May 8, 2017
Tigers GM Avila faces huge crisis: Where
to find a closer for shell-shocked team?
By KEITH GAVE
So what happens when an area of least concern suddenly becomes your biggest headache – one that threatens to destroy everything?
Tigers fans are about to find out.
Frank Rodriguez, one of the most successful closers in baseball history, suddenly cannot buy an out when his team needs it most. His 437 career saves are fourth on the all-time list. He converted 44 of 49 save opportunities last season in Detroit.
But this year? Not so much. At 35, K-Rod looks shot. Done. Finished. He’s throwing batting-practice stuff to opposing hitters. When he’s not walking them, they’re tattooing the ball all over the park. Four blown saves already, including two devastating appearances over the weekend, the kind that can destroy a team’s psyche.
Two aborted save opportunities in 24 hours that turned hard-earned ninth-inning leads into acrid, hard-to-swallow losses. So instead of sweeping the Oakland A’s to start this nine-game western road trip, they’re 1-2. Instead of landing in Arizona for a two-game set starting Tuesday with a 17-13 record that would have them tied with Cleveland atop the Central Division standings, they’re sitting tied for third with Chicago, two games back of the Indians.
The Tigers simply can’t afford to let games like these slip away. On Saturday, leading 5-4 in the ninth, Rodriguez came in and got two quick outs. He had an 0-2 count on weak-hitting backup catcher Bruce Maxwell, but couldn’t close the deal. Maxwell worked the count to 3-2 and finally walked.
Former Tiger Matt Joyce then drilled a double, putting the tying run at second. We’d seen this act before, right? But K-Rod usually found a way to slip out of the noose, right? Not this time. Adam Rosales, the eight man in the Oakland batting order, drilled the first pitch to left field for a single that knocked in the tying and winning runs.
After the game, Rodrigues sat with a towel over his head. One of the most stand-up and accountable players in the Detroit clubhouse had nothing to say to reporters.
One of the best things about baseball at the major-league level is that no matter how badly things might have gone today, there’s always a game tomorrow when you can set things right again. A chance for redemption is always nearby.
And so it was Sunday afternoon, when the Tigers clawed their way from behind, thanks to another home run from their feast-or-famine-hitting catcher, James McCann, to take a 6-5 lead
into the ninth. The lead was forged thanks to more excellent middle relief after a shaky outing by starter Daniel Norris.
After Justin Wilson threw another scoreless eighth, Ausmus once again handed the ball to K-Rod to close it out – as most managers would. Give your ace reliever a chance to put the night before well behind him. A save in this situation would do wonders for both the pitcher and his team.
Only problem was Rodriguez was even worse on Sunday. A lead-off walk to one of the best base-runners in the game, former Tigers outfielder Rajai Davis, is never a good thing in the ninth inning. That was followed by a long double to center by Jed Lowrie, scoring Davis to tie the game. And after a hard line out to the outfield for the first out, Ryon Healy launched a fastball up in the zone into the left-field seats.
When your fastball rarely touches 90 mph, and opposing major league hitters are sitting on it, that’s like batting practice. Afterward, Rodriguez spoke to reporters, saying he was deeply embarrassed and apologizing to his teammates and to Tigers fans.
But the Tigers are in the business of winning baseball games, and they cannot afford to let this problem go unresolved for too long.
Clearly, after a rough performance for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic, followed by a rocky spring training and the ugly outings we’ve witnessed so far, when even many of his seven saves have been messy, K-Rod, at 35, cannot pitch at this level with any kind of consistent effectiveness any more.
In 13 appearances, he has a 1-4 record with just seven saves, an 8.49 ERA and a WHIP of 2.06.
What to do now? That’s up to General Manager Al Avila, facing his greatest crisis in his tenure to date. His decision to keep Ausmus as manager the past couple of seasons when a lot of us wanted to run him out of town, and even his attempts, unsuccessfully, to trade away some of the biggest names on the roster over the winter, pale in comparison to what he faces today.
His problem, as we know all too well, is that he doesn’t have many viable options. Moving Justin Wilson into the closer’s role, even assuming he’d be successful, might be trading one headache for another.
Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that just getting to K-Rod in the ninth was the biggest problem for this bullpen? Indeed, the relief staff appears to have overcome its early season problems – thanks, ironically, to K-Rod’s leadership. Relivers other than Rodrigues combined to pitch 14 scoreless innings last week.
Move Justin Wilson into the closer’s role creates a gaping hole in the eighth. But who else? Nobody in Toledo is knocking on the door. Bruce Rondon, once the franchise’s closer of the future, has proven only that he’s notoriously unreliable and untrustworthy. Joe Jimenez, despite his promise, is only 22 and still needs to perfect a couple of pitches before he can be entrusted
with the closer’s role in Detroit. It would be unfair to him to put that kind of pressure on him just now.
A trade? Oh sure. If you can find any team willing to give up its closer this time of year. There might be one, Kansas City’s Kelvin Herrera. But the price would be enormous, especially with Washington also exploring the market for a closer as well. If you’re Kansas City, you’re asking for one of Detroit’s fine young starters, Michael Fulmer – in a package.
In other words, it’s not going. And the clock is ticking. The Tigers need to stay in contention by the July 31 trade deadline. If they’re not, Avila is faced with a whole new set of decisions. And you can bet that with one of the highest payrolls in baseball, he’ll have a mandate from the Ilitch ownership family to start shedding some of the biggest names on the roster.
Manager Brad Ausmus, as shell-shocked as his players after Sunday’s debacle, said the only thing advice he had for his team was to try to enjoy their day off Monday.
That’s easy for him to say. What about the rest of us?