Week 1 in Review: Pondering Tigers’ Fast Start

A fast start to any baseball season is infinitely better than the opposite. Impressed by the Tigers’ 6-0 start in the first week of the season? Heck yeah. Good, fun baseball is good, fun baseball — even better when it includes the general destruction of two divisional pests.

“Yeah, but it’s only the first week.”

True enough.

But it’s the first week of a season in which Detroit faces a lopsided intra-division schedule early, in which Justin VerlanderBruce Rondon and, unexpectedly, Joe Nathan are on the disabled list. It has disaster written all over it, people.

Instead, the Tigers ripped off six wins, four of them were by a margin of at least four runs, and at least announce to the 6-0 Royals that the Tigers won’t let them or anyone run away with the A.L. Central. At least not in April.

Thirty years ago the Tigers won their first six games … and finished a distant third in the A.L. East, and only a game ahead of the Yankees. Chances are that fast start kept the Tigers from plummeting from wire-to-wire champs to fourth place in one year. More recently, in 2008, they lost their first seven games and never recovered.

We have a long way to go before we can determine what impact the Tigers’ 6-0 (now 6-1) start meant to their 2015 destiny. And, oh yeah, they’ve yet to face the White Sox and Royals. One thing’s for sure: a fast start definitely doesn’t hurt.

Other thoughts after Week 1: I don’t understand and probably never will understand Major League Baseball’s early-season scheduling rationale. It’s not just the players that are miserable and risking injury in icebox conditions, the fans are stuck outside in what would likely be considered sub-optimal football weather. Of course, I sat through many a bone-chilling Opening Day and early season games at Tiger Stadium and Coors Field and didn’t really mind all that much. Now? I just feel bad watching fans freeze out there … Who knows if Yoenis Cespedes will be a Tiger for more than one season, but I certainly hope he signs an extension. He’s fun to watch. I dreaded him with the A’s but love him in Detroit … And finally, this is related to today’s loss to the Pirates: Josh Harrison’s first-pitch homer off Anibal Sanchez isn’t the first time an opposing player teed off on the first offering on Opening Day. On April 7, 1986, Opening Day, at Tiger Stadium, Dwight Evans hit a first-pitch, leadoff home run off Jack Morris. (I skipped school that day and sat in the centerfield bleachers, upper deck of course.)

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Valverde?

It’s been more than 24 hours since Valverde did his latest hack job on a brilliant outing by a starting pitcher. And most of Michigan is still pretty furious. I immediately declared myself part of the “Anyone But Valverde” camp, and I stick by that. But now, someone has to figure out the “Anyone” part. The one thing we do know (or hope) is that the Tigers realize they can’t afford to use Papa Grande in the ninth inning ever again. Plenty of articles, blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts have given their opinions, so I might as well throw my two cents in. Here are the five in-house choices, in order from least objectionable to most heinous:

1. Joaquin Benoit: The good news is he’s here, he’s pitching well, and he has closing experience. The bad news is he has a history of bouts with longballitis. Then there’s the fact that he’d be vacating the 8th inning slot.

2. Drew Smyly: He’s young, versatile, pitching well, and has a much better repertoire than the usual closer. The problem with him is similar to the problem with Benoit: vacating the role he currently holds. Not to mention the fact that it could delay and/or harm his development as a closer (although a similar move didn’t seem to hurt Chris Sale). If Benoit gets the nod as closer, Smyly could be be the 7th-8th inning guy.

3. Bruce Rondon: He’s dominating AAA hitters, but he’s still having control issues. the best course, if they bring him up, may be to put him in the 7th-8th inning roles and let him work his way into the closer role, with Benoit or Smyly keeping the spot warm for him.

4. Putkonen/Downs: Neither is the prototypical closer, but both have been effective in long-relief stints at times.

5. Phil Coke: Coke’s 2013 struggles, especially against right-handers, have been well-documented. He’s not the answer any more than Valverde was.

Of course, there’s always the chance that Dombrowski could trade for a closer, or another bullpen arm who would free up one of the above for the role.

