Lions quarterback, Red Wings goaltender, Tigers closer…if you plan on putting one of these positions on your resume’, you best list “thick-skinned” on there also. “Hard of hearing” and “unable to read sports blogs” are desired traits as well, if the successful candidate wants to maintain focus and sanity.
As the Winter Caravan is set to slog through another gray January in Michigan, the roster spot drawing the most fan scrutiny centers around who Jim Leyland will hand the ball to for the last three critical outs. Sure, Andy Dirks‘ viability as an everyday LF, Jhonny Peralta‘s range (or lack therof), and the pitching rotation are of interest too. But with Jose Valverde‘s postseason meltdowns fresh on fans minds, the entire bullpen, especially “who will get the ‘S’ next to his name in the boxscore”, is the hottest topic.
How difficult was it to watch Fernando Rodney and his off-kilter hat save 48 games and post an ERA of 0.60? Meanwhile, Papa Grande loaded the bases and shortened our lives before (usually) dancing off the mound with another save – infuriating opponents and leaving fans with the queasy realization this highwire act was one puff of breeze from going all Karl Wallenda on us – and there is no net down there.
Such is the fickle nature of the closers’ role. For every Mo Rivera there are a dozen guys like Rodney, Bobby Jenks, Bob Wickman, and David Aardsma – guys who catch lightning in a bottle for a year, or maybe string together a few seasons of shut-down excellence, before the velocity dips, or the confidence goes, and they are playing setup man to the next hot ticket. Valverde was just one season removed from going 49-for-49 in save chances (though advanced metrics and the eyeball test revealed he was the beneficiary of extreme good fortune); of course, before the 9th inning ended on Opening Day 2012 that streak screeched to a halt.
With Rafael Soriano parlaying Mo’s “shagging accident” into a big payday with the Washington Nationals, it is now likely the Tigers will stay in-house to fill the closer spot. Let’s take a quick look at the names and their respective chances:
Bruce Rondon- Pros: Has closed effectively at every stop so far; has the repertoire and his command has improved with maturity; he “fits the suit” of the shutdown closer. Cons: No Major League experience at all – much less the back-end of the ‘pen in a pennant race.
Octavio Dotel- Pros: The polar opposite of Rondon – has experience in every bullpen role, both leagues, all situations, regular and post-season. Cons: Is he physically up to it in his 15th season? Has had success in high-leverage setup role, moving him to closer leaves that spot to fill also.
Al Alburquerque- Pros: Wicked stuff, K/9 ratio fits the role, not prone to serving up the gopher ball. Cons: While at least he has proven he can get MLB hitters out, he has not gotten the last 3 outs with the game on the line – yet.
Joaquin Benoit- Pros: Has the stuff and has done it before. Cons: Doesn’t seem as comfortable in the 9th as in the 8th, and elevating Benoit means the entire bullpen has to shuffle down one chair.
Phil Coke- Pros: Filled role nicely in the postseason, when he was aggressive with his fastball; seems to embrace the role. Cons: Again, it is determining if Coke has more value getting high-leverage outs earlier in the game, or coming in with a clean slate to finish it out.
Conclusions: As Tigers fans, we all realize two things:
A) Jim Leyland is old-school – he is adverse to playing the match-ups or taking the bullpen-by-committee approach. He is going to anoint his closer and stick with him – until long past the time any one of us would have sent him back to Erie. (Actually, that is “new-school” , a topic I will address in my next article.)
B) Dave Dombrowski is prone to pulling an ace out of his sleeve when we aren’t looking. The fickle nature of the position, as noted above, dictates NOT spending too much, be it in prospects or on paper. But with the Ilitch mandate to “win now”, don’t put it past DD to mortgage a piece of the future for a perceived upgrade.
IMHO – give Phil Coke the first shot at it. As a closer, he challenged hitters with his fastball, got ahead in the count and didn’t nibble; he works fast, and a left-handed closer is an advantage against the teams in the Central as well as the Yankees. Feel free to agree or disagree in comments.