Monday, March 04, 2013

Who Will Close for the Tigers?

The Tigers have said positive things about rookie reliever Bruce Rondon all winter.  They have never come out and said he was going to be the closer to replace the departed Jose Valverde, but General Manager certainly has gushed about his talent.  In fact, he has talked him up almost too much, almost as if he's trying to sell him to other teams:
"He’s a rare talent," Dombrowski said. "You would not believe the number of clubs that call me about Bruce Rondon."  
Rondon has never seemed like the obvious closer for 2013 to me and I doubt that Dombrowski or manager Jim Leyland views him as anything close to a sure thing.  By all accounts, the massive right-hander does have tremendous raw ability.  His fastball sits in the upper 90s and has reached 103 MPH with good movement.  He has a developing slider and change-up and is said to be fearless.  However, he also is said to have little command of his pitches and has had control problems everywhere he has pitched.

So, it's not a big surprise that the young reliever has struggled so far this spring walking five and allowing five hits in just 3 2/3 innings.  The Tigers are now keeping him out of games for a couple of days, so he can work with pitching coach Jeff Jones on his mechanics.  That's not alarming news for a young pitcher.  It's what spring training is for.  It's also not what you expect for a closer on a contending team with all the other pieces in place.

It is not the Tigers style to go into the season with a questionable rookie closer, so I've felt all along that they would acquire a veteran stopper at some point, either late in spring training or some time after the season starts.  Right now, though, they are running out of options unless they can work a trade.  Jim Leyland confirmed today that Valverde is not coming back (not exactly shocking news).  The other frequently mentioned free agent option is former Giants closer Brian Wilson, but he is coming off Tommy John surgery and is not likely to be at full strength to start the season.

There are potential in-house options, but nothing ideal.  Joaquin Benoit probably has the most talent, but the Tigers have indicated in the past that he doesn't have the mentality of a closer and is more comfortable as a set-up man.  Al Alburquerque is an interesting choice based on pure stuff, but his injury history makes it difficult to trust his ability to pitch back-to-back games or to make it through a full season.

So, it may come down to right hander Octavio Dotel or lefty Phil Coke.  Dotel has more experience closing games, but Leyland likes him in more of a set-up role at this point in his career.  The Tigers skipper hinted during TigerFest that Coke may be the best option if Rondon is not ready.  That is not surprising given that he turned to Coke in the 2012 post-season with good results.  Coke may have the ninth-inning mentality, but he typically doesn't pitch well against right-handed batters (.802 OPS lifetime).  So it's hard to see him him getting through the full-season in that role.

One other creative choice might be right-hander Rick Porcello, who currently battling southpaw Drew Smyly for the fifth starter job.  Jason Beck reported in his blog today that the idea might not be as far-fetched as it sounds:
Even the idea of Rick Porcello as a closer wasn’t entirely dismissed. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily a wild thought,” Leyland said.
Porcello makes some sense in that he tends to start out strong and lose velocity fairly quickly in the middle innings.  The downside is he has the opposite problem as Coke, that is, he struggles versus left-handed hitters.

Of course, the Tigers are not writing off Rondon and he may yet seize the job, but I'm not counting on it.  My guess is they mix and match to start the year with Coke getting the most chances.  I wouldn't expect the committee approach to last for long though.  Either somebody will emerge as the single closer or they'll make a deal during the season.  


  1. I'm disappointed that the Tigers are talking about "closer" again as an actual role that has to be filled. Unless you have Mariano or Eckersley (or, historically, very few others) on the roster, the idea of a defined 9th-inning role is just silly. John Hiller and Guillermo Hernandez, in their primes, pitched a lot more than 1 inning per appearance.

    I thought that Jimmy had learned that in the 2012 post-season - bring in your best reliever (which at the time was Coke) in the highest-leverage situations, and then leave him in there for as long as he is effective.

    I like Coke, Alburquerque, and Benoit as useful alternatives. Nobody has to be the "9th inning guy". They each could be the "one out in the 8th guy", and finish if they are effective. Having a "closer" is a crazy notion that limits the potential effectiveness of the rest of the bullpen. It means that you have to use someone other than your best guy in the 7th or 8th, even if the situation demands it.

  2. Charles, I agree that bullpen usage is less optimal today than it used to be. The closer role, in particular, seems insane to me. I'd like to see some team get creative and change the closer role back to something similar to what it was in the 70s. Unfortunately, Leyland does not seem to be the one who is going to break the mold.



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