Joel Zumaya thrills fantasy baseball enthusiasts with his 100 MPH fastball and his 97 Ks from the bullpen. He has been anointed as the next great closer and only has a 39-year-old, 28-strikeouts-in-64 innings Todd Jones blocking his ascension to the role he is destined to hold! Unfortunately, Zumaya does not decide who will close. Manager Jim Leyland does, and right now there are two things blocking the Ascension.
First, Todd Jones was money in the second half of last season. Second, Leyland likes RHP Fernando Rodney who notched seven saves last season to Zumaya's one. That said, I'd like to focus on the first roadblock and explain why I do not believe it is much of one.
Todd Jones is a gamer. Throwing behind JD Drew in Spring Training is proof. However, Mr. Jones is in the final year of his two-year/$10 million dollar contract. So what you say? The "what" is the struggles Todd Jones had in the first half of last season. Try to recall where the Tigers where in the standings during this period. The Tigers were 16-9, 19-9 and 20-7 in April, May and June respectively.
At the end of April, the Tigers trailed the defending World Series champions by 1.5 games and were considered a surprise team. By the end of May, the Tigers had overtaken the White Sox and led by 1.5 games. The team was the feel good story of the year just three seasons removed from threatening the all-time worst regular season record. At the end of June their lead was 2.5 games. When July concluded, the lead had been stretched to 7.5 games, and the Tigers were being anointed at the division winners.
During this time of feel-good coverage and first-place residence, Todd Jones struggled. He was minimally involved in the April start due to injury, and, in May and June, he had a 6.00 ERA/1.73 WHIP and 7.62 ERA/1.31 WHIP respectively. Do you believe Leyland would have allowed him to pitch with those numbers if the Tigers hadn't been generating excitement and winning in spite of Jones? Do you believe Jones will be able to put-up those numbers if the Tigers are in the middle of the pack of the difficult AL Central?
I don't. 2006 presented an environment that allowed the Tigers to have a closer with an ERA in the 6s for a couple months thanks to mile-deep low expectations. 2007 will present an entirely different environment. The Tigers are the AL champions and will have a target on their back each and every series. With the competition amped, the Tigers will have to battle every night. When they're bloodied and, if Jones is struggles, do you believe Leyland won't try Rodney or Zumaya? (Does Leyland still smoke? If so, then watch how frequently he's seen with a smoke in the dugout. That'll be a signal that the stress is mounting.)