Mike Pelfrey's struggles put Detroit Tigers in tough situation

MINNEAPOLIS -- Detroit Tigers starter Mike Pelfrey walked off the mound Sunday with a look of utter resignation. Head down, hands on his hips, the 32-year-old veteran trudged toward the clubhouse after another poor performance in which he lasted only four innings.

When he exited the game in the fifth inning, he left Kyle Ryan with a bases-loaded, no-outs mess to clean up. Pelfrey finished the game with another unsightly line: five earned runs on eight hits with three walks over four innings. It was the third time in his five starts to begin the 2016 season in which he lasted five innings or fewer.

And the Tigers signed him to a two-year, $16 million deal this winter to give them some length.

"Minus me, it was a good team win," Pelfrey said.

It is still early, but it is not too early to start wondering: What will the Tigers do if Pelfrey continues to struggle? At what point will the club look to some of their younger arms if he can't get the job done?

Manager Brad Ausmus was asked that question before the Tigers' 6-5 win over the Minnesota Twins at Target Field.

"I don't know if I can give you an answer on that," Ausmus said. "The answer on that is, 'I don't know.'"

After the game, Ausmus was asked if he could definitively say Pelfrey would make his next start.

"At this point, there's no reason to think he wouldn't," he said.

Ausmus feels he's still seeing progress. So does Pelfrey, who said that he felt his stuff was better today than it has been all season. But eventually, progress takes a backseat and results become paramount and it feels as if that time is drawing near. That forces the Tigers into a difficult situation with seemingly few options. Putting him in the bullpen doesn't make a ton of sense. Even if both his velocity and his sinker improve, he'd be entering a logjam of relievers who have fared well as of late. The group has seemed to benefit from more clearly defined roles compared to last season and there is no obvious spot for Pelfrey to occupy.

Rookie Michael Fulmer was impressive in his MLB debut and may make his next start on Thursday, so the 23-year-old has provided the Tigers an option with Shane Greene (finger) on the disabled list, but that would be an awfully small sample size on which to stake a switch once Greene returns Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris are up-and-comers in Toledo -- needed pitching depth that the Tigers have wisely accrued -- but both players could benefit from additional seasoning in the minors.

And then, there is the issue of Pelfrey's contract. Perhaps there would be a quicker hook looming if he was signed to a modest contract, but he's not. Ausmus said that will not be a factor he takes into consideration when assessing the situation.

"I don't make a lineup out because a guy makes money. I make a lineup out because I believe he can help us win, or I believe he's our best option at the particular position," Ausmus said.

After a recent start in Kansas City, Pelfrey was candid in his frustration over how poorly he has pitched. He said he had to figure things out and that he was running out of time. Two starts later, the questions persist and pressure mounts.

"I don't think you want to keep having bad outings over and over again," Pelfrey said. "There's always a sense of urgency whenever you have a bad outing to kind of turn it around and get things going. Obviously, it just hasn't happened yet. Like I said, I thought my stuff today was maybe the best it's been all year, but at the end of the day, the bottom line is that it wasn't good enough."

The Tigers aren't likely to make a knee-jerk decision on this predicament, but it does seem as if the clock is ticking.