On Monday morning I was still recovering from my opening week hangover.
Small sample-size be damned, the Tigers came out of the gates with four wins against only one loss, good starting pitching across the board, and the hole left by Prince Fielder's bat looks to be not quite as gaping as originally thought. There is speed on the base paths. Torii Hunter has found an offensive Fountain of Youth. And Dave Dombrowski is even making some much needed moves in the bullpen.
Oh, wait. The bullpen moves were claiming Michael Belfiore off waivers and releasing Wil Ledezma back into the wild. That's cool though because Phil Coke has a new delivery that is going to fix everything! No reason to panic, because Joba Chamberlain is in the best shape of his life and will have a comeback year with the scenery change! And of course Joe Nathan is basically just a poor man's Mariano Rivera and will always be a productive closer until the day he decides to hang it up, right?
When Dave Dombrowski completed the trade that launched a thousand blog posts, one of the only ways to justify what had happened was to realize that without moving around some money, the Tigers may not have a shot at landing Joe Nathan. Nathan is and was supposed to solidify the back end of the bullpen, which has been a major source of consternation for many years now. Since Dombrowski took over as general manager in 2002, the Tigers have seen multiple seasons of Fernando Rodney, Todd Jones and Jose Valverde. But Nathan is the anti-rollercoaster. He is as solid a closer as they come and will likely have his name enshrined in Cooperstown when all is said and done.
Just last year, at the age of 38, Nathan saved 43 games with an ERA of 1.39 and a WHIP of 0.897.
However, the complementary pieces around him were a cause for concern to start the season. And five games in -- again, small sample size -- the bullpen is starting to look like the same headache that plagued an otherwise solid team last year. I have faith that Nathan can right the ship because he has given me every reason to trust in his ability. But somebody has to give him the ball, and unless the Detroit staff plans on pitching more innings than we have seen since the '60s, some key pieces are going to need to step up -- or the front office needs to have a contingency plan.
The biggest concern for me is Phil Coke. Since he won our hearts slamming his glove down into the grass and pointing into the night sky as he shut down the Yankees, he has been ineffective. More to the point, he has been releasable. Since 2011 he has seen his innings decrease substantially. That tends to happen when you are inefficient. Last year, in just over 38 innings pitched, Coke struggled with control and pitched to a WHIP of 1.67. That's a scary statistic late in games when you are trying to keep people off the base paths.
This spring, although traditional statistics may suggest he pitched decently, his WHIP was still 1.41. In his first appearance this year against the Orioles, he again struggled to find his command, lasting only one-third of an inning and giving up three runs. As one of only two left-handed relievers in the pen, the Tigers are down to having Ian Krol as a reliable option from the left side.
A quick look down at the Mud Hens roster shows a few serviceable arms -- Kyle Lobstein, Duane Below, and golden child Robbie Ray. At this point, I would much prefer to see any of the three late in games.
An even deeper look at unsigned free agents shows a few more options. You can play the game, "Do I Trust Him More Than Phil Coke?" If the answer is "yes," give him a minor-league contract.
Barry Zito. Do I trust him more than Phil Coke? Yes.
Jose Mijares. Do I trust him more than Phil Coke? Very much yes.
Clayton Richard? Do I trust him more than Phil Coke? Yeah, maybe. Worth taking a look at, at least.
Digressing a bit, I understand it is a bit hyperbolic to suggest that Phil Coke is that easily expendable. LOOGYs are rare. But using him as an example for a larger problem with the lack of bullpen consistency shows that hesitation cannot be made if the right situation presents itself -- even if that means promoting from Triple A. Or maybe Coke just needs an outing or two to tighten up his new release and this problem will become moot by the end of April. Who knows? Baseball is a weird game.
At the very least, I can sleep well at night knowing that we have an ageless shutdown closer who is still the man to help lead us into the playoffs.
But what if he's not?