LAKELAND, Fla. — The Detroit Tigers aren’t winning the World Series—at least not as is.
We know most experts out there have them as the odds-on favorite this coming season.
But, not so fast.
Yes, they have a tremendous team. They have a super rotation with Justin Verlander leading the way. Their lineup is the most dangerous in baseball. Detroit’s biggest bat is, of course, Miguel Cabrera; but the middle of that lineup also has mashers Prince Fielder and the returning Victor Martínez.
So on paper, it certainly looks like Detroit is on its way to a second straight trip to the Fall Classic. And this time, many expect them to win it, and to not get swept like they did last season by the San Francisco Giants.
Enter the bullpen. While there are a lot of talented arms there, the Tigers don’t have a dominant closer. Wait; they don’t have a proven closer. Hold up; they don’t have a closer. Period.
And you know what that means: no closer equals no title.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland, an old-school dude, laughs at experts who say the closer role is overrated and you can put anybody out there to get the final out.
“I’m not laughing at anybody,” Leyland said. “I’m laughing at the fact, and it doesn't make me right.”
It’s Jim Leyland’s personal opinion that if you have a dominant closer, without question, you’re better off than if you have to go by committee.
Yet, here were the Tigers trying to give the job to Bruce Rondon, a 22-year-old, hard-throwing righthanded rookie. Granted, Rondon was impressive in the minors last season, but he has been hit hard in the spring, so far.
The Tigers can’t do it, not with this team ready to win it all. It would be like finally buying that Porsche and not getting full insurance coverage. It would be a disaster waiting to happen.
It’s hard not to look at the championships the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox recently won and honestly believe they would have been possible without Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon.
A lot of things have changed in baseball. But having that guy to get those final three outs with the championship on the line hasn’t.
It’s hard to find many World Series squads winning without that guy.
If you want to say the St. Louis Cardinals did it with a bullpen by committee in 2011, go ahead. But it’s not true; in the end Jason Motte was ultimately the closer.
That’s why the Tigers are privately in panic. A report surfaced Tuesday that the Tigers are looking to trade for a closer; almost an impossible task.
And to be fair, even championship teams aren’t always A-1 top to bottom. “There are no perfect teams,” Leyland said. “There are other teams, no matter how good they are, you can find a flaw somewhere. That’s just the way it is.”
It’s not just about a big arm, hard stuff. It takes more than that to be a closer.
“Nobody ever knows if the guy has the mentality,” Leyland said. “That’s the big difference with a closer. I have seven, eight guys out there (in the clubhouse) that got closer stuff. But can they get the last three outs? Can they handle the next day when they blow one? Can they handle the talk shows on their ass when they blow one? Can they handle the writers? Can they handle all that stuff? I don’t know. That’s the difference.”
The Tigers—looking for their first World Series title since 1984—are playing a dangerous game to this point. They have spent big money to field a team that can compete for the championship.
But this winter, despite knowing they didn’t have that closer in hand—after parting with José Valverde—the Tigers played cheap and failed to secure the missing piece.
It was a no-brainer. The Tigers should have simply cut the check and paid Rafael Soriano. He signed with Washington for $28 million after replacing the injured Rivera and saving 42 games in Da Bronx.
“We don’t have Mariano in his prime walking around this clubhouse,” Leyland admitted.
On the surface, Verlander doesn’t seem to be too concerned. He said he believes there are plenty of arms in the bullpen to get the job done. Surprisingly, the dominant starter doesn’t buy into the dominant closer theory.
“We can definitely win without that,” Verlander said. “I hope we have one. But we can definitely win without one.”
Sounds good, but highly unlikely. History says so.