Without looking at inconvenient facts, the easy answer for the Tigers’ 9-9 start would be the absence of a legitimate closer. They’re mixing and matching and after Phil Coke blew a game against the Twins in the second game of the season, they re-signed former closer Jose Valverde to a minor league contract and sent him to Florida to get in shape. (In shape to pitch I mean. Valverde’s protruding belly isn’t going anywhere and doesn’t hinder him one way or the other. He won’t be running a marathon anytime soon.) Valverde has an out in his contract that if he’s not in the big leagues by May 8th, he can become a free agent. That’s not going to happen unless he implodes in the minors. Valverde will be back with the Tigers and if he’s pitching well, will be closing before long. In fact, he’s probably a good fantasy gamble given how he’s alternated being brilliant and horrible. He’ll be cheap.
Amid all of that, the absence of an established closer hasn’t hurt the Tigers all that much. The pitching has been fine; the bullpen has been solid given the circumstances and lack of definition as to the roles; their defensive range is limited, but they’ve only made 4 errors all season so it’s not the defense; and they’re fifth in the American League in runs scored. What’s caused the 9-9 start is inconsistency at the plate. There have been games in which they haven’t hit in the clutch or been shut down entirely. That won’t last with a team that has the offensive firepower of the Tigers.
If you look at their games individually, you’ll see that they’ve gone through phases where they haven’t hit. Seven of their nine wins have been by 4 runs or more. Their starting pitching has been good and when they hit, they win. The easiest thing to do is to blame Rick Porcello and that there’s no closer, but that would be based on not examining what’s really going on, and what’s really going on is that they’ve gotten gaudy offensive numbers from Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter and Austin Jackson and dreadful offensive numbers from Alex Avila, Omar Infante, Andy Dirks and Victor Martinez rife with streakiness. There’s really not much to worry about. Unlike other teams that have glaring holes, dysfunction and rampant questions, the Tigers don’t. Manager Jim Leyland being cranky about the closer situation doesn’t count as dysfunction. Their 9-9 record isn’t a prototypical sign of underachievement. They’ve played well and it hasn’t shown up in their record. But it will soon enough.