Monday, April 23, 2007

The Not-So-Good Role Reversal

It appears as though Todd Jones and Fernando Rodney have switched roles from last season. Jones now occupies the post of “reliever not nearly as good as his statistics might otherwise indicate” while Rodney is in charge of “reliever that gets smoked seemingly every time out without being in danger of being demoted.” Grumblings of Rodney being injured have started to pop up but Rodney was terrible near the end of last season as well so this seems more like a trend—and the repercussions of predictably throwing the same pitch over and over again—rather than an injury-caused slump. Jones was awful for a good portion of 2006 without ever being in danger of losing his post. Rodney had a decent 2006 statistically even prompting Jim Leyland to say that Rodney should have been the team’s All-Star representative. However, Rodney had a 5.00 ERA over the last five months of the season which is not good. The apparent role-reversal for 2007 seemingly would leave the Tigers in the same place as 2006. Unfortunately, the Tigers haven’t magically meshed “shaky bullpen” with “wins” in ’07 as well as they were able to in ’06.

Teams with shaky bullpens don’t make the World Series very often, let alone two years in a row. I hesitate to call the ‘pen shaky with Joel Zumaya on board but he alone is not enough to offset the struggles of Rodney and the lack of any other pitcher that could be described as being “very good.” I know the bullpen was lauded last season as being one of the best in baseball. It certainly was one of the best bullpens the Tigers have had in 20 years. The problem is that—other than Zumaya—the rest of the significant contributors in the bullpen were just average. No other Tigers reliever had an ERA of less than 3.50 with the exception of Jamie Walker who was the least used by a significant margin.

I don’t want to over-blow the situation. All players struggle at some point in the season. The Tigers can definitely make the playoffs even if Jones and Rodney aren’t lockdown pitchers. There is little question, though, that the American League Central is one of the strongest—if not the strongest—divisions in baseball. The Tigers play 54 games against Chicago, Minnesota, and Cleveland. Against teams of that caliber, the bullpen becomes vital. The Tigers already have six losses from its bullpen in just 18 games. Even more amazing is that of the 15 combined starts by Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander, Nate Robertson, and Mike Maroth they have lost a combined one game. Yet, somehow the Tigers stand at 10-8. And possibly even more amazing is the fact that in their 12 combined starts, Bonderman, Verlander, and Robertson have a cumulative ERA of 2.24 yet only have three wins between them.

Obviously, the bullpen is not getting the job done. They have done a miserable job of finishing quality starts by the starters. Unfortunately, the offense has joined the bullpen in ineptitude. The following may very well blow your minds: Gary Sheffield, Craig Monroe, Sean Casey, and Brandon Inge are batting a combined .146. It would take me another three or four paragraphs to properly put into prospective how terrible that is but I’m assuming you get the idea. And almost unbelievably, the Tigers are still fourth in the AL in runs scored. We saw a less ridiculous version of this phenomenon last season when the Tigers struggled mightily against good pitching but still finished 5th in the AL in runs.

It is because of that reason—along with the bullpen—that I can’t say the Tigers are better than the Chicago White Sox. This might cause a few recriminations but I am pretty confident that the Chicago White Sox are a better baseball team. In fact, I think there is a good chance that they were the better team last season. I don’t believe the difference is huge but I think it’s big enough that the White Sox will consistently beat the Tigers this season as they did last season. Hopefully Chicago finds another way to miss the playoffs like they did last season but to count on that would be foolhardy. Detroit is unquestionably better in the starting pitching department. However, Chicago is considerably better than Detroit offensively and has a more consistent bullpen. Sure, both teams will light-up fourth and fifth starters against the Devil Rays and Royals. The difference is that Chicago puts runs up against good pitchers while the Tigers wave wildly at pitches from anyone named Garland and Halladay. It’s frustrating as a fan to see Roy Halladay or even someone 80% the caliber of Halladay on the mound against the Tigers because that usually signifies offensive futility. The Tigers were 7-11 against the Chisox last season. At no point—in any of the 18 regular season games—did I feel the Tigers were the better team. I had a difficult time feeling that way this past weekend as well. The Sox score runs against everyone. That is the difference.

As a Tigers fan in general, I must admit that I am thrilled to see a winning product on the field. Everything else is just “icing on the cake.” However, the Tigers play to win and fans watch to see wins. If the Tigers are going to make that happen, they have to start playing better very, very soon. Four of the five AL Central teams are above .500 at this point. There isn’t any reason to think that any of the other three teams are going to tail off. The six losses that the bullpen has already given up will hurt the Tigers significantly when they are looking for wins at season’s end against a stacked September schedule. As it stands now, I don‘t see the Tigers having a better than 25% chance of winning the AL Central. Keep in mind that if they don’t win the Central, they have to beat out a slew of capable teams in the American League let alone the AL Central.