My favorite trade targets would be San Diego’s Luke Gregerson or Washington’s Drew Storen. Neither of these is probably realistic. Washington has the depth to trade Storen, but why should they? They’d ask for a lot. Same with Gregerson. He’s young, cheap, and probably San Diego’s closer of the future after they trade Huston Street.

Street is probably available but would cost significant talent, and he’s not having a great year either. Plus, he’s currently hurt.

Jonathan Papelbon might be available, but he’s getting stupid money for the next three years. Of course that money could keep Philly from asking for top prospects (read: Castellanos or Garcia) for him. The other problem is I can’t stand him. But he’d be just what the Tiger bullpen needs.

Brian Wilson‘s name occasionally floats into the conversation, but no one is sure how healthy his arm is. Not to mention that he’s an attention-craving loon.

The other closers or possible-closers that the non-contenders may offer up would surely cost the cream of the farm system crop.

So we’re back to the question of who will close for the Tigers. The only answer anyone (except Leyland) is sure of is “Anyone but Valverde.”

Mud Hens Sign New Closer

So perhaps we haven’t seen the last of Jose Valverde in a Tigers uniform after all.

Chris Iott reports Valverde signed a minor-league deal …

with no major-league commitment from the Detroit Tigers — general manager Dave Dombrowski announced late this morning.

Valverde will report to extended spring training in Lakeland and face some hitters before joining Triple-A Toledo.

Is this a sign of desperation after yesterday’s ninth-inning loss to the Twins? Not according to the story; the Tigers watched Valverde pitch recently and liked what they saw – more zip on the heater and a good splitter.

So Bruce Rondon, was probably thinking he might have to compete with Valverde in Spring Training, if the Tigers re-signed him. He likely didn’t figure he’d have to compete or pitch alongside Valverde in Toledo.

If nothing else, it will be an interesting Papa Grande Watch for the next 30 days.

And There Goes Plan B (Or Was It Plan A?)

Not sure I speak for the majority of Tigers fans, but I’ve given up hope that anyone but Jhonny Peralta would be the Opening Day lineup for the Tigers. There’s plenty of time between now and then, but with the Red Sox plucking Stephen Drew off the free-agent market, the Tigers lost perhaps the club’s top shortstop target.

So now what?

Well, I suppose there’s a chance the Tigers zero-in on a shortstop as they shop Rick Porcello. Although, if we believe the chatter, a closer is a bigger priority for Dave Dombrowski. On the other hand, Dombrowski is sticking to his Bruce Rondon story.

As for Peralta, I get all the anti-Jhonny arguments (and Lee makes them as well as anyone), and of course I’d rather see someone with a bit more range at short.

So, assuming the Tigers don’t nab a new shortstop, I’ve come to grips with the notion that Danny Worth‘s defense will win more games (and prevent four-out innings) next season than a potential offensive rejuvenation by Peralta.

At least that’s the perspective of those who drills down into the defensive metrics.

Again. Now what?

We sit and we wait. And we listen to Dombrowski talk about how comfortable the club is with Peralta at short and Rondon at closer.

I’ll buy the Peralta part. I’m not ready to do the same on Rondon.

In Case You Missed It: Dave Dombrowski’s Twitter Chat

Here are some of the highlights:

Priorities

@iTigerTravie What is your top priority right now for the team? #AskDave

If we could find the correct right handed bat for the outfield.-DD

Prospects

@Colinverlac17 which prospect other than Castellanos and Rondon should we be on the lookout for this year? #AskDave

Players you’ve already seen like Garcia and Crosby. -DD

Crowded Lineup

RT @Dlehman1230 #AskDave What will Jim do when playing an NL team with Cabby, Prince & now Martinez? Can Vic catch or will one of them sit?

Victor will not catch. So Jim will try to find playing time for all of them. Will not be easy. -DD

About Days at Western Michigan

@FUGEESanFUNYUNS I’m at WMU and was wondering what some of your fondest non-baseball memories were during your time in Kal. #AskDave

Made some of my best friends in life during these times. -DD

Find the entire chat on the Tigers’ Twitter page.

