Detroit Tigers’ Closing Issue Has No Easy Solution


Drew Smyly for closer?? Some Tigers’ fans say so. Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

The struggles of Jose Valverde have been well chronicled, so let’s not look at his foibles this time, but instead the possible solutions that many fans of the Detroit Tigers have been suggesting in recent weeks.

Solution #1: Make Smyly Closer

With apologies to Joaquin Benoit, Drew Smyly has been the most consistent reliever this season. In addition to his strong year, he has allowed manager Jim Leyland to have some flexibility. If the team needs him to come in for long innings, they have that option. If they want him to go two innings on a day that Benoit may not be unavailable as the set-up man, they also have that option. Even if they’d like him to get a rare three-inning save, he can do that as well, as he did last night.

Smyly would likely do pretty well as closer. This would be a good option if the Tigers had someone to replace Smyly in his current role, but they do not.

Solution #2: Trade for Papelbon or Another Closer

Jonathan Papelbon has been a closer on a championship level and is currently marooned on a team in Philadelphia going nowhere. Some believe that the Phillies may not want a prized prospect out of the Tigers’ somewhat depleted farm system because they may look at moving Papelbon as a salary dump.

But therein lays the rub for Detroit. The contract, worth $50 million, runs through 2015, with a vesting option for 2016. While that’s not a lot considering the scope of the salaries of Prince Fielder, Justin Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez, remember a closer likely only pitches three to four innings per week–so its a lot when you consider pay per appearance. It could also hamper the chances of keeping Miguel Cabrera in a Tigers’ uniform.

It’s also worth noting, teams may smell blood in the water for the Tigers, knowing that the bullpen is their one true weakness. Don’t expect any team to give up something for almost nothing. Everything has a cost.

Solution #3 Flip Valverde and Benoit

Are you on the Team Benoit bandwagon? Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

This is not something that has been mentioned a lot because many Tigers’ fans want Valverde completely off the team, but a decent suggestion would be to flip Valverde and Benoit and give Papa Grande the eighth inning and Benoit the ninth. This not only satisfies those in Team Benoit for closer, but also addresses the problem that would arise with him in that role: who takes the eighth?

If Octavio Dotel was healthy, a great solution would be Dotel set-up man, Benoit closer. But it’s looking unlikely Dotel will pitch anytime soon. Valverde has shown he can pitch decently when the game is not on the line in non-save situations. While he would receive the blown save stat if he surrenders an eighth inning lead, the team would still have an opportunity to come back. Perhaps that would put Valverde at ease just a bit.

Solution #4: Fire Leyland

The popular refrain of “Fire Leyland” has reached a fevered pitch over the last couple weeks that Valverde has struggled. Fans who hate that Leyland even breathes the same air that they do are off base on this one. It’s really simple: the manager makes the dinner with the groceries the general manager provides.

Perhaps fans should be yelling “Fire Dombrowski” into the echos of the internet and sports talk radio. Dave was the one who didn’t go after a closer when Valverde hit the skids in the postseason. He was the one who deemed Bruce Rondon ready to close, and that’s why the Tigers are in the situation they are now.

If anything, Leyland has been willing to evolve when the closer struggles. He decided he would not use Valverde again in a closing role after blowing two games in the playoffs last year. Then Sunday, with Valverde rested from a day off on Saturday, Jim chose to stay with Benoit in the ninth after he got the final two outs in the eighth.

Truth be told, no one should be fired right now. But whatever theory you may subscribe to that will instantly solve this bullpen problem–think again. It is not as easy as you might believe.