Hopefully the Tigers will get things going soon. A good place to start would be to promote a pitcher from the minor league system. I know the Tigers want to develop Andrew Miller, Jair Jurrjens and the like but it shouldn’t be at the risk of hurting a championship-caliber baseball team. It also couldn’t hurt to use Zumaya more often. I understand the whole “protecting our young pitchers” mantra. I’m not suggesting that Leyland attempt to kill Zumaya’s arm. If there’s ever a time to use him more, it’s when the bullpen is accounting for 75% of your losses. Zumaya was a starting pitcher for years in the minors. Many people—including Dave Dombrowski—had aspirations of him being a starter in Detroit. He can handle an increased workload. The offense won’t explode as many keep predicting. It has been assumed that the offense will just magically blow up at some point. Rod Allen feels so strongly about it that he mentions it 48 times per game. I don’t think there is any doubt that the lineup will eventually “get it going” against the end-of-the-rotation pitchers but you’d have to have an awful lot of money to convince me that this team will get it going against good to great pitching anytime soon. The lineup is no different than last season’s.

I don’t want to sound all “doom and gloom” here. Somehow, someway the Tigers not only made it to the playoffs last season but entered the World Series as the favorites under somewhat similar circumstances. It’s not like this team hasn’t inexplicably won before. So, maybe—and hopefully—I just wasted 1,311 words and five minutes of your time.

A note of interest: The Gary Sheffield trade is probably looking pretty bad at this point considering Sheff’s slow start. In a cruel twist, though, Humberto Sanchez is now out for the season with elbow damage. He is scheduled to have Tommy John surgery. No matter how bad Sheffield has been, the trade has to be viewed as a raging success. Dombrowski strikes again


Anonymous said...

I think the bullpen's early season problems are indicative of a problem that stretches across baseball but in this case I think it means a lot less than it usually does.

Rodney is obviously hurt, but did get his fastball up to 94 in Tuesday's game vs the Angels. Rodney needs to reach the mid 90s on the gun for his out pitch (changeup) to be effective. As his fastball goes, so does Rodney. I think he'll be fine.

Zumaya (.188 OAV) has been shaky because of control and locating the curve. Zumaya needs to develop this season and be a three pitch pitcher to achieve his potential and be an effective closer. He will.

Todd Jones is not spectacular but he was very good after May last year and he is nine for eleven in save opportunities this year and his OAV is .220. If Magglio would have taken the right angle to the ball on Tuesday, he would be ten for eleven. I'll take that.

Mesa was hurt but the guy is known for his hard work and staying in shape. Mesa will likely come back from the DL and be effective in the role he will occupy and I'll say this now: Tiger fans will change their tune about him. I think he was a good pick-up.

Grilli is serviceable at best. Ledezma has trouble with lefthanded hitters (.350 OBA) which does not make him an effective situational reliever. He's a middle reliever.

To me Rodney is the key to the bullpen. He is good vs lefthanders historically, he is a 7th, 8th, or 9th inning guy and when his stuff is good, he's gold. Jones is Jones, Zumaya is still growing, and the rest of the pen for the moment is meh.

One last point is bringing in Miller Jurrjens, Trehan or whoever is a dicey prospect. Miller is probably ready but he still has meltdowns (had one last week in Lakeland) where he just looks lost. If they can bring him up and not hurt his confidence if he gets nailed or walks five batters in an inning, then this is an option. But to me you don't call Miller up until you are giving him a starting spot. Same with Jurrjens and Trehan is probably still a ways away. I don't think any of these guys make the difference between this being a championship team this year. I think that's crap. These guys are a near guarantee the Tigers are going to be a championship caliber team for a long time. Give them their time in the minors.

Jake said...

The Big Lombaowski,

I did not intend to insinuate that Andrew Miller or Jair Jurrjens or Dallas Trahern was the difference between this being a championship team or not. If I did that, then I apologize.

I know you remember the scenario in which Zumaya was brought to Detroit. At the time, he was still considered by most to be a starter. He was also considered to be a year away from making the team. He only made the team out of Spring Training last year because he was too good to leave in the minors. Leyland rationalized that even though he wasn't going to start, he would help the team more as a reliever than not being on the team at all.

As you know, Zumaya's future as a starter all but went up in flames due to his stellar season in the pen last year. But, that doesn't change the fact that the Tigers did exactly what I suggested just last season--which is bring in a young, power start in the minors who may be able to help your middle relief. Miller will be a starter. But, it is very possible that he can help the team more in the pen right now than he can by not being on the team at all. Miller is young. He will make mistakes. But, the Tigers were at their best last year when they were able to bring in pitcher after pitcher that pounded the strike zone with 96 mph+ rockets. That was basically Verlander, Zumaya and Bondo. Miller is not only a flame-thrower, but he is a lefty. If last year the Tigers looked at things the way you're looking at things, Zumaya would be a rookie this year and the Tigers might not have made the World Series.

As for Rodney, we disagree big time. Rodney wasn't good last year. He was terrible in the playoffs. He has been terrible this year. He had a terrible second half last season. He is way too shaky to be counted on with a lead late.

Take care!



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