Detroit Tigers in denial about Joe Nathan


It does not matter what is the scene or setting, Joe Nathan cannot record outs consistently at a Major League level. And the Detroit Tigers seem to be in denial about this simple fact.

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This is not an Earth-shattering situation. It is far from unusual that a 39/40-year old pitcher suddenly stops being effective against 20- and 30-something hitters in the prime of their careers. This was the case last year when Nathan recorded the highest ERA and WHIP (4.81, 1.534) since his first full season in the majors 15 years ago.

Despite his constant ineffectiveness, the Tigers’ brass, led by manager Brad Ausmus and GM Dave Dombrowski still publicly supported their embattled closer who had signed a two-year, $20 million deal before the 2014 season. Last season after lousy performance after lousy performance, they would say things like “he’s working through it.”

At no point in the sub par season was it even remotely considered to remove Nathan from that role.

Perhaps that was due to there not being any worthy candidates on the roster. Of course that was blown out of the water when the Tigers traded for Joakim Soria, a closer with the Texas Rangers, near the trading deadline last July.

Perhaps it was because Ausmus was letting his inexperience as a manager shine through, unable or unwilling to upset a veteran as a first-year manager just a few years older than the problem player.

That may be a heavy indictment of Ausmus, but one thing is for sure, he failed in bullpen management and was never able to find a role for Soria (even to usurp struggling setup man Joba Chamberlain). Without a clear role for the first time in his career, we never saw the real Soria, leading to his own ineffectiveness.

It appears the Tigers are still blind to Nathan’s struggles this spring. The proof is what Ausmus had to say about his closer after he allowed all six runs (four earned) in a 6-5 loss last Thursday.

"“I thought he looked good”"

Ummm, what?! Six runs and he looked GOOD?! I mean I know we say Spring Training games don’t matter, but when you couple Spring Training games with last season, we still can’t draw an accurate conclusion, Brad?

"“The reason I say that I am not concerned is because he was so good in October 2013.”"

He was good 18 months ago, so he can be good again? Uh okay….

"As much as you want to look at an older player when he struggles and point to age, I just don’t see Joe’s struggles were a result of his age. I couldn’t imagine it would be that much of a dropoff.”"

These three statements are all clear examples of someone stuck in denial.

Nathan seemed to ebb and flow last year. He would come in and blow a save or allow three runs in a tie game and then would come back the next day and allow a few runners before shutting the door and earning the save. This would serve as a type of “see, he can still get the job done.” However anyone watching knew it was never easy and one misplaced pitch could have turned a nail-biter into a vomit-inducing situation.

This was the case on Saturday when Nathan had a great outing by 2014-15 standards, walking a batter but recording three outs without further incident.

The Tigers may have a few more options this season in replacing Nathan than they did a year ago, provided Bruce Rondon is healthy and can hold up to the grind of a long season following Tommy John surgery.

From a contract standpoint, it would be a little easier to bite the bullet if Nathan is released. They would not be on the hook for the full $20 million like they would have been last year, but would have to pay $11 million this year ($10 million for 2015 and a $1 million for the buyout clause when passing on the $10 million club option for 2016).

It is still a lot of money, but in a more competitive AL Central, the margin for error is very thin.

Can the Tigers go another summer with holding their breath when their haggard closer comes in and blows a save, or loads the bases before escaping and earning the save largely via luck?

At this point this seems that is the way the team will be heading.

Next: What should be expected from Bruce Rondon