Posted May 13, 2017
Mike Henneman was a tall, lanky right-handed pitcher out of Oklahoma State University, class of 1984.
Henneman’s delivery was herky-jerky and three-quarters sidearm. It was especially tough for right-handed batters to pick up the baseball coming out of his hand.
Henneman was drafted three times, and the third time was a charm. He didn’t sign with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1982 or with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1983. But he inked a deal with the Tigers after they drafted him in the fourth round of the 1984 amateur draft.
Henneman was drafted to be a reliable late-innings reliever, and he delivered on that for the Tigers. He led the team in saves in five of six seasons between 1988 and 1993.
Mike Henneman also holds the distinction of being the last so-called closer of any reliability that the Tigers grew on their own farm.
Chew on that for a moment. Thirty-three years have gone by since the Tigers drafted an arm that developed into someone with whom you could trust a lead late in a game.
Joel Zumaya of the mid-2000s could have been one, but his arm blew out like a car’s overdrive.
We could discuss the use of bullpens, with their maddening specialization, in today’s game until the cows come home. The mere fact that there even is a “position” called closer is problematic.
Willie Hernandez won the AL Cy Young and MVP Awards in 1984. In that season, in which he saved 32 games, Hernandez tossed 140 innings. That’s literally two seasons’ worth for today’s ninth inning guys, with emphasis on “ninth inning.”
Hernandez was one of the last “old school” relievers who would be summoned by his manager in all sorts of situations, inning be damned.
Sparky Anderson would sometimes bound out of the dugout, tiptoeing over the base line, and call for Hernandez as early as the fifth inning. And Willie would take the game home from there.
Other rubber-armed relievers like Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Sparky Lyle (and I could go on and on) et al, were others whose appearances in games were dictated by the situation, not by the inning or by some sort of cockamamie system.
Runners on second and third with one out in the sixth? Managers of the day called for their best high leverage guys. Period.
I know we’re not heading back to those good old days. I may be nostalgic but I’m not delusional.
But back to Henneman.
The Tigers’ inability to home grow their own relief corps has bitten them in the you-know-where, both on the field and on the bottom line.
The Tigers’ bullpen today is totally made up of guys acquired from other organizations.
Justin Wilson and Shane Greene came from the Yankees. Alex Wilson came from the Red Sox. Francisco Rodriguez came from Milwaukee. Blaine Hardy was signed off the Royals’ scrap heap. Chad Bell came from the Rangers. Anibal Sanchez is a failed starter that came from the Marlins.
The relief arms that the Tigers have been trying to cultivate (Bruce Rondon, Joe Jimenez, Kyle Ryan) aren’t exactly the second coming of the 1990 Reds’ trio of Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers.
This inability to develop relief arms has led to desperate free agent signings, and expensive ones at that.
The Tigers have a roll call of closers over the past 10 years that reads like an AARP mailing list.
Todd Jones was in his late-30s when the Tigers used him to close out games circa 2006-2008. Jose Valverde was nearing his mid-30s when the Tigers acquired him in 2010. Joe Nathan was 39 when the Tigers signed him before the 2014 season. All these men flamed out in dramatic fashion, their arms hanging on by a thread.
And Rodriguez, the latest Tigers closer to go poof, was almost 34 years old when he was traded for in November 2015.
None of the aforementioned were being paid peanuts, either.
See a pattern here?
Mark Lowe was another high profile bullpen signee, prior to the 2016 season, and he was so bad last year and in this past spring training that the Tigers sprinkled salt and pepper on the remaining year of his $5.5 million contract, swallowed it, and kissed him goodbye.
The Tigers are also perilously close to cutting Sanchez a check for $21 million and bidding him adieu.
Rodriguez with his $6 million deal has been like castor oil to the Tigers every morning as well.
It’s a foolish and ultimately futile effort to kill manager Brad Ausmus because of the bullpen. The root of the problem is the front office, including the scouting and player development folks.
The Tigers’ drafting woes over the past 25 years have not been limited to the pitchers. The reality is that only a handful of solid, everyday big league position players have been homegrown since the days of Sparky and Bill Lajoie.
Most of the team’s star players in this generation have been acquired from other organizations.
Look at the starting nine today.
Miguel Cabrera—trade. Ian Kinsler—trade. Jose Iglesias—trade. Justin Upton—free agent. J.D. Martinez—free agent. Jim Adduci—scrap heap, depth signing. Victor Martinez—free agent.
Only 3B Nicholas Castellanos, C James McCann and CF Tyler Collins are Tigers draftees. And the jury is still very much out on McCann and Collins as viable, starting big leaguers.
The news gets worse.
Baseball America and other leading appraisers of MLB farm systems aren’t very impressed with the Tigers prospects, and haven’t been for several years. The organization consistently ranks poorly. Second baseman Kinsler, who will turn 35 next month, has no choice but to play until his body falls apart because the Tigers have no serious contender for his job coming down the pike.
The Tigers are a team put together with cold, hard cash. The ROI, if they were a publicly traded company, would have gotten the CEO fired by now.
The football team in this town has been derided for years—and rightfully so—for its slapstick ways on draft day.
The baseball team isn’t much better.
Hey, Mike Henneman is only 55 years old. Anybody got his number?