The Detroit Tigers were one of the more active teams in MLB during the offseason, both in terms of who they brought in as well as who they traded and/or let go. Their most heralded move was unquestionably the trade of Prince Fielder to Texas for Ian Kinsler that also brought (supposedly) future payroll flexibility. Detroit’s most baffling move-to many in Tigers Nation including this blogger-was the trade of steady (and relatively cheap) starter Doug Fister to the Nationals. But, their best move, and the only one that can clearly be called a definite upgrade at this point, is the signing of closer Joe Nathan.
There is no doubt that the waving in of the closer is the single event that most frqeuntly caused Tigers fans to break out in an immediate collective cold sweat. No one needs to be reminded of the ALCS Game 2 and Detroit blowing a 5-0 lead after Jim Leyland went to the ‘pen. But, closing concerns have been rampant in Motown for several seasons now. Frankly, the churning of stomachs in Detroit is not exactly equivalent to the lack of success in their closers the last few seasons. Actually, Joaquin Benoit, and the panic inducing Jose “Papa Grande” Valverde were relatively successful in their close to blown saves ratio over the past two season. However, they say that perception is reality and there is no doubt that closing out games in must win situations has been the Achilles heel of this club, not to say that has been the only weakness in a club that has won three straight AL Central titles, been to three straight AL Championship Series and the World Series two seasons ago.
Though some herald the Fielder move, as well as the decisions to let shortstop Jhonny Peralta and second baseman Omar Infante leave via free agency, its hard to look at moves that eliminate more than 25% of your total run production and definitely think you’ve improved. Setting aside the impact of the moves that effect the batter’s box, there is no doubt that bringing in an elite closer upgrades the Tigers already strong pitching.
If nothing else, getting a player who has long tormented the team plus the fact that he departs one of Detroit’s main rivals for supremacy in the American League makes it a positive move. It’s also the fact that having Joe Nathan brings significant comfort to the psyche of the organization, not to mention its fan base. Nathan saved 43 last season, good for fifth in all of baseball, with an impressive o.897 WHIP. More important, last season Nathan only had 3 blown saves, same than Valverde-who only appeared in 20 games to Nathan’s 67- and less than Detroit’s spot relievers Joes Veras and Drew Smyly, not to mention elite talents such as Mariano Rivera and Jim Johnson. To have a proven closer who will not regurlaly play with fire when closing out a game is nothing but a positive for new manager Brad Ausmus and should give the Tigers a “plus” coming out of the gate over the previous seasons in this aspect of the game.
Having said this, Nathan is no spring chicken at 39. Nothwithstanding the fact that Detroit signed him to a reasonable 2 year, 20 million dollar contract, it is legitimate to wonder if a drop off can be expected in a position that exemplifies quick descent from the peak more than any other. But, Nathan’s consistency over his career should give Ausmus and Tiger fans comfort. Frankly, they have no choice but to rely heavily on the premise that relief pitiching is now a strength because the team simply cannot be expected to score more runs than it has in recent seasons.
Signing Nathan gives Detroit the confidence that if they are nursing a multiple run lead after a sublime performance from one of their talented starters, a wave to the bullpen will not induce stress but the comfort that this thing is most likely in the bag for the team wearing the olde English D. Now, the trick is getting back to the point where they have a five run lead in an ALCS game with the chance to go up 2-0 in the series again.
It won’t be easy, but signing Nathan is the best thing Detroit did in the offseason to try to return to the chill and tension of mid October night games.