By: Eric Thomas
Not everyone is excited for opening day. Even though this never-ending winter endures outside our windows, baseball season—I swear—starts on Monday. The Ticket Block Party will be downtown; JV will be on the mound, the boys of summer will be back in town, though likely wearing long sleeves. While you prepare to plan your nights around the broadcasts, some are nauseated. They say the Tigers’ window has closed. The glory days, as they were, they’ve past you by.
I’m speaking specifically of my sometimes co-worker, sometimes friend, sometimes sparring partner, Jeff Riger. He’s morphed into Chicken Little among Tiger fans, screaming at the sky with apocalyptic visions worthy of the New Testament, convinced that the Tigers lack the offense to compete and in a blog post yesterday, that their bullpen is worse than it was last year.
The bullpen isn’t great, but it’s leagues better than it was last year. Here’s proof: who was the Tiger’s closer on opening day last year? Don’t Google it, think about it. (Jeopardy music.) Pencils down. It was Phil Coke. Seriously. It even seemed like a good idea for one day, when he scored his first save of the season in the opening game against the Twins. He got his first loss the next day. The wheels came off on the bullpen quickly.
Last year’s opening day bullpen included Brayan Villarreal. In the Tigers first five losses of 2013, Villarreal was charged with two of them. Jose Valverde returned to the Tigers on April 24th, and collected a save against the Astros. Is the bullpen of 2014 a strength? Of course not, but the Tigers are in no danger of booty-calling Papa Grande a few weeks into April. Its insanity to suggest, like Jeff does, that the Tiger bullpen is even CLOSE to as bad as it was last year.
Riger knows what he’s talking about, and his baseball acumen is strong, but he’s caught in the clamor among many other fans that’ve spent the off-season attempting to graph the arc of the Tigers fortunes in the past few seasons, sifting through scant evidence to find the high point, and thereby isolate where the inevitable decline begins. Jeff—and he’s not alone—has placed the Tiger’s apex somewhere last year (possibly 2012) and the only thing left for fans is to hold on tight while nose pitches straight at the ground.
This Chicken Little philosophy isn’t based on analysis, it’s based on emotion. Tigers fans were spoiled the last few years, collecting a rich tapestry of free agents—whoever they wanted, the team paid the price. They collected Torii Hunter, Prince Fielder and re-signed Anibal Sanchez because they were willing to spend epic amounts of money.
The most apoplectic of Tiger fans seem to be the ones who remember the pre-Leyland era, when the Tigers vacuumed the bottom of baseball’s barrel. Let’s be honest: the fans that are the most pessimistic—and Jeff fits into this category—are the true fans who’ve stuck with the team much longer than the bandwagon jumpers. They’re the fans that remember a time before 2006. Riger remembers who Franklin German is.
True Tiger fans are probably adjusting to the post Jim Leyland era. Could the Tigers be past their prime? It’s possible. Could the Tigers sink to the depths of Major League Baseball, and reclaim their place among the bottom feeders? Sure. Has the injury bug that eluded them for several seasons caught up with them? Has Dave Dombrowski’s luck run out? Has Mike Ilitch passed the point where he’s involved in the Tigers day to day operations? These are valid questions, but it’s early to palm the panic button. We’ve called Dombrowski’s moves out before and they’ve turned out to be prescient, and submitting the Ilitch’s to some oedipal pop-psychoanalysis is speculative at best and reptilian at worst.
There are positives amid the clouds. Doug Fister is gone, but two Cy Young winners remain in the starting rotation, along with the pitcher who had the best ERA in the AL last year. Fielder is gone, but the back to back American League MVP returns healthy on opening day against the Royals. Bruce Rondon has been lost to Tommy John’s surgery, but Joe Nathan and Joba Chamberlain will take his place. We can argue about Joba, but he’s an upgrade over Villarreal at a minimum. Who pitches in the 7th inning? A relief pitcher, just like every other team in the baseball. They’ll figure it out as the season goes along.
It’s been a tough off-season for the Tigers, so it’s understandable if you’re negative. Many appear braced for the worst, but speculation can go both ways. Most baseball experts saw the Red Sox as rebuilding last year, in recovery mode from the Bobby Valentine disaster, and they won the whole thing.
Is the sky falling? Of course not. Has there been some bad luck? Absolutely. Is it over? We don’t know yet. Let’s go with the Julius Caesar quote here: “Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once.”