Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Still Plenty Of Time To Nab Some Relief Help

They are still four of the greatest words that a sports fan -- especially a baseball devotee -- can hear.

"Pitchers and catchers report."

Go ahead and bask for a moment. I'll wait.

Soft, soothing music as visions of leather mitts and batting cages dance in your cranium.

You back now? Good.

Spring training for the Tigers starts this Thursday -- Valentine's Day, appropriately -- when the battery mates show up in Lakeland, Fl. But spring training, for all its splendor and all the warmth it brings to the chilled hearts up north, is also Winter Meetings, Part II.

Many a cunning trade has been made under the shades of the palm trees in Florida and near the prickly cacti of Arizona in the months of February and March. They usually occur late in spring training, after teams have a better idea of what they have and which prospects and longshots are either in or out. It's a terrific opportunity to fill some holes, and sometimes even at a bargain basement price.

So there should be some hand-wringing, but not panic, as the Tigers shake out their bullpen, which appears to be the only real Achilles heel on a ballclub that many feel -- present company included -- can go deep into October. There's still about seven weeks until Opening Day. The feeling here is that GM Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland are going to reserve their judgement of the pen until the final couple weeks of March. Then, if they see someone that has become available, they might make their move.

Ahh, but what if they don't?

What it boils down to are two crucial innings: the seventh and the eighth. Oh, so many games are decided in these two frames. It's why I've constantly resisted the notion of turning Joel Zumaya into a closer -- when I feel he's much more valuable earlier in the game. But I digress.

If the Tigers can somehow, from within their present group -- even if one of those individuals isn't currently on the 40-man roster -- putty together a bevy of arms that can keep things under control until Todd Jones arrives in the ninth, then a move may not be necessary right away. Remember, Zumaya is done until well into the summer, out with another freak arm injury.

Fernando Rodney might as well eschew his no. 56 and don a big, fat question mark on the back of his jersey. So many eyes will be on him shortly, he's going to get a complex. But it stands to reason; Rodney is, without question, the "X" factor of the bullpen. Injuries and inconsistency -- the two seemed to feed off one another -- turned his 2007 season into a roller coaster, and in the process he sort of fouled up everyone's plans. The rest of the bullpen wasn't good enough to pick him up, and that (along with Gary Sheffield's bad shoulder) was a big reason why the Tigers' playoff hopes were torpedoed. Games the Tigers were winning in the late innings in 2006 were being lost in 2007.

There's a mix of youth and inexperience in the pen, but whether it adds up to be enough talent to complement the Tigers' rich offense is cause for the hand-wringing.

But no panic button yet. The Winter Meetings, Part II, haven't even started.


Blogger ozz said...

I agree that Rodney is the key to the bullpen.

10:18 PM  

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