The April showers have ceased, gardeners are on high alert for those May flowers everyone always talks about, and my embargo on the Tigers has finally lifted.
April baseball doesn’t matter. Everyone is going to, at the very least, win 20 games and lose 20 games throughout the season. Until a team surpasses the 40-game mark it’s not really worth talking about.
The Tigers haven’t reached either of those marks, but the Red Wings’ season ended a couple of weeks ago and the Lions haven’t had a player arrested for marijuana in almost a month.* I had no choice but to pull up the curtain on baseball a little early.
What I found underneath is a battle waging just outside the left-field fence at Comerica Park. The six warriors mingle together, play pranks on each other and take joy in watching each member flick sunflower seeds at the other. They wear the same uniform and try to achieve the same thing, but make no mistake. There are two separate camps.
Three journeymen and a youngster with a ceiling sit in one. In the other is an All-Star and a guy who was traded straight up for Ryan Perry. While the former group wins games for the Tigers, the latter certainly seems to intent on blowing them.
Jose Valverde, Papa Grande, Mr. Perfecto last season, has blown a third of his save opportunities this season and gathered a 6.17 ERA. His WAR** has dropped below zero (-0.3). Combine him with partner-in-crime Collin Balester and the two are responsible for losing half of a game already this year.
Velverde will continue to trot out of the bullpen with the eyes the Tigers media raining down upon him. The other group I spoke of will sit in the corner contently, cardboard over their heads, weathering the storm. In most cases they will have already done their job.
Phil Coke: the one who points and says funny things. Octavio Dotel: the guy who’s played for everybody. Duane Below: the decent-but-not-great pitching prospect. Joaquin Benoit: the relatively big name guy wen he signed as a free agent who settled into the not-nearly as glamorous setup role. They all have different labels.
Together, though, the four are simply the teeth of the bullpen. Below hasn’t given up a run in over 12 innings. Even Chris Bootcheck hasn’t matched that performance. Benoit is the only group member to have an ERA over 3.00, but his WAR is also the highest at 0.4. Combined, the four pitchers have accounted for one full win this season.
The question of whether the Tigers can win the World Series just may fall in the hands of these men.
The bats will come around eventually. If they don’t, the Tigers won’t be in the World Series anyway. Starting pitching remains a concern, but then again, a good bullpen can overcome some rocky outings. When Detroit made the World Series in 2006, they had an old Kenny Rogers, a young Justin Verlander and…the All-Star lineup of Nate Robertson, Jeremy Bonderman and Zach Miner as their starting pitchers. Some dominant relievers got them out of sticky situations in the post season and while the closer role was important, Todd Jones certainly didn’t lead the bullpen.
Baseball is a series of individual matchups. Winners are usually determined by which team’s stars win their matchups the most. But in the post-season, it takes an entire team to hold up those little metallic flags at the end.
Among Verlander, Cabrera and Fielder are Below, Benoit, Coke and Dotel. The core of the bullpen might just hold in their hands the key to Chamber of Secrets that’s eluded the Tigers since 1984.
It took all of one baseball article to start talking about the World Series.
*(What’s that? The Pistons? Come on now. You can’t be serious.)
**(Wins Above Replacement. It’s an all-encompassing stat that a bunch of nerds used a lot of math to figure out that tells us how many games that particular individual won for his team)