After nearly two decades of consistent ineptitude, the Detroit Tigers captured lightning in a bottle and won 76 of their first 112 games in 2006. They rebounded from a historic collapse that saw a division crown slip away to the Minnesota Twins by going 7-1 in the first two round of the playoffs. Unfortunately they fell short against the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, remembered for a plague of errors from the mound.
In 2011 the Tigers began a stretch of excellence, winning the AL Central in four straight campaigns and making the ALCS three times. Jim Leyland’s crew also suffered a humiliating sweep at the hands of the San Francisco Giants in 2012 World Series. The success was appreciated in Detroit, but it was tempered by the realization that immense talent and big-time spending never led to baseball’s ultimate prize.
Future Hall of Famers Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander haven’t been able to win a World Series, even when complemented by players like Max Scherzer, Prince Fielder and Rick Porcello.
The Tigers have failed to make the postseason in each of the two seasons. Longtime owner Mike Illitch, who wanted nothing more than to win a World Series, died in February without seeing that dream become a reality. Heavily invested in older players with massive contracts, they were expected to rebuild during the offseason. Instead, they kept their core and appear to be giving it one last shot.
This year, it’s all or nothing. The Tigers’ window may have already closed but they’re trying their damnedest to slip through the smallest crack.
A common theme running through these fruitful yet ultimately unsatisfying years has been a shaky bullpen. In 2014, that issue was compounded by manager Brad Ausmus’ mismanagement in playoffs against Baltimore. The search for a reliable closer has been exasperating. And it continues.
Francisco Rodriguez, then 34, performed capably in 2016, saving 44 games while posting a 3.24 ERA and 1.131 WHIP. This year, he’s been an abject disaster.
Rodriguez, he of the 89 mph fastball, is 1-4 with a 8.49 ERA and 2.057 WHIP. This past weekend he blew saves against Oakland on consecutive days. Ausmus, whose fierce loyalty to his veterans oftentimes comes at expense of the team’s greater good, allowed two wins to become losses.
Everyone could see Rodriguez is a problem. And everyone could see there were viable solutions within the bullpen. For Tigers fans who have been burned so often by inadequate closing, the continued inaction was tantamount to a slap in the face.
Then, a small miracle happened. Ausmus finally did the obvious and installed left-handed Justin Wilson in the role while demoting Rodriguez. Wilson has been unhittable this year (1.23 ERA, 0.545 WHIP and 15.1 K/9). Optically, he has closer stuff.
A bullpen shakeup in mid-May is not the stuff of front-page news. But it’s a cure for the indigestion Tigers fans have suffered with for nearly a decade. Once the shock wears off, three thoughts emerge.
First, Rodriguez should be placed as far away from high-leverage situations as humanly possible, his legacy notwithstanding. Second, Rodriguez’s high-profile failures have obscured the fact the Tigers bullpen, as a whole, is above-average.
Shane Green (1.38 ERA), Blaine Hardy (2.00) and Alex Wilson (2.08) have all been excellent. At the very least, Wilson and Green should be seen as the next men up should the newly installed lefty falter.
Finally, Ausmus and the Tigers brain trust may have finally grasped that it’s now or never. The margin for error is minuscule. At 16-15, the team has hung in there despite injuries to Cabrera and J.D. Martinez, who has yet to play. The Cleveland Indians will surely put it together at some point and win at least 85 games. But the Tigers have the offensive firepower and starting pitching to contend. Verlander is buoyed by a trio of young arms (Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd) progressing ahead of schedule.
The elephant in the room has been addressed, and it was addressed before significant damage had been done. Give credit where credit is due. Let bygones be bygones. The future is now — because the real future looks bleak.