After the disastrous 2008 campaign, there were some obvious holes that needed filling. Carlos Guillen's body wasn't able to hold up at third base, Edgar Renteria was a huge disappointment at short, Jacque Jones didn't make even make it with the team until Memorial Day, Pudge Rodriguez was moved at the trade deadline creating a gaping hole behind the plate, and, oh, the team finished 27th in baseball with a 4.90 ERA and 28 blown saves.
Not quite an ideal state to head into the offseason, especially given the mammoth contracts the Tigers had handed out over the past couple seasons, leaving the team very limited financially.
And so far, the Tigers have done a very solid job of addressing the numerous problems.
The team decided to move Carlos Guillen to left field, and shift Brandon Inge back to third, solving two major problem positions (and hopefully improving the team's defense a bit in the process, especially at third, where Inge has a gold glove-caliber glove).
Moving to the trade and free agent markets, the Tigers were able to move two marketable prospects that weren't going to fit into the Tigers' plans in 2009 (Matt Joyce and Guillermo Moscoso). And moving the two brought in a starting catcher (Gerald Laird) and a middle-of-the-rotation starter with plus-potential (Edwin Jackson).
On top of that, the Tigers found a backup catcher and a shortstop to split time with Ramon Santiago all for just a couple million dollars.
So, the team now has a third baseman, left fielder, and a pair of shortstops and catchers to split time behind the dish, plus a power right-hander in the rotation.
But where the Tigers ran into problems time and time again last season was in the late innings, when the bullpen simply couldn't hold a lead. In 2006, when Joel Zumaya, Fernando Rodney and Todd Jones were the Tigers 1-2-3 punch in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, they blew 16 saves. That sort of bullpen performance would have had the Tigers sitting around 86 wins, which would have put the Tigers just two games out of first place in the division. Just an average performance from the ‘pen would have left the Tigers around .500 (the AL average for blown saves was 21).
Fernando Rodney returns, and is the current incumbent closer, but Rodney has also had just two season with an ERA under four, and in his career has blown 25 saves in 58 opportunities. Sure, if he throws strikes, and if his change-up is working, and if he's healthy, he could be an effective closer. But that sounds like far too many ‘ifs' to be relied upon for a team in desperate need of stability.
Zumaya remains the enigma that he is – the high-90s fastball, the constant arm trouble, the fierce attitude, and the knuckle-curves that get crushed for 400+ foot home runs. If Zumaya can get back to 2006 form, he could be the dominating closer the Tigers need. But yet again, another big ‘if'.
The Tigers need a go-to guy for the ninth inning. That can be Brian Fuentes, Trevor Hoffman or another acquisition via trade. But the bottom line is, no matter how good the Tigers' offense is, or how much the defense improves, or even if the starters get better, the Tigers will find themselves sitting in the standings just where they were in 2008 – near the bottom looking up.
The rest of the bullpen needs some help too – but the team can find some middle relief help from many avenues - whether that be starters turned relievers (Nate Robertson anyone?) prospects (Casey Fein) or players acquired via trade.
But the Tigers need someone they can count come inning number nine in 2009. Otherwise, the Tigers are likely in for yet another disappointing season.