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Exploring Alternatives to Jonathan Papelbon


Consider me convinced. If getting ahold of Jonathan Papelbon (even if the Phillies would give him up in a pure salary dump, which I doubt) would require a 2014 middle infield of Hernan Perez and Danny Worth, I’m agin’ it. But… that doesn’t mean that the Tigers ‘pen is in the shape it needs to be to win playoff series.

As I noted earlier, I’d say it’s a little early to simply give up on the Tigers late inning guys at the moment. Things may look less desperate in mid-July than they do right now. But, since my personal opinion on the matter seems to be in a tiny minority it’s worth taking a look at who the Tigers might want to target to close games other than Mr. Papelbon.

May 15, 2013; Bronx, NY, USA; Seattle Mariners relief pitcher

Oliver Perez

(59) pitches against the New York Yankees during the eighth inning at Yankee Stadium. Seattle won 12-2. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

The complicating factor, as always, is that most teams are not going to be in a “sell” mode now and with the second wild card fewer will be in a sell mode in late July as well. There are a few teams that seem hopelessly out of it, but three of those (the Angels, Dodgers and Blue Jays) had such high expectations going in to the season – and such salary commitments – that it’s hard to imagine them doing anything but doubling down. So… we’ll limit this to good relievers not earning $13 million on teams out of contention that aren’t faced with the crushing weight of expectations and, critically, are not playing in the AL Central.

That limits our potential trading partners to 6 teams: The Astros, Mariners, Cubs, Brewers, Mets and Marlins. Cutting out the Twins, Royals and White Sox – teams that frankly might have a shot (since the Tigers haven’t quite performed up to their Pythagorean Record) in addition to the fact that they’re unlikely to want to help their divisional opponent midseason – hurts since all three of those teams have relatively strong bullpens. We also know that Jim Leyland puts a lot of faith in “closer experience” so we’ll look especially hard at guys who have a little of that.

There are two potential targets here, neither of which are guys you’re likely to get excited about: Chad Qualls and Jon Rauch. Both have pitched pretty well, by the measure of FIP (though Rauch has an extremely high BABIP and hence ERA at the moment). Both could probably be had for a song and would not involve big commitments for 2014. Either would represent a definite upgrade over certain less impressive members of the Tigers bullpen crew and have experience closing games.

Closer Bobby Parnell ought to attract the Tigers interest. He’s relatively cheap at the moment and has one more arbitration year in 2014. He has been pretty darn good over the past 4 years, mostly in a setup role. I’d imagine he’d cost a fair bit to get ahold of – but… If the Tigers don’t want to shell all that out, they might be able to get Brandon Lyon (3.29 FIP) or LaTroy Hawkins (4.16 FIP) for a lot less.

The Mariners have an awful closer in Tom Wilhelmsen and aren’t going to want to deal anybody young, cheap and talented. As much as I’d like to see Charlie Furbush brought back to take Phil Coke‘s job, I’d say that he fits into the second category. One guy that might help Detroit now, that the Mariners might not have a problem dealing, would be Oliver Perez. He’s over 30, signed on a 1-year contract, and he’s just blowing guys away as a situational reliever. I’m sure they’d get a resounding “WHAT???!” from the Tiger-sphere if they were to pick up Perez and immediately install him in the closer role, but to me it would look (dare I say it) canny.

The only name here worth mentioning is closer Jose Veras. He IS good, if not exactly elite, and he’s one of the most “expensive” Astros and one of the few remaining veterans that hasn’t yet been dealt. He’s pretty cheap, with a $3.25 million team option for 2014. Though he’s widely expected to be dealt before the deadline, he’s not going to be an “under the radar” pickup and chances are the Astros are going to take their time looking for the best possible offer – after all, the Astros bullpen under Veras is terrible and the franchise does not want the ignominy of a run at 120 losses.

There is a plethora of candidates to discuss here, first of which is fallen closer John Axford. Axford has nasty stuff that somehow stopped leading to actual run prevention sometime last year. As a result of his success in 2010 and 2011, Axford got a salary in his first arb-elibible year of $5 million with 3 more arbitration years remaining and no possibility of a pay cut. Sounds like a non-tender to me, unless he sets the world on fire over the next 4 months, and a guy that could be had for a minimal prospect outlay. He could very well set the world on fire, but the question would be whether the Tigers have any interest in a reclamation project. A similar question should be asked about Francisco Rodriguez (though it looks like the Brewers might have already rejuvenated him) who has an 0.76 ERA since being brought up and put in the closer role. The Brewers also have Mike Gonzalez, who has put up a 2.78 ERA so far for the Brew Crew and is striking 12 per 9, much like he was doing when he was closing games for the Braves a while back. Add to all that the “bullpen ace” for the Brewers – Jim Henderson – who has apparently lost his closer role while on the DL (and is pre-arbitration-eligible) and it looks like Doug Melvin would be somebody worth calling.

We know Carlos Marmol would be available and cheap, we also doubt that Carlos Marmol would do anything to improve the Tigers bullpen. Kevin Gregg is a guy that the Cubs claimed off the scrap heap who is actually pitching well, if not as well as his 0.92 ERA would suggest. He’s not a guy that is going to factor into their long-term plans and if he can keep pitching like he has he’d be a definite upgrade for Detroit.