By: Holly Horning & Kurt Snyder
Thursday means we tackle one topic together, but separate, still staying true to our “share nothing till it’s time” policy.
Today we tackle a topic that is really beginning to cause a stir. Everyone needs a good Nathan fix every couple of days, right? So let’s try to solve this little predicament:
How do you think the Tigers will handle Nathan’s return?
I think the Tigers have a number of potential strategies based upon who is healthy, who is ready and who is performing well. Everything will hinge upon the health of several pitchers and how well Soria rises to the occasion.
The Tigers still owe Joe a total of $11M which will automatically impact any decision. They will want to get some value out of that salary. The only exception would be if his performance and/or attitude in the clubhouse is deemed to be a deterrent. I heard several former pitchers explain that they have seen it peck away at the entire team.
Keep in mind that Ausmus did not use the word “yes” or even “Nathan is our closer” when asked if Joe would return to his old job. He said “That’s the plan” – kinda, sorta dancing around the question, but leaving enough room to come back and say the plan changed.
The most obvious catalyst for where Nathan fits will be how well Soria pitches during this time. If he pitches well, then the Tigers may just try to push Nathan into the background as much as possible. They won’t say anything, they won’t make any formal announcements – that is not the Tiger way. But if Soria flops, well then, Houston, we’ve got a problem.
Other factors will include Rondon’s recovery process. If his return is uncertain, the Tigers will bring Nathan back onboard. And likewise with JV, even though he’s a starter. JV has always pitched deep into games and if he’s gone, his replacement likely won’t. Nathan will be that guy who does mop up and saves a bullpen arm or two.
The Tigers will also be keeping eyes on their Toledo arms. Overall, experience counts for something so teams are more likely to hang onto a veteran. But the bottom line means that before you can jettison a pitcher, you need to have a viable alternate replacement.
If the Tigers set aside Nathan’s contract situation and address the question of who is better equipped to close games, is there really much to decide here? What would be difficult is solving the setup role, but you would have slammed the door on the closer problem, assuming Soria continues his success.
More than anything, the drama must be removed from the ninth inning. Soria appears to be settling in, and looks at home in the ninth. So, I would not begin to mess with him by moving him back to a setup role, assuming Nathan returns.
If the Tigers leave Soria where he belongs, Joe really has no role at all. He’s lost his velocity, his command and the deceptiveness he needs to get hitters out consistently.
Now keep in mind, Soria is no fireballer. But his strength is in how he commands his pitches. He can get away with a 90-91 mph fastball because he spots it so well. Hitting corners with his fastball mixed with a solid repertoire of off speed pitches is keeping hitters off-balance, and thus, closing games.
So, what will the Tigers do?
To me, removing him in favor of Nathan sends a confusing message. Joe would be returning to closer based on what he used to be not on what he is. And that’s a temptation the Tigers had better ignore.
It’s important that the bullpen develop an identity with defined roles for each pitcher. But if the closer role continues to be unsettled, so will the rest of the pen.
Do the Tigers really want to remove a confident and calming influence from the most important role in their pen in exchange for a returned uneasiness that Joe Nathan would bring? Why on God’s beautiful green earth would they? I wouldn’t risk a single game because you are in denial about a guy who clearly has reached the end of his rope.
So will Nathan return as closer despite Soria’s success? The Tigers have to be smarter than that.