Why are the Tigers resting at .500 and where will they go from here?

Prince Fielder is off to a great start to the 2013 season for the Detroit Tigers.

Prince Fielder is off to a great start to the 2013 season for the Detroit Tigers.

The Tigers have the best pitcher and the best hitter on the planet, an impressive lineup from top to bottom, and a formidable starting rotation. With the fifth highest payroll in the majors, and a team stocked with players in their prime, they are set up for a run at the world championship and in fact, are the Vegas betting line favorites at 6-1 to win it all.

So why did they stumble to an unimpressive .500 start?

Of course, even a great team, over the course of a season, will inevitably experience a three-week stretch of mediocrity. And any team with a great offense has spurts when almost everyone is firing on all cylinders and times when no one is.

The Tigers’ few overall weaknesses — an unimpressive bench, shaky infield defense on the right side — shouldn’t be fatal over the course of a long season. But in the first month of this season, the bullpen has been a shambles. And that is a major dilemma.

I’ll pass over the glaring lack of infield range (particularly the gaping gap between an immobile third baseman and another third baseman who’s playing shortstop) with a smirk at Rod Allen’s recent on-air remark that “you don’t need range to have a good defense.” Allen must be one of the few remaining baseball commentators who think that fielding percentage is the hallmark of defensive prowess rather than an indicator that fielders are failing to get to many hit balls. And I’ll agree that Miguel Cabrera’s offense far outweighs the runs he gives away at third base (but his defense should have been a bigger factor in last year’s MVP vote).

And for the time being I’ll dismiss Victor Martinez’s horrid start as an understandable case of rustiness after a year off with an injury. If it’s a sign of anything more serious, the Tigers are in trouble, as was clear in Anaheim when Ernesto Frieri walked both Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the ninth semi-intentionally and chose to pitch to VMart with the bases loaded, which proved to be a wise move.

That leaves the most serious and potentially devastating deficiency: the bullpen.

I was pleasantly surprised at first with Jim Leyland’s approach to the team’s lack of an anointed closer. I like how he used Joaquin Benoit to pitch the eighth and part of the ninth, then lifted him to bring in Phil Coke to face one or more lefties. I frankly didn’t think he had that much creativity — after watching season after season of the ubiquitous push-button approach to game-ending pitching decisions: seventh-inning specialists, set-up man in the eighth, closer in the ninth, script unchanging.

After the first couple games, though, that attempt at smart match-up managing has become inconsistent and sometimes looked more like flailing away. The lack of a clear strategy for using relievers can be just as bad as a plan that’s too rigid. But putting a game in the hands of anyone in the bullpen has so far been a crapshoot.

It may be that the skipper’s bullpen tactics have been dictated more by necessity than anything, like when Rick Porcello came into a blowout to pitch two innings of relief and give the relievers a rest. That harkened back to the way fifth starters used to be used. And it makes me ask: with their four solid starters, why don’t the Tigers keep those four on a strict rotation, with four days’ rest between each start whenever possible, and use both Porcello and Drew Smyly as swingmen? Each could be an irregular fifth starter and available from time to time as a long reliever. Leyland is halfway to this solution already. Take the next step, and try to use the Big Four as often as possible on regular rest, with Porcello and Smyly filling in as starters and providing more bullpen options.

In the meantime, send Villarreal to the minors so he can work on his repertoire, and resist the urge for now to anoint a closer by promoting Bruce Rondon prematurely or, horror of horrors, bringing back Jose Valverde. Now is not the time to make a panic move. The Tigers may be struggling in the bullpen, but they remain blessed with a lot of options.

The big question for the Tigers is not so much on the field but with their manager. Can Leyland find a plausible end-of-game strategy? Can he stop overusing marginal major leaguers Don Kelly and Matt Tuiasosopo? Can he somehow talk Martinez into being VMart again? This pennant is his to lose: he’s got the horses, and it now just depends on how he handles the reins.

6 replies on “Why are the Tigers resting at .500 and where will they go from here?

  • Michael Betzold

    The post above has obviously been overtaken by yesterday’s events. The Tigers ARE panicking in the worst way: bringing up both Rondon and Valverde. The best we can hope for is that Rondon is ready to take over soon and that Valverde has either (a) rediscovered his “touch” or (b) doesn’t do the club irreparable damage during his latest stint. This week–with the Royals and the Braves–will be a very crucial early season test.

  • Dan Holmes

    I don’t think it’s panic. I think they have few other options. Rondon was throwing well, and Dotel is hurt. Make sense. Also, Villareal has been getting smoked and they don’t have many other options in the minor leagues. Apparently, scouts and Tiger officials feel Papa Grande is throwing as well as he was in 2011, or close to it. I personally don’t want the hot dog back on the team, but if the Tigers insist on carrying 7 relievers (which they stubbornly seem t want to do), Valverde is probably as good as any to close the games.

  • Michael Betzold

    There’s been nothing wrong with Albuquerque’s recent performances–10 Ks, no base runners in 5 innings. If Rondon is ready, let him share closer duties with AA, and Benoit, Coke. The best approach is still match-up managing. The worst option of all is to throw Valverde back out there to protect every ninth-inning lead, hold your breath, and hope for a miracle save.

  • Michael Betzold

    Self-correction on Al A’s line in the last 3 games:: 5 innings, 10Ks, no walks, one hit. Virtually unhittable–as he was in 2011.

  • Dan Harcourt

    I like this move. Closer by committee has proven horrible. 4 blown chances already. If it were not for a perfect play at the plate it would be 5. Way too many this early. No one has shown the eye of the Tiger to close out a close game. Benoit has that smug smile on his face and a non moving 93 MPH fastball that usually says “Outfield seats or wall here I come.” AlAl has been the bright spot but why waste that confidence on the closer roll when we need that solid set up guy? Albeit that we have to start hitting the ball too in order to start a new streak. VMart has been bad but he is stinging the ball. Just happens to be at defenders. It’ll come, his proven track record indicates he knows how to hit….just needs to shake the rust off. I figured 65-70 ABs and he will get comfortable. The time has come!

  • Otto

    Leyland is an easy target but ther arent too many WS champs who didnt have a FT closer. Not saying bulpen by commitee is impossible, I just dont think leyland can manage it. I pray albequerque performs well enough to win the job, but it seems Jimbo often manages with sentiment, not logic. I think he’ll give Papa G every chance to lose the job. Time to stock up on the Tums.

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