COLUMN: Closer continues to be a suppurating wound for Tigers ... and it may not heal soon
For three-quarters of a year, the Detroit Tigers have been hoping that the suppurating wound that is the back end of their bullpen will heal itself up without serious external intervention, but each and every time that it seems like it might, the scab is torn off with another blown save or late-inning meltdown.
The thing that makes fans mad isn’t that the Tigers refuse to acknowledge the situation — everyone knows that this particular elephant is in the room.
“This basically boils down to everybody can tell me I’m bald but nobody can tell me how to grow hair,” manager Jim Leyland told reporters Friday. “That’s how I see it. ‘Hey, Jim, you’re bald.’ ‘No (bleep). How do I grow hair?’ ‘Well, I have no idea.’
“Same old thing. Everybody knows that there’s a problem. Nobody’s got the remedy.”
No, the thing that makes fans mad is the fact that the Tigers have steadfastly refused to see anyone about the issue, hoping it’ll just heal itself.
Never once did they seek outside remedies.
They tried one internal solution, minor-league fireballer Bruce Rondon, in spring training, before abandoning the pretense that he was ready for the job.
Then they tried the “closer-by-committee” route for the span of three weeks, long enough to register one blown save, before going back to square one, and reemploying the guy who was there when the problem started.
At best, re-signing Jose Valverde — fresh off a late-season meltdown in 2012 that kept him unemployed until well after the start of this season — was a band-aid solution, a quick, comfortable fix after earlier plans fell through.
He was a placebo to make people feel better, without really fixing the problem.
And now that he’s blowing saves again, everybody just realized it’s a sugar pill.
It’s far, far, far from being a fix.
We gave it time. We didn’t “put the cart before the horse.” We waited. Watched.
Waited for the inevitable shoe to drop.
“Everybody was probably a little nervous,” Valverde himself admitted in an on-field interview with Fox Sports Detroit’s Ryan Field, after he’d promptly let the potential tying run on base with a leadoff single in Tuesday’s 3-2 win over Kansas City.
Why would that be?
Is it because Valverde has blown three saves, as many as he has in any season in Detroit, save last year, when he blew five?
Is it because he’s given up five home runs already, as many as in any full season since 2008?
Is it because his supposed “out pitch,” the split-finger fastball, is getting hammered?
Is it because his only other main pitch, the four-seam fastball, isn’t as fast as it used to be (registering an average of 92.7 mph, the lowest since his rookie year), no matter what anyone says? And, as one scout told Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan, it’s “as flat as Kansas.”
What, me worry?
It was a good, low-risk bet when the Tigers took it, re-signing Valverde to an incentive-laden contract. If he panned out, well, they’d be right back where they’d been his first three years here.
If not, they’d be where they found themselves 273 days ago Sunday.
That day, Sept. 16, Valverde gave up a double, triple and single in the ninth inning in Cleveland, recording just one out in the process. The triple, if you’ll recall, was the ball Don Kelly slammed into the wall trying to catch, prompting Leyland to jokingly say he looked like a “wounded giraffe.”
That blown save was the first for Valverde after a streak of 13 straight successful conversions, leading to a false sense of calm that he’d turned around his early-season struggles.
All that blown save — which, coupled with a loss in a makeup game in Chicago the next afternoon, left the Tigers three games back with 16 to play, and teetering dangerously on the brink — provided was foreshadowing of the postseason collapse.
And, from what we’ve seen in the last week and a half, nothing’s changed all that much. At this point, he’s proven to be an adequate closer. Nothing more. Nothing less.
A World Series contender has got to have better.
You could argue — and many of you have, vehemently — that the Tigers probably have better on their own roster.
You very well could be right.
But we may not find that out, given the fact that the guy who choses who pitches when, the guy who has the ultimate responsibility for walking out on the field and signaling to the bullpen, does not agree.
A column in last weekend’s daily newspaper clippings, espousing Valverde as the team’s best option, and noting fans’ dissatisfactions with that opinion, pushed Leyland’s buttons.
“Who do these fans think we should be closing with? I don’t understand this. When I read (stuff) like this ... and there’s nothing wrong with the article. I don’t understand who they think we should be closing with,” he said, completely unsolicited.
“So I’m asking that question — who the (bleep) should I be closing with?
