With Replacements Looming, Veterans Step Up

While comfort and job security have always been the norm to Joe Nathan and Justin Verlander, the 2014 trade deadline opened the veterans’ eyes to the possibility of being replaced.

Between Verlander and Nathan, the two have combined for eight All-Star games and nine postseason appearances. Verlander has held the ace role in Detroit for over half a decade, and Nathan has been the perennial closer for his team — whether that be Minnesota, Texas or Detroit. While their personal accomplishments are impressive, one looming statistic has evaded them throughout both their careers: zero World Series rings.

General manager Dave Dombrowski is looking to change that. Questions were raised about Nathan throughout the season, with only 15 saves (and five blown saves) in his first 20 opportunities. An ERA of 7.04 in mid-June was unacceptable for an everyday closer; teams will not win championships with shoddy relief pitching. Dombrowski and the entire Tigers organization knows that fact better than anyone. Days before the trade deadline, Detroit announced the acquisition of another Texas closer, Joakim Soria.

Soria was having a flawless 2014 en route to Detroit: 17 saves in 19 opportunities with Texas with a solid 2.51 ERA. It was everything Tigers fans hoped Nathan would be. When Soria was acquired, Dombrowski said Nathan would still be the closer. Despite the stats, Dombrowski still believed in Nathan to be Detroit’s man in the ninth. For the first time since his rookie year, Nathan was in jeopardy of permanently losing his job as closer.

Detroit has not seen the same Nathan since. After the announcement of Soria’s trade to the Tigers on July 24, Nathan has pitched five innings, converting all three save opportunities while striking out seven. Now 17 days after the deal, he has not given up a run since Soria entered the bullpen.

Call it good timing on Nathan’s part or bad luck on Soria’s, but Nathan has taken exception to allowing another closer in his bullpen. He is far from ready for the postseason, but multiple innings of scoreless relief is enough to prove that the arm has yet to fall off of the 39-year-old.

Casual Detroit fans may have only heard about Nathan since he came to the Motor City. Justin Verlander started the reign in his world back when George W. Bush and Pope John Paul II were still the leaders in their domains.

Verlander is the only Tiger remaining from the magical 2006 World Series team.  He has become synonymous with Detroit, and to some extent, MVP pitching. Fans can recall 2011, when every start by Verlander had the possibility of a no-hitter.

For most of 2014, those days seemed long gone.

Everything has gone wrong for Detroit’s golden boy. Verlander’s stats can be summed up in one word: mediocre. A 10-10 record, 4.57 ERA, only 115 strikeouts and a nauseating 1.40 WHIP. While his line may be acceptable for average teams, Detroit is hardly an “average” team, and Verlander is far from an “average” pitcher.

Surgery during the offseason may have left a mark on the pitcher, as many have noted his fastball velocity is not the same. A patented Verlander fastball could range from 92 MPH in the first few innings, but ramp up to 100 MPH by the seventh or eighth – not in 2014, however.

Verlander has only reached the eighth inning in three starts this season, and his fastball has barely reached 96 MPH during those games. Verlander liked to blow his fastball past batters late in games; with a fastball that could only be described as average, his fastball was quickly turning into a meatball.

Enter Dombrowski, a man who would win the general manager award for deadline trades, if one existed. David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays was on the market days before the deadline. Detroit, not originally one of the teams interested in Price, made a bid to Seattle and Tampa less than 24 hours before the deadline. A deal was hashed, and Price was on a plane later that day.

Excitement and awe from the deal encompassed nearly all. One player who might not have been so happy was Verlander. With Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello and Price having ERA’s of 3.50 or below, Verlander was the odd man out. In one season, he had turned from Detroit’s most dominant player to possibly pitching out of the bullpen in the playoffs.

Like Nathan, Verlander seems to find that solution unacceptable. Since Price’s trade on August 1, Verlander has pitched 15 innings, with only four earned runs and 10 strikeouts in his two starts. The most encouraging game being the August 1 game against the Colorado Rockies, completing eight innings in only 101 pitches. Verlander had not gone eight innings in a start since May 24.

While he may still be rusty, the wheels are slowly starting to move for Verlander. August will be an incredibly interesting month for the former Cy Young winner. His next season milestone will be huge: pitching a shutout. Verlander has now gone a career-worst 20 straight starts allowing two earned runs or more. His pitching in the next month may decide which part of the ballpark he watches his team from during the postseason.

Detroit may not realize just how lucky they are — backups waiting for one pitcher to falter to show their value. A surplus of talent is what many teams dream of, and it is the lucky situation the Tigers find themselves in. Dombrowski and Ilitch have proved to fans this is Detroit’s year to break the 30-year title drought. The only question remains, will the right men be on the field to do it?

Richie Cozzolino is the host of Tiger Talk for Impact Sports.