Thursday, May 17, 2007

Escape Engine No. 2

(Editor's note: Escape Engine will be a series of baseball features on this site. The first month of the series will focus on bullpens.)

The fast rise and fall of a bullpen is a tragic thing to watch. A month of fantastic pitching could just as easily crumble as continue, as anyone knows, but to predict such a fall is divine. Since sportswriters mention bullpens more than they actually talk about them, we've decided to devote a little time to some contenders' bullpens (with little focus on the closer, since they get enough airtime already). This week we've focused on the Detroit Tigers, currently 1/2 game ahead of the Indians in the AL Central at 24-14.

(Ed. Note 2: I refuse to pony up for, so I watch what YES, SNY, ESPN, TBS and FOX decide to show me. Feel free to let me know where I am wrong in the comments.)

For years there was a glorious symbiotic relationship in Detroit. As the domestic car market crumbled under the weight of an efficient, affordable, and eco-friendly wave of foreign vehicles, the city fell apart. People had to decide if they wanted to pay the gas bill or go see a historically inept baseball team that hadn't done anything since Reagan was talking about star wars - and not the movie. No butts in the seats means no money spent, no money circulating means no buying cars - a vicious cycle turning like so many Goodyears on Hondas, Toyotas, and Nissans.

But then they got a few things that make you a contender. A chain-smoking, cantankerous, brilliant manager. Some quality bats. And arms - lots and lots of arms.

8th and 9th: Although it says above we wouldn't talk about closers, how can you not talk about Todd Jones? He didn't sell his soul to the devil - he put a gun to his balls and threatened to blow off the demonmaker if he didn't turn him into a successful closer. Hell, Jamie Moyer wonders how he gets people out. But he does. Joel Zumaya, the Juggs-busting Jimmy Page wannabe, went out 10 days ago with a strained finger; he had surgery a week ago and will be out 2-3 months. Losing a 101-MPH fastball usually isn't a recipe for success, but Jim Leyland has performed miracles before. In Zumaya's place steps Fernando Rodney, who has pitched pretty well as of late. He got lit up in the first two outings of the year to the tune of four earned runs in 1.2 innings, but has settled down lately. Crafty veteran (that term is used very, very loosely here) Jose Mesa and journeyman Bobby Seay provide righty-lefty matchups and mild comfort.

Middle Relief: Jason Grilli has virtually the same stats from his last two outings. They are: 2.1 IP, 5H, 3R, 3ER; 2.1 IP, 4H, 3R, 3ER. Yeesh. A 7+ ERA and 1.84 WHIP aren't going to keep you your job for long as the top righty out of the pen. Wilfredo Ledezma, the lefty, has been up-and-down all year, but lefties are hitting .387 against him with a .940 OPS. To remedy this, the Tigers called up another southpaw, Tim Byrdak, on Sunday, and he then promptly threw two shutout innings against the Red Sox. Kenny Rogers is likely to be out for a few months, and Jeremy Bonderman might miss a start because of a blister problem, but when it comes down to it, this excellent Tigers rotation is likely to give you quality starts night-in, night-out. That means these three guys - Grilli, Ledezma, and Byrdak - merely need to be average and not pour the proverbial gasoline on the fire (not to be confused with the flame tattoo on Zumaya's forearm).

Long-term Eye: This all boils down to one question: Can Zumaya come back, be dominant again, and stay healthy? He's been groomed to take over the closer role for a while now, until the "If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It" thinking gets hit by a speeding Dodge Viper. The man truly is scary. Jose Mesa, however, is scary only if you're a Tigers fan and he comes into the game in the 7th with Detroit up 5-4.

Fun Fact: Todd Jones threw the last pitch at Tiger Stadium in 1999. It's just now reaching the plate.

Projection: A healthy trio of Jones, Zumaya and Rodney makes this a top-third group. But there is plenty of potential here for pitfall, and Leyland might want to test the strength of those vines before he swings over the alligators (sorry, love a good Atari reference). The Tigers' rotation and offense should keep them near the top of the AL Central - our pick to win it, actually - but if that fails, this group is the one that might get the (strained) finger pointed at them.

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