“They want some rookie kid? I mean, I don’t understand that.
“Stuff like that boggles my mind. It doesn’t upset me. I was just reading this. Talks about Valverde being the best closing option, and talks about the fans. It has nothing to do with me liking Valverde. Who the (bleep) should I close with? Who do you want me to close with? (Jose) Ortega? Rondon? (Drew) Smyly? I mean, who the (bleep) do you want me to close with? When I put (Phil) Coke in the game, and they say ‘He can’t get a right-hander out.’ You want me to close with Coke? I don’t know what the (bleep) these people want. Sometimes, it boggles my mind.”
If you’re a guy in Leyland’s position, you probably agree with him.
These are the toys he’s been given to play with.
And he’s going to play with them.
He can’t do much else.
If Valverde’s on your roster, he’s your closer. If he’s no longer your closer, he probably need not be on your roster.
Until the day that circumstance changes, you work with what you’re given.
“I’m not going to talk about silly (bleep),” Leyland said Friday, getting understandably testy with a line of questioning that’s been virtually the same for three-quarters of a year. “We’re going to do the best we can. We’re going to use Jose Valverde until we decide Jose Valverde can or can’t do it or we’ve got somebody else better. That’s what we’re doing. That’s like everybody else does. That’s what you do. That’s what we’ve got, in our opinion, right now.”
So when might that change?
Probably not for a while.
Unless the Tigers fill the spot from within — either with Rondon or Smyly or set-up man Joaquin Benoit — you won’t likely see an addition to the mix for another month.
That’s essentially what Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski, watching the Class A West Michigan Whitecaps take on the Great Lakes Loons in Midland this week, intimated to MLive’s Hugh Bernreuter, saying that nothing would get serious, in terms of trade talks, until the deadline.
That’s not a surprise. You hardly want to telegraph your desperation to potential trade partners.
Even then, what’s available?
Unless they pay the piper for the Phillies’ Jonathan Papelbon, probably not much. If that’s the case, are you really upgrading?
“People always talk about getting a dominant closer. There are very few dominant closers out there,” Dombrowski told Bernreuter. “You can exchange a lot of closers and get the same ups and downs with each one.”
Even if someone does hit the market between now and July 31, how much do you have to pay?
It would have cost a first-round pick (and quite a bit of owner Mike Ilitch’s dough) to grab the no-brainer solution to the problem, signing the one and only proven closer on the free-agent market in the offseason.
Raise your hand, and untuck your shirt, if you’d feel more comfortable with Rafael Soriano in the big-league bullpen than first-round pick Jonathon Crawford heading to rookie ball.
Now, if you want to get someone on par with that, you’re probably looking at having to give up prized prospects like Nick Castellanos or Avisail Garcia.
And probably more.
That, in a nutshell, is what fans are truly mad about.
There’s a small element of the fan base that seemed to want it to work out with Valverde, and everything to magically go back to the way it had been. There was a larger, more vocal group, that hoped he’d fail along the way.
Almost everyone is a bit miffed that it’s been three-quarters of a year with no forward progress. This could have been fixed. It could have been addressed.
And it wasn’t.
That’s frustrating for everyone involved, probably including a few folks inside that locker room.
It has the potential of getting worse, too.
“Cannot let this affect everybody else on the team. ‘How are we going to lose tonight?’ ” former White Sox and Mets manager Jerry Manuel said on MLB Network.
Former big-leaguer Todd Hollandsworth, now an analyst on MLB Network Radio’s “First Pitch” show, was just as blunt in his assessment.
“They’re giving moments to other teams in their division, moments to regain that hope. ... And you’re helping them get over (horrendous stretches). You should be the team that is driving the nail into the coffin. You’re giving them these moments,” Hollandsworth said. “The point is, you’re winning this game in the last inning, and you hand the ball to the bullpen, to your closer, and you give it back. It’s why I talk about it like I do. The one thing that will tear at a team, more than anything — you can survive the rotation, you can survive the slumps — but the bullpen, if this continues to happen, will absolutely tear at your team. ... You are giving moments to the teams you should be burying right now.”
Yes, there are other problems with the Tigers, but nothing that can’t be fixed easily.
There’s one problem that is going to take some doing to fix.
And it’s about time it happened.
Three-quarters of a year is long enough.