1) You Don’t Lose Your Job to Injury
It’s a principle that most teams have embraced for many years. When a player gets hurt, he doesn't lose his job, even when his replacement does well. Besides the basic element of fairness that it implies, there’s an important clubhouse component to it as well. Having trust in a manager is crucial to a cohesive team and atmosphere, and taking a veteran’s job away from him while he got injured would be a sure fire way to put that at risk.
That doesn't mean it would be something that couldn't be overcome, and some great managers/leaders in other sports have been able to accomplish just that. But it’s not easy, and for a veteran group of players and a second year manager in Brad Ausmus still earning his stripes, it’d be a risky proposition.
In addition to the clubhouse risks, you've got the risk of what such a demotion would do to the psyche of Joe Nathan. Fans will hate this notion because for some reason athletes are expected to not be subject to the mental and emotional swings that all humans are, but they are in fact human. And the Tigers are committed to paying Nathan $10 million this season, whether he pitches or not. Their best bet is to try and get the most they can out of him, and demoting him, especially when he didn't do anything to deserve a demotion, would likely do more harm than good for his performance, and in turn the overall success of the team.
Those risks would have to be weighed against the potential harm that would be caused by putting Nathan in the closer role. Which gets us to point number two.
2) Either Nathan Can Pitch in High Leverage, or He Can’t
The Tigers said Nathan was the closer in spring training, said he was the closer on Opening Day, and used him in that role in the first game of the season. That clearly implies a level of trust or belief that he can still pitch in high leverage situations. In late and close games, they think, despite some struggles last year along with a decline in his velocity, he can be successful.
Assuming that’s the case, whether he pitches in those situations as the closer or the setup man doesn't really matter. Unless the Tigers starting pitchers continue their unusual streak of pitching eight innings, which is unlikely, the Tigers are going to need both a closer and a setup man. The order in which they pitch doesn't much matter (and in the opinion of some, should be tailored around who is batting rather than the inning, but that’s a different debate for another day), because both are going to have to be effective for the Tigers to win close games.
So, if you are going to rely on both, why would you take the risks that come with the first component by not letting Nathan return to closing, and slide Soria back to the eighth inning?
3) Nathan Hasn't Been THAT bad
To be clear, let’s not take this statement to mean that Nathan is as good as he once was, or even as good as the Tigers thought he was going to be when they handed him that two-year, $20 million contract. If they could go back in time and take that deal back, here’s betting they would. But despite the running narrative, Nathan hasn't really been that bad. His PR gaffes have likely harmed him in this regard as well, as much as his pitching has.
This spring, he posted a 4.63 ERA over 13 games, but most of that damage came in one early spring appearance. He maintained a 2:1 K:BB ratio (important after his walk issues last season). He allowed just one run and four hits over his final five appearances.
In his lone appearance of the regular season, he struck out Torii Hunter, and more notably, did it using his trademark slider, that showed good bite on it and got a pair of swinging strikes (though Hunter would debate one of them). Without his power velocity, that slider is key, and at least in that one game, because it’s all we have to go on, it looked pretty good.
Finally, his second half last season wasn't all that bad. He had a 3.98 ERA, a 3.42 FIP and a .298 wOBA against. That’s not All-Star caliber performance, but it’s also not worthy of being dumped. And if he can give the Tigers something similar this year, that’d be valuable, because thus far there have been a lack of healthy alternatives to take on the late inning roles, outside of Soria. Like it or not, the Tigers still need Nathan, if he’s good. Which gets us to the final point.
4) If He Fails, the Tigers Can Move On
Giving Nathan the closer job back puts the trust him in to control his own destiny. If he succeeds, the Tigers have him closing, Soria setting up, and use the variety of other arms they have to fill in the rest of the bullpen.
But, if he fails, it’ll be on him, and everyone in the clubhouse will know it, and whether he’ll admit it or not, he’ll know it’ll be on him, too. And the Tigers will know they did everything they could to try and make it work, and can cut ties and move on trying to identify who the next man up in that late inning role will be.
For now, giving Nathan his job back is the Tigers best bet. It’s their best hope of getting something useful out of Nathan, it’s their best bet for keeping the clubhouse united, and it’s their best bet that if they do need to move on, all parties and observers will know why.