Have you ever done the last part of a complicated task first?
It's no way to build a house or to write a novel. But in baseball, which operates on different architecture, working backwards is how a manager constructs a bullpen.
He begins knowing his closer has the ninth inning covered. From there, he can look at his remaining six relievers, consider right-handed and left-handed matchups as situations dictate, and arrange the back innings of a game after his starting pitcher has exited.
It's a jigsaw puzzle that benefits enormously from having the final inning locked into place. Not having that ninth-inning piece identified is why Tigers manager Jim Leyland looked up from his office desk last week and said, with an uncomfortable grin: "This is going to get real hairy. You guys (media critics) are going to have a lot of fun."
As the Tigers begin a new season today against the Twins at Target Field, Leyland has the best Tigers team of his eight seasons in Detroit. He has five strong starting pitchers and a sixth ready to go in Drew Smyly. He has perhaps the most dangerous mid-order hitting combination in baseball in Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Bracketing Cabrera and Fielder are two hitters who weren't around in 2012: Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez.
But a man regarded by his peers as being a master at running a bullpen is staring at potential trouble. Leyland realizes a relief corps minus a defined closer is a bomb waiting to explode on a team that otherwise could play in another World Series in October.
And, privately, it unsettles Leyland more than anyone realizes that he will bear responsibility for how this plays out. It will be on the manager for how a bullpen sans closer functions until Bruce Rondon arrives from Triple A Toledo or his boss, Dave Dombrowski, delivers a reliever who can absorb those perilous ninth-inning outs.
A solid bullpen
Fans and sideline analysts will suggest Leyland is fretting about nothing. He has Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit, Brayan Villarreal, Al Alburquerque, Darin Downs and, even, Smyly at his disposal. Good relievers, all of them. Potential closers, all of them.
But Leyland cannot control outcomes. He will be at the mercy of roles and numbers that might go against script.
That script becomes brutal when the skipper must simultaneously manage not only the sixth, or seventh, or eighth inning in which he needs to change pitchers, but when he must also keep a plan in place for the ninth.
All it will take is one bad relief appearance by any of the above to turn the back innings into a mishmash that could fray even more his ninth-inning options, as well as his tactical plans for the next day's game.
"This is going to be a second-guesser's delight," he said last week, forecasting what could become an issue as early as today.
This also is why Leyland did not want to enter 2013 without an established closer. He and Dombrowski, the team's president and general manager, clearly had different thoughts here. Dombrowski believed the Tigers could expect their rookie, Rondon, to win the closer's job.
Anyone who knows Leyland understands absolutely that he wanted more security. He wanted a guaranteed body for the ninth inning. He didn't get one. And when Rondon's bid to at least apprentice in Detroit for the closer's job ended Thursday, the Tigers — and Leyland — were left to scramble.
Bullpen by committee, they call it. It sounds doable.
You bet. Until the left-hander didn't get the left-handed hitters he was obliged to put down. Now, an inning has been extended. Now, another pitcher who ideally was to have been used in the ninth needs to get an out in the seventh or eighth.
Now, a reliever who doesn't handle ninth innings as calmly as he handles earlier innings must tackle those last three outs. And he must do it, because the manager has already spent multiple relievers the previous two days. The manager's triple whammy is that he has a tired bullpen in a game that could go extra innings.
And, so, Tigers and Jim Leyland, happy Opening Day. It should be an entertaining season of baseball in Detroit. It will become a happier journey, particularly for a manager, if Rondon's time at Toledo is brief, and he quickly becomes the ninth-inning closer this team inevitably must have.