Monday, August 4, 2008

Tigers' closer situation a debacle


Editor's Note: This, I promise, will be the last column I write this season about the Tigers' closer situation.

Hey Tigers fans, still happy that Todd Jones isn't your closer?

Here's a fun statistic for you: Jones saved 18 games in 21 tries. In five attempts, Fernando Rodney is 1-for-5. Yep, he's already blown more saves than the old, cranky guy with the mustache. Even more sad is the manner in which Rodney tanks. While Jonesy always went out in style, giving up two-run homers and the such, Rodney walks guys, hits guys, and then walks more guys.

Hey, that's no fun!

In all seriousness, though, do you really believe the underachieving Tigers are better off with Rodney as their closer? (Please don't answer that.)

Was Jones pitching well lately? No, no and no. His ERA (5.05) was atrocious, he had given up 25 hits in his last 16 2/3 innings, and he hit rock-bottom when Jermaine Dye blasted that season-killing home run on that morbid Friday night in Detroit awhile back.

Now, of course, we know that Jones was battling tendinitis in his right shoulder. He, reportedly, had been feeling discomfort for six weeks, but he didn't reveal the injury until a few games following his demotion, which occurred a day after the Dye home run. He said he hadn't felt the shoulder pain in a game until recently.

And the result is one Jonesy on the disabled list. It'll be at least a couple weeks until he's back. To the average Tigers fan, that's a good thing. They'd rather see Jonesy shot into space for 37 years than see him on a mound again.

But again, the issue comes back to this: If you're going to replace someone, you'd better have a replacement who you're confident will do a better job. Rodney is not a viable closer for the Tigers. At least not at this point in his career.

Rodney is a talented pitcher. There's no doubt about that. He's equipped with a volatile fastball and a nasty changeup. When those pitches are working, he's much harder to hit than Jones.

But the key to being a talented closer is control. Rodney has about as much control as the "Wild Thing" in "Major League."

Think about it: When a closer enters a game in the ninth inning, the other team's hitters haven't faced him. They don't know what to expect. The advantage is clearly his. If he throws strikes, he has a good chance of getting three outs. All he has to do is make the hitters beat him. Make them locate his 94 mph fastball. Make them guess what's coming with an 0-2 count.

The ability to throw strikes is one of the main reasons Mariano Rivera, arguably the best closer of all time, is so effective. He gets ahead of hitters and then throws that twisting heater wherever he likes. Batters are at his mercy.

Rodney is the antithesis of Rivera. He constantly falls behind hitters, and the only way to get back into the at-bat is by throwing the ball down the middle. Of course, Rodney prefers to walk guys. And any manager will tell you that in a one-run game, nothing is worse than a leadoff walk.

That, unfortunately, is Rodney's specialty. In 18 1/3 innings, Rodney has allowed 16 walks. That is simply unacceptable. He can't be trusted in one-run games.

Jones, on the other hand, has much better control. In 41 innings, he's issued 15 walks. Sure, his stuff isn't as hard to hit as Rodney's -- Rodney has 19 strikeouts to Jones' 14 -- but most of the time it's good enough to record a save.

I'm no baseball stats guru, but just because a batter makes solid contact with a pitch doesn't assure him of a base hit. Four balls, however, means the man in the batter's box is headed for first base -- that's a certainty. That, right there, is the difference between Jones and Rodney. Jones lets his defense save games for him. Rodney doesn't.

Before Sunday's 6-5 most-likely-season-breaking loss to the Rays -- Detroit's 18th one-run defeat and Rodney's fourth blown save -- manager Jim Leyland ripped his players, saying no one's job is safe. I would hope that one of the jobs in jeopardy is Rodney's.

But prior to that happening, Leyland should ask himself this: Who can I plug into the ninth-inning role that will do a better job? In this instance, of course, it's just about anybody. But the most obvious candidate, Joel Zumaya, continues to feel tightness in his right arm. Plus, his 18 walks in 20 2/3 innings is just as bad as Rodney's production. He, like his fellow flamethrower, doesn't possess the control to hold down the spot.

The other option is newly acquired Kyle Farnsworth, who was pitching well with the Yankees before being traded to Detroit for Ivan Rodriguez last Wednesday. But he didn't exactly make a good impression Sunday, blowing Detroit's 3-1 eighth-inning lead by allowing three runs. Also, like the other two, he's never been a full-time closer. His 27 saves doesn't exactly measure up to Jones' 319.

So what now? The options aren't exactly appetizing. The only Tigers reliever who has pitched well of late is left-hander Bobby Seay (2.41 ERA), who has a whopping one save for his career.

The Tigers sit six and a half games behind the tied Twins and White Sox with 51 games remaining. The chances of a turnaround are looking bleaker by the day, and the three-game stand that begins today in Chicago is a must-win series. Obvious statement of the day: Detroit can't afford to fall any further back.

The main objective with the bullpen, at this point, might be to groom it for 2009. That means trying to figure out whether Rodney or Zumaya can find enough control to be the Tigers' future closer. If not, then maybe G.M. Dave Dombrowski will go after Angels free-agent-to-be Francisco Rodriguez.

But if Detroit finds itself within five games of first place in a couple weeks when Jones returns -- and he's healthy -- the old fart should retake his place as the closer. No, not for 2009 or down the road. But for the final push toward October. To make this almost-lost season more like what it was supposed to be.

You can hate him all you want. You can boo him all you want. But the past week has shown us -- in a sick kind of way -- that Todd Jones remains the best closer the Tigers have got.

Even if that's a depressing thought.

1 comment:

JenTigers said...

There are a lot of depressing thoughts for the Tigs right now. Starting pitching (Robertson, Rogers, even Verlander), relief (just about all except maybe Fossum and Seay), Sheffield, Renteria, oy. They had better "show me what they got" against the Sox starting today, or we'll all be saying "wait til next year," and watching Magglio try for back to back batting titles. It's so hard to watch these close games, because we rarely seem to come out on the winning end.