and two-time Most Valuable Player? Something like that.

He has a pretty good supporting cast with Victor Martinez, Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter and Ian Kinsler coming over in the Prince Fiedler trade in the off-season.

Then there was the emergence of J.D. Martinez after being cast off by the lowly Houston Astros, Rajai Davis providing a true base-stealing threat and Nick Castellanos coming through in his first full season.

And wow, let’s pick up another Cy Young winner in Tampa’s David Price and only give up our center fielder (Jackson) who has been so-so and No. 5 starter (Drew Smyly).

Despite leading the AL Central pretty much wire-to-wire until a week ago, there were signs of trouble.

After a fast start, this team has been on a roller coaster ride, the first big dip a 9-20 stretch in May and June, then putting together all kinds of streaks like five wins in a row, then six losses in seven games, then 10 wins in 12 games, then seven losses in eight games. Don’t quote me on the numbers in the latter streaks, because I’ve grown numb to them.

Despite being the class of their division talent- and salary-wise, what the Tigers have done is let the other four teams hang around. And you know what they say when you do that – it gives them confidence to think they can win.

Now the Kansas City Royals are taking advantage. And if KC now sported the AL’s best record, we Tigers fans could afford to say so what, we’re just unlucky we’re in the best division around. There’s always the wild card.

But that’s not true. The AL Central is one of the worst divisions in baseball, otherwise somebody would’ve come along a lot sooner to overtake the Tigers.

The minute we had to look at the wild-card standings, the Los Angeles Angels were already way ahead for the first wild card, with Seattle leading a pack of five or six teams nipping at Detroit’s heels. This past weekend’s series with the Mariners took care of that, with Seattle now ensconced as No. 2 wild card.

What happened?

First and foremost is the sad state of Motown relief pitching. Yes, Joe Nathan has been among league leaders in saves. But he’s blown at least a half dozen saves and had plenty of adventures even when he does preserve a lead.

Other relievers have blown their share of leads, too, otherwise the Tigers wouldn’t have three starters with 12 to 14 wins, they’d have that many with 16 to 18

Not all the blame even belongs on the relief corps. The defense hasn’t helped much lately – think of the ridiculous fly ball that fell between two outfielders standing there in the first game of the Seattle series.

When the Tigers played in Pittsburgh, where there was no designated hitter, you had to cringe watching Cabrera’s lack of range at third base and Martinez’s lack of finesse at first.

And Cabrera has had a mysterious power outage for more than a month, though I recall at least three balls he’s hit to the base of the outfield fence just in the past week. So I’ll chalk that up to bad luck.

It’s too late to pick up true help for the bullpen with the non-waiver trade deadline passed, so we can only hope someone from the current crew emerges.

Nathan? Naw. But he could be valuable as a set-up man, possibly freeing either Joba Chamberlain or Al Alburquerque to close if they can catch fire down the stretch.

Or heck, maybe an idea I touted in a column here a couple weeks ago can pick up traction – with Verlander developing a sore shoulder, maybe he’d be receptive to pitching one inning at a time – the ninth? – and become the closer a la John Smoltz with the Atlanta Braves a decade ago.

There’s enough depth in the starting rotation with Sanchez’s expected return to make that an even better trade than the one general manager Dave Dombrowski pulled off with Price.