By: Kurt Snyder
Are the Tigers going to spend another season trying to build a bullpen? Are the Tigers going to count on another trade deadline attempt to shore up the annual weakness? Is everyone sufficiently tired of this subject? Well join the club!
The Tigers left Kansas City in first place, so all is well right? Nope. Kansas City, even though we split the series, looks like the better team to me.
What was it about Kansas City that made the media and others feel like the Royals would take a downward turn this year? Was it the loss of Butler and Aoki? Certainly not, as these pieces could easily be replaced, and I believe they were.
Was it the loss of James Shields? How much importance was put on his head? Maybe too much. If anything, he was a liability when they needed him most.
The Royals won last year with a cast of starters that could go 6 innings. They had guys that could get them to their strength. They went to the World Series with a crazy good bullpen that shut down opponents for the final 3 innings and clutch hitting gave them leads heading to the 7th. But the clutch hitting didn’t really present itself until the post season when things started falling into place.
So this season, Kansas City possesses the model. Every year, when a champion is crowned, a lot of teams try to emulate what was successful for the teams that won. Now I know they didn’t win it, but the Royals went to a Game 7 and at that point, both teams are worthy.
But is the winning formula really any secret in baseball? Pitching + defense + good team speed that supplements both. That’s the formula. Speed helped the Kansas City defense, and having good pitching includes the bullpen (surprise!).
The Royals tried for a long time to win. But they really didn’t start to turn things around until they acquired some key pieces, and it started with Shields and Davis. But that trade was all about James Shields. We all yawned at the mention of Wade Davis being part of the deal, and he justified our boredom by struggling mightily in the rotation.
But he went to the bullpen and the lights went out for American League hitters. He was unhittable last year in the 8th and he is unhittable this year in the 9th while he fills in at closer.
So when the Royals look back at a season where they came within one game of winning a championship, it was clear to everyone where they needed upgrades. They needed to hit. Because even though they had some big hits in the off-season, they were still short of a few more.
So they have responded, addressing their needs. They have made some nice additions to their offense, supplemented their pitching with more guys that can get them to the 7th and they are now ready for the long haul.
In Detroit, we could have all stood and screamed to the Tigers brass, “just build us a bullpen.” Going into the spring , the demise of Joe Nathan was expected. Sure, the Tommy John surgery certainly wasn’t but it was a foregone conclusion that Nathan would continue his decline. Soria would soon be the closer.
Surprisingly, the Tigers were a pretty disciplined franchise in the off-season, making changes that have transformed their team into a more versatile bunch, with the emergence of speed and defense. But the only impactful move for the bullpen was the obvious move to retain Soria. And they rolled the dice on the rest.
Ideally in a heavenly baseball paradise, Nathan would magically close games like he did 2 years ago, Soria would set him up in the 8th, and Bruce Rondon would victoriously recover seamlessly from TJS and become the Tiger version of Kelvin Herrera. It’s really what they were banking on wasn’t it?
But turn on the lights people! It’s only a dream! We are sitting at the poker table with only one chip. We have a closer and nothing else. And every game we pray we can get to the ninth. And so far, we have done it often enough to be in first place. For now.
Yes, I am painfully aware of the desire to “give it a rest” on the bullpen topic, but the weakness continues to stare us in the face and I refuse to pretend it doesn’t exist. Someday they will fix it and that will be the day I will shut up about it.