As Spring Training approaches, and Hot Stove chatter winds down, one issue that the Detroit Tigers will have heading into Lakeland, and beyond, is the back-end of the bullpen.
Much has been said about the team going with rookie Bruce Rondon as their closer. Though early in the off-season it appeared that the Tigers were automatically installing Rondon in the role, as we have approached the reporting date for pitchers and catchers, it seems Rondon will need to earn the job. Despite this bit of reassurance, can the lack of pressure in a March exhibition game really mirror a regular season game? There is a tremendous amount of difference in a game played on March 22 in Viera than the one played on April 1 in Minnesota.
Nonetheless, the questions of if Rondon will win the job and last all season in it, if Phil Coke will grab the job he excelled at in the postseason, or if the Tigers will add a closer during Spring Training have all been asked numerous times since the final out of the World Series.
What I find curious is that the name “Joaquín Benoit” has not been uttered much this off-season, other than to take his name out of contention for closer.
No one needs to be reminded at how terrible the back-end of the Tigers’ bullpen was during the postseason, mainly because of Jose Valverde‘s incredible implosion. Yet fans often felt as uneasy when Benoit came in, particularly because of his knack for giving up the long ball.
Lost in Valverde’s 30.38 ERA, blown save in Game 4 of the ALDS, and surrendering of a four-run lead in Game 1 of the ALCS, was the fact that Benoit nearly cost the Tigers’ Game 2 of the ALDS, which would have been critical, going to Oakland tied 1-1 with three games to be played on the road. Had Detroit not rallied after Benoit gave up a two-run homer to Josh Reddick, in what was perhaps the best game of the entire 2012 MLB Playoffs, the Tigers’ postseason could have easily ended in that series.
While Benoit did recover and did not allow a hit or a run in 2 1/3 innings through the rest of the postseason, the fear of the home run was always there with him, as it was in the regular season. He gave up 14 home runs during 2012, the most of any other reliever in the majors.
Was it a fluke? After all, he only allowed five home runs the year before, and none in the 2011 postseason. The troubling aspect was when he fell apart. As my MCB colleague Grant Stoye accurately pointed out in October, Benoit had a stretch of 34 innings from July to September in which he allowed 11 home runs and chalked up an embarrassing ERA of 5.52 in the second half.
Benoit’s contract runs through this season. I believe had his contract been up after last year, the Tigers would have made no effort to keep him, as was the case with Valverde. Should Benoit falter early in the season, they have Octavio Dotel to fall back on. The ageless wonder, Dotel, had a stellar 3.57 ERA in 57 regular season games, allowing just three round-trippers. He was also perfect (no runs, no hits) in five innings of work, spread out over six postseason appearances.
Time will tell whether we will see the 2011 and early 2012 version of Benoit. But, if we see the one we saw all too often in the second half, don’t be surprised if he becomes this year’s Brandon Inge and is sent off the team. The Tigers will have to eat a lot of the remaining salary on his contract for no work, but with that elusive World Series title attainable with the current roster, the team has no time to try to help a guy get through a slump.
So while one of the most pressing issues is who will get the ball with the lead in the ninth for the Tigers, another question that should be asked is whether that ball will even be handed over in the ninth, or will that ball be perched in Kaline’s Corner?