The Tigers have played a week’s worth of games now, so we’ll use this small sample size to draw a bunch of overarching conclusions about the state of the ballclub, because that’s what sports punditry entails.
So here are some slapdash thoughts based on seven games of baseball….
1. Andrew Romine should be getting a majority of the playing time at shortstop.
This should not be taken as me saying “Andrew Romine is great!” He’s not, clearly. But neither is Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez, the alleged defense-first shortstop that the Tigers parted with a Major League-caliber piece to acquire, has made a number of mistakes in the field and, aside from a flukey heroic show on Opening Day, contributes nothing with the bat. Romine is no better offensively, but he’s clearly a superior defensive shortstop with an excellent arm. It seems unlikely that the Tigers are going to sign Stephen Drew, at least at the moment, so if there’s going to be a black hole on offense either way, you might as well go with the better defender, and that’s Romine.
2. The Tigers have a major bullpen problem.
I was particularly critical of the Tigers’ handling of their bullpen situation this winter (Nathan for Benoit is essentially a straight swap, the jury’s out on replacing Jose Veras with Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Krol, while effective as a LOOGY, can’t do the same things Drew Smyly could). They left themselves no room for error in the event of injury or unexpected suck, and they’ve promptly been confronted with both. It should have raised some red flags when Bruce Rondon, who throws 100 and relies on a slider, missed the end of last season with a flexor strain. Sure enough, Rondon went down for the year during the spring and the Tigers had no obvious cover for the setup role they had hoped he’d fill. Phil Coke’s time should be just about up, as he remains unable to consistently retire lefties, which renders him effectively useless. Giving him a non-guaranteed deal and then bringing nobody in to compete with him for his bullpen spot is as frustrating as it is baffling. Chamberlain flashed quality late-inning stuff Tuesday night in Los Angeles, but he’s an enigma until he can do that consistently. Al Alburquerque remains Al Alburquerque, which can be good or bad, depending on which version shows up.
Few expected the biggest problem to be Joe Nathan, but here we are. Aside from a scoreless inning on Opening Day, he’s been consistently poor with an alarming number of walks and hits, culminating in another blown save Wednesday night after he entered with a three run lead. Nathan went on the radio yesterday and said he was battling a dead arm period right now, and if that’s all it is, I suspect he’ll straighten himself out sooner or later once it passes and be closer to the Nathan the Tigers were expecting when they signed him. For the moment, though, it’s hard to definitively say anyone in the bullpen is reliable. (I’d like to see what Luke Putkonen has to offer, but Brad Ausmus has apparently decided that he doesn’t exist.) Bullpen depth was a clear need going into the offseason and it was not adequately addressed, so the Tigers made their own bed here and now they’re having to sleep in it. They’re going to have to find at least another consistent relief option at some point, and it might end up leading to them having to trade another prospect for a reliever. It could have been prevented, but it wasn’t.
3. The Tigers need to find a left-hand hitting left field solution to keep Rajai Davis from playing every day.
Rajai Davis has been one of the regular punching bags for Tigers fans thus far, and I’d argue it’s not really his fault. Of course he’s not an everyday player. I know it, you know it, and I suspect the Tigers know it. They signed him to be a platoon player against lefties, and if that’s all he was, he’d be a nice, useful asset who could probably be a one win player for two years, earn his contract, and be off. Andy Dirks’s injury has forced Davis into everyday duty and he’s woefully miscast in that role. Tyler Collins fits in terms of handedness, but he’s looked woefully overmatched against Major League pitching. I’d still play him against righties for a while to see if he can have any success, and if not, Don Kelly is genuinely a better option against right-handed pitching than Rajai Davis is. Hurry back, Andy Dirks. We miss you.
4. Maybe this is Austin Jackson’s breakout season.
The first three were on the negative side, so let’s get to the happy stuff. Austin doesn’t have to try and be a prototypical leadoff hitter anymore, which I think helps. The usual small sample size caveats apply, but he’s been hitting ropes so far, his strikeout rate is down a tick, he’s slugging over .600, and he looks much more dangerous. He’s just entering his physical prime, too. Some of the pressure is off him now, and maybe this will be the year he fulfills his offensive potential. (Still doesn’t dive, though.)
5. This team is still really, really good.
The makeover of the Tigers may have lowered some expectations, but the 5-2 record is definitely encouraging, especially for all the problems the bullpen has given them. Ian Kinsler looks an inspired addition, Jackson is hitting, Torii Hunter looked good before his ill-fated wall dive, and Miguel Cabrera hasn’t even really gone into beast mode yet. Nick Castellanos looks like he could be as good as advertised, the rotation hasn’t lost a step, Anibal Sanchez hasn’t hit HIS stride yet, and Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly have looked good in limited duty. If they can get the bullpen straightened out, they’ll win their fair share of games – and probably silence many of the doubters that popped up after their offseason moves.