Detroit Tigers’ eternal question: Closer or no closer?


My daughter has a very important test at school this morning. She was nervous that if she did not do well, she would not be able to go to the second grade.

The Tigers’ anointed closer in the winter, Bruce Rondon, has struggled this spring. Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Though I knew this was not the case–she gets very good grades–I still felt the need to reassure her. The test is on reading, and she loves to read. All she has to do is take it question by question, read carefully, and she would do great as usual. It is all physiological, I told her and advised her to read the questions on the test just like she read the book “Monsters Inc.” to me last night. If she does that, she will be just fine.

This logic could be applied to the Detroit Tigers’ closer position.

A lot of attention has been given to this subject, likely because there are few Spring Training storylines and position battles this year in Tiger Town. Certainly it hasn’t helped the situation that Bruce Rondon, the anointed closer throughout the winter, has looked like Jose Valverde in disguise..

The writers at MCB have often picked their favorites, such as Team Alburquerque and Team Benoit. I have leaned toward “Team Coke,” rationalizing that Phil Coke was solid in pressure packed postseason appearances in that role, so it should be his job to lose. However, I have been more “Team Anyone But Rondon” than “Team Coke.”

It was Coke who may have snapped me out of this and made me believe something entirely different: closer by committee.

Those three words often make a baseball fan’s stomach churn–and usually I am no different, but Coke had some valid points in a discussion with’s Jason Beck.

"“…I think we have three guys that have [closed] already,” Coke said. “We’ve got a guy that we’re working on to have him do it. And if he doesn’t end up being able to do the job, somebody’s going to be there to do the job.“I don’t understand why there’s a panic button. We’re not going to die. We’re not all going to die if we don’t have a closer. If we go out there and we need to have a guy step into a situation, we will. If it’s a closer by committee, it’s a closer by committee. If [Rondon’s] the closer, he’s the closer.”"

Phil Coke pumps his fist as he leaves the field while holding a baby after game four of the 2012 ALCS against the New York Yankees at Comerica Park. Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

After giving the closer situation a little more thinking–and applying the logic from the conversation with my daughter this morning–I came to the conclusion that I may join with Chris Hannum on “Team Nobody.”

A reliever’s goal is to allow no hits, walks, and runs and to strand any runners on base that were inherited. Closers have the same goal. Certainly there is more pressure involved in getting the final three outs, and fans are more upset when a closer loses a lead, than when the set-up man or middle-reliever coughs it up in the 6th, 7th or 8th inning.

Like that daunting first grade test, it’s all in the mind. Pitching in the ninth should be no different to a professional athlete than pitching in any other inning. Whether it is Al Alburquerque, Joaquin Benoit, Coke, or Rondon–they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps a rotation would minimize those weaknesses (for instance Alburquerque’s durability concerns).

Rotating guys every couple of days would not be the worst thing in the world. It seemed like when Valverde would pitch in two or three games of a series against the same opponent, the team would figure his stuff out by the second or third appearance. A different guy closing out games each night could fool hitters who can’t get a feel for the same guy each night.

So we’ll see how the closer situation shakes out in the three weeks left in Spring Training, but one thing I would hate to see is Rick Porcello shipped to Chicago for Carlos Marmol. That would be a horrible move, and one that will be made out of perceived desperation. If traded, Porcello deserves more in return than an average closer making $10 million this year, who is a free agent after the season.