Valverde Another in Long Line of Infuriating Tigers Closers

I’m sick of hearing about Jose Valverde‘s 49-for-49 save streak last season. We all know how that was constructed: with far too many saves that looked like Saturday afternoon’s harrowing win against the Royals.

A lot has been written about Valverde’s intensity being dialed down a notch – or, apparently, disconnected altogether – when he’s in non-save situations. After the Tigers escaped with an 8-7 victory which should’ve been an 8-4 W, Valverde told reporters, “I wasn’t throwing my fastball for strikes. I don’t know what’s going on.”

[callout title=WHIP Posted by Recent Tigers Closers]
2001: Matt Anderson. 1.32 WHIP, 22 saves

2002: Juan Acevedo. 1.22 WHIP, 28 saves

2004: Ugueth Urbina. 1.29 WHIP, 21 saves

2005: Fernando Rodney. 1.27 WHIP, 9 saves

2009 Rodney. 1.46 WHIP, 37 saves

2010 Valverde. 1.16 WHIP, 26 saves

2011 Valverde. 1.18 WHIP, 49 saves

And in case you were wondering, Todd Jones posted his best WHIP (1.26) in his eight seasons with the Tigers in 2006. And for his part, Valverde amassed his best WHIP (1.16) in 2010, his first in Detroit.[/callout]
Whatever the man’s excuse, it got me thinking again about how the Tigers, unlike other A.L. Central clubs, haven’t had a lights-out closer in the same realm as Joe Nathan and, for a shorter but no less irritating stretch, Bobby Jenks.

Nathan has owned the Tigers since 2004 when he came to the Twins from the Giants. In 59 games against Detroit, Nathan is 2-1 with a 1.48 ERA and 35 saves in 59 appearances; plus, he has 74 strikeouts in 60.2 IP and a 0.907 WHIP. (He’s saved more games against one other club, 37 versus the Royals in just an inning less.) In his A.L. career, including his time with the Rangers this year, his WHIP is 0.952, not to mention a 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings.

Now, on to Jenks. The Tigers mustered a bit more offense against him from 2005-10: 2-1, 2.68 ERA, 22 saves in 39 appearances; 44 strikeouts in 40.1 IP and a 1.091 WHIP. No, he wasn’t automatic, but darn close.

So I decided to look up Tigers closers with the best – or most Nathanesque – WHIP over the past 40 years, trying to find somebody – anybody – who came close to scaring opposing hitters late in the game.

Here’s what I found on Baseball-Reference.com: only two Detroit closers finished with a WHIP under 1.0 since 1972:

  • 1981: Kevin Saucier. 0.959 WHIP – 13 saves, 49 IP, 23 K
  • 1984: Willie Hernandez. 0.941 WHIP – 32 saves, 140.1 IP, 112 K
  • 1985: Hernandez. 0.90 WHIP – 31 saves, 106.2 IP, 76 K

That’s it for the shutdown closers.* Of course, Tigers relievers have posted stellar if not Nathan-
like performances in the past 40 seasons. Here are a few notable examples:

  • 1973: John Hiller. 1.021 WHIP, 38 saves, 125.1 IP, 124 K
  • 1977: Steve Foucault. 1.090 WHIP, 13 saves, 74.1 IP, 58 K
  • 1978: Hiller. 1.072 WHIP, 15 saves, 92.1 IP, 74 K
  • 1988: Mike Henneman. 1.05 WHIP, 22 saves, 91.1 IP, 58 K, 1.05 WHIP

*In the case of Hiller and Foucault, those were the days when closers routinely pitched two or three innings (sometimes more), so it’s clearly not apples-to-apples with today’s one-inning specialists.

All this is to say, outside of Hernandez in 1984 and ’85 and Hiller in 1973, the Tigers have not had an automatic guy in the ninth inning.

I think it’s safe to say we expected Joel Zumaya to be in the Joe Nathan/Mariano Rivera galaxy by this point of his career. Now we’ll have to wait and see if Bruce Rondon is the hammer we’ve been wait for.

In the meantime we’ll have ride the ninth-inning rapids with Valverde and hope that near-disasters like Saturday’s are the exception, not the rule.

Yeah right.