June 10, 2011; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Al Alburquerque (62) pitches during the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners at Comerica Park. Seattle won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Al Alburquerque is the Detroit Tigers' Best Backup Plan at Closer

Dave Cameron (managing editor of FanGraphs) wrote an article for ESPN yesterday in which he derides the Tigers for not having a “real” closer option for the upcoming season. It’s an ESPN insider piece, so a subscription is required to read the whole thing, but I’ll hit the highlights.

the Tigers have fewer real challengers than any other playoff contender in the sport. And perhaps that cushion is why the Tigers are apparently willing to go into the 2012 season without anything resembling a big league closer.

Cameron isn’t necessarily wrong here — the Tigers don’t have a sure fire lock down closer on the roster — but they do have multiple pieces that could work in concert to get the job done just fine. It’s a big IF whether or not Bruce Rondon will be able to seize the closer role and perform up to the level required so talking about backup plans is justified.

Brayan Villarreal and Octavio Dotel wouldn’t be ideal candidates to simply had the job over to — like Jose Valverde they struggle against left handers — but either pitcher would do just fine against right handers. Phil Coke — whose splits are just the opposite — would be able to platoon with them to shut down lefties. You wouldn’t want to go into each game reserving two or three relievers for ninth inning duty — so couldn’t name a strict platoon — but if you took a real “closer by committee” approach you could get to (and through) the ninth inning of many games by effectively playing the matchups.

It’s probably also prudent to note that the Tigers’ starting rotation has as few question marks as anyone and probably won’t need to make a regular habit of going to the bullpen early in games. With little need for mop-up and middle relief innings en masse, they’ll be able to focus the attention of their bullpen more heavily on the high-leverage situations.

But assuming the Tigers want to name a guy as their closer (and with Jim Leyland this is a good bet), they still have a couple of options that could be counted on to perform reasonably well. Back to Cameron:

The best pitcher in the Tigers’ bullpen at retiring opposite-handed hitters is Joaquin Benoit, but Jim Leyland has noted that he has problems working back-to-back days, so the team doesn’t see him as a legitimate option for the full-time closer’s position.

Benoit had an issue with allowing too many home runs last year, but if he can bring that rate back down to earth he’d be a perfectly fine closer option. The Tigers have always been careful to not overwork Benoit, but he’s been their everyday eighth inning guy for two years now and I can’t recall very many times that he was declared unavailable for his normal duties due to overwork. Certainly not any more than Valverde was. I think with Benoit the team is more concerned with his mentality, but I’d have no problem saying “sucks to your mentality” and giving him the shot. Or if not THE shot then maybe a significantly large number of shots.

I do take issue with the first statement of that last quote. Benoit has been very good in his career at also retiring left handed batters, but Al Alburquerque has the best numbers on the team. There are probably sample size concerns and blah blah blah, but over the last two years Alburquerque has held right handed hitters to a .292 OBP and left handed htiters to a .272 OBP. Those are really good numbers. Again, small sample size warning, but over the last two seasons (since Al Al reached the big leagues), only Eric O’Flaherty of the Atlanta Braves has had a lower ERA in relief (minimum 50 innings). Like Rondon, Alburquerque has had an issue with his walk rate, but his 2.11 FIP is still good for fifth best (using the same innings floor.

Alburquerque doesn’t have a long history of getting the job done in the major leagues, but he’s put up some pretty amazing numbers over the last couple of years. Health will pretty much always be an issue with him considering how many sliders he throws, but he has the makings of a viable (if not dominant closer). I’m not sure where he’d be placed on the Tigers’ pecking order should the ninth inning continually unravel on them, but he should be given a legitimate shot to do the job. Even counting Rondon, Alburquerque might be the pitcher in the organization with the best potential to be a closer in the big leagues.

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