There’s just something about the cavalier words of Jim Leyland that makes a Tiger fan uneasy. Whether it was how he’d talk about Gene Lamont as third-base coach or his approach towards lineup cards, he always made the topic seem as though it was next to last on his to-do list (assuming the final thing is “Cut Back Smoking”).
Recently he has discussed the position of closer with the Tigers publicly. On one hand, he’s said that successful teams need to have an established closer. On the other hand, he’s unsure about Bruce Rondon, doesn’t think Joaquin Benoit can close, and basically he knows there’s a lot of bullpen talent, but no one he can fully rely on.
In a sense, I agree with Leyland: Recent World Series champions have confirmed that having a guy who can pitch the ninth inning (or part of the eight, additionally) helps assure a win, regardless of the arguments sabermetricians present. So, that being said, in this space I’m going to make a case for the closer to be one Alberto Jose Alburquerque.
I remember watching him pitch in Spring Training two years ago. My father-in-law and I were looking at the younger players, trying to see something unexpected that could help Detroit in the future. We saw Andy Dirks play the outfield better than Brennan Boesch, we saw Alex Avila look very capable behind the plate, and we saw Al Aburquerque throw some nasty, filthy pitches. I’ve been a fan ever since.
His fastball-slider combination is ridiculous. Heck, the slider alone might be one of the best pitches in the American League. His K/9 in last season’s small sample size was 24.30 at High-A, 15.19 in AAA, and 12.15 in the big leagues, which would have placed him in the top 10 among relievers. When he pitched at the major league level in 2011 it was 13.92. Since he joined the Tigers in ’11 his FIP has never surpassed 2.60 in any level.
Sure, the guy has some glaring negatives. For one, he’s been battling arm problems for a few seasons. The elbow surgery he had last year is a concern, especially for someone who throws as hard as he does. He also has a tendency to walk batters, with a career BB/9 of 5.9. Yet, if I may be so bold, Craig Kimbrel also had a walk problem when he first became a regular in the Braves’ bullpen, but he seemed to accentuate the positive (high strikeout rate) and eliminate the negative (walks).
But the main things I think that work in his favor aren’t just his killer stuff and high K rate, but his contractual commitment to the team and his age. He is only 26 years old at this point, which is when a lot of players begin to come into their own. He is also pre-arbitration eligible, which means this guy can improve and grow into his role with the Tigers and not become a free agent until 2017. With wannabe closers like Benoit, Phil Coke, or Octavio Dotel, they all are 30 and above and carry a million-plus dollar price tag with contracts that expire soon.
I’m not saying that I hope Rondon fails at the role; if he excels and forces Alburquerque to be a setup guy and they form a one-two punch that dominates hitters and ices victories, yeah, I’ll be okay. But if he doesn’t win the job and spends another year in Toledo, I’d like to see Al Al take the reins and make hitters look silly with that righteous slider of his.