Principles will get you only so far.
Tigers Manager Jim Leyland is old school. He’s among the type of leaders who do certain things in certain situations and seldom waivers. He follows the etiquette of the game and honors its’ traditions. That’s great if your team is 20 games above .500, but as the Tigers struggle back toward the breakeven point, it’s time for Leyland to take some risks as the effect of every loss will be magnified thanks to the Tigers’ slow start.
Leyland has always followed bullpen roles. He’s got his long reliever, right-handed specialists, lefty specialists, 7th inning guy, set-up man and closer. However, rather than looking at those as simply terms to categorize the pitching situations, Leyland slots in players to those positions and seldom — except for injury circumstances — moves them out, despite how well or poorly the individuals are pitching. It’s costing him this season.
The biggest reason to question Leyland’s philosophy has been his closer — Jose Valverde. Yes, Valverde had a good first season and tremendous second season with the Tigers, but his regression this season has been monumental. Amazingly he started the year 13 for 16 in save opportunities, but every time Leyland has sent Valverde in, he’s been playing with fire. His 1.50 WHIP is mind-boggling for as much as he’s pitched. To some fans, the wrist injury that Papa Grande suffered was a blessing.
The debacle against the lowly Rockies earlier in June might have been the breaking point. The Tigers had recovered from a shaky start by a rookie — Casey Crosby — to get back into the game. As has become the case lately, Duane Below, Brayan Villarreal, Phil Coke and Joaquin Benoit had done their jobs. They held the Rockies scoreless over 5 1/3 innings. After he seemingly bounced back a little in the recent week, Jose Valverde imploded for six runs in the 10th inning of what was a 4-4 game. The fact that only one run was earned means little as the error was Valverde’s own. It was a truly horrific performance from a guy this team needs — and more often than not he’s proving that he’s not the guy who’ll respond. One month is a slump, nearly three months is a problem. The Tigers simply cannot continue to send out Valverde, who makes even the easiest save an adventure.
Luckily for Leyland, he has a few options that could close a tight game. First and foremost, Joaquin Benoit has been as advertised as he was quietly signed from the Tampa Bay Rays prior to the 2011 season. The righty is likely the short term heir apparent to the closing throne. He’s got a palty 2.05 ERA and — as he showed last year — gets better as the season progresses. If you’re looking for a dark horse candidate to close, Brayan Villarreal has come out of nowhere to be a fixture in the bullpen. He was thought to be a young talent to start 2011, but couldn’t stick and was eventually demoted. After this second call-up in late April, Villarreal has averaged over 13 strikeout’s per 9 innings and has basically been unhittable, holding opponents to a .152 batting average. He’s inexperienced making him a risk to close, but his talent is undeniable.
The Time to put all the Tiger’s eggs in the Valverde basket is over. It’s past the point where Leyland can laugh off a one-inning, six-run performance. Lose the roles and stick with who’s hot. Otherwise, the Tigers’ manager job might be what’s hot next offseason.