The Closer Conundrum of 2013


Preface: If you are a baseball fan who doesn’t believe the best reliever should be the closer, or that the closer is ridiculously overrated, or things of that nature, please skip this article. I’m not disagreeing with you – a lot of stats and sample sizes can back up those notions. I just wanted to theorize possible closer outcomes because this team definitely believes in having a designated closer.

It’s as true an axiom in real life baseball nowadays as it is in the fantasy baseball circles:” You never pay for saves.” In fact, one could even argue that a GM should never pay for “Big Time” relief pitches in general. However, this article will be about the future of closing in Detroit, so for now let’s overlook the fact that Joaquin Benoit, although occasionally immaculate, is ridiculously overpaid.

During the Dombrowski regime, the Detroit Tigers have seemed to waver between acquiring a proven closer and building one up themselves. In 2005, the Tigers used Fernando Rodney. The next three seasons were closed by the Human Rollercoaster himself, the reacquired Todd Jones. 2009 saw Fernando Rodney ascend and cause minor heart attacks across the state of Michigan. Then, Jose Valverde came on board and has been his gregarious, sometimes dominant, sometimes maddening self. His contract is up after this season, which leads into the question, “What will the Tigers do about their closing situation next season?”

The first, most obvious step is to not resign Valverde. He’s been great, frustrating, and everywhere in between. The Big Potato has endeared himself to Tigers fans with his strikeout dances, positivity, and just general character; dude seems like a heck of a teammate and a heck of a guy. Yet even if he claims he wants to stay in Detroit and even admits he’ll take a hometown discount, he cannot be resigned. His K/9 has been in decline since 2006(!). His xFIP since coming to Detroit has been 3.75, 4.01, and 4.90 this season.  His SIERA?  On a steady climb since 2008. Essentially, Valverde ain’t getting any better.  If/when he leaves, the closing situation becomes quite interesting.

Among the potential in-house candidates, we can look at Brayan Villereal, Al Albuquerque, Dan Schlereth, and Duane Below. I omit Benoit and Dotel simply because they seem to work better as setup men.

This year Villereal is 1 WAR with an outstanding 11.84 K/9. He has an xFIP of 3.44, which isn’t bad, and his 1.18 WHIP is pretty nice as well. He’s young, under team control, and has a fastball that can top out just shy of 100 mph. He’s still developing his command, but seems to be progressing in the right direction. If he is indeed developing into a top bullpen guy, he’d be a great choice for closer. Unfortunately, the problem with Brayan is similar to that of Albuquerque: the elbow.

Al Albuquerque came on like gangbusters last year: 1.3 WAR, 2.78 xFIP, 1.15 WHIP, and a monster 13.92 K/9. His slider was arguably one of the best pitches in the majors, but it also helped to wreck his elbow. Now, he’s in Toledo, looking like he might be able to continue his domination. But still…that elbow. He and Villereal throw so hard, and throw such wicked stuff, that their elbows are in a pretty consistent state of potential destruction.

Schlereth and Below are both left handed, both have a decent fastball, changeup, and curve. The difference is Below throws an additional slider and Schlereth has a killer curve. The problem here is that Schlereth seems to forget the dimensions of the strike zone, and Below just seems to have a really bad inning or less on a consistent basis. They seem like better general relief pitchers, with Schlereth’s potential spot being 7th or even 8th inning guy.

Having recently read “The Extra 2%” by Jonah Keri about the rise of the Tampa Bay Rays, all I can think about in terms of signing relievers is to scope out guys with something to prove, guys seeking a one-year deal to try and gain that big payday. It’s worked incredibly well in Tampa, and before that Billy Beane and the Athletics would acquire good relievers, turn them into closers, and trade them away at the peak of their value. I don’t see why the Tigers couldn’t take this approach.

In terms of acquiring pitchers with something to prove, why not see if the Great Boston Firesale would part with Daniel Bard? Maybe Franklin Morales or Mark Melancon? Give Josh Byrnes a call in San Diego and see what Luke Gregorson might be worth.  Perhaps Jason Grilli of the Pirates would like to return to Detroit, or maybe Rex Brothers from Colorado, whose xFIP shows that Coors is keeping him down. And lastly, why not give Jon Axford another shot at closing? The Brewers could be in purge mode after this season.

The free agent market has some interesting names in it as well, and remember: one-year deals if possible. Joel Peralta and Jon Rauch are each having very stellar seasons in setup roles, with Rauch having closer experience with the Twins and Blue Jays.  Mike Adams, formerly of Texas, has been a quality bullpen arm for years. And in a crazy, why-the –capital-F-not sort of way, why not take a look at Rich Harden? He’s always been fantastic in small doses, and maybe he would make good at a minor league contract.

It’s a nice quandary to be in, and hopefully Dombrowski knows enough to not pay for saves, and pray to any deity within earshot for Albuquerque and Villereal to stay healthy and keep improving. The options are multiple, and the options are all good.