Okay, so it’s not even May yet, so it’s easy to say “it’s early” when Fernando Rodriguez turns in a shaky outing.
That being said, his blown save in Miami and close call in Kansas City are definite red flags for a team that seems to be cursed with the inability to have a good closer. He’s already being compared to Joe Nathan, a common nickname being “Joe Nathan 2.0.” Although K-Rod only has one blown one save, he does appear more hittable now than in past years, and even though it’s early, a 7.11 ERA unsettling for someone whose job is to hold a narrow lead in the 9
Although K-Rod only has one blown one save, he does appear more hittable now than in past years, and even though it’s early, a 7.11 ERA unsettling for someone whose job is to hold a narrow lead in the 9th inning. The most frustrating part is knowing that if he has a bad year he’ll just be another chapter in the Tigers’ book of failed closers. As much as it seems like the team just has incredibly bad luck with closers, the cause may be a little more obvious than people think.
The trend of bad closers started in 2006, or at least that’s when everyone started noticing it – because that’s when the Tigers became sudden contenders and the roles began to matter. Here’s a timeline of closers since 2006:
2006-2008: Todd Jones
2009: Fernando Rodney
2010-2012: Jose Valverde
2013: Closer by committee / Joaquin Benoit
2014: Joe Nathan
2015: Joakim Soria / Closer by committee
2016: Fernando Rodriguez…
Those years weren’t all bad, Jose Valverde was good in 2010 and 2011 before falling apart in 2012 and early 2013, Joaquin Benoit was good for most of 2013 before slipping up in late in the season and in the postseason, Joakim Soria was very solid to start 2015 but ended up getting dealt away because the team was freefalling and needed prospects.
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Something that the bad closers all share in common isn’t just the fact that they were old, but they just happened to be at the end of their career. Todd Jones retired after 2008, Jose Valverde, despite going through a couple more organizations, was never relevant again after his stint with the Tigers, and Joe Nathan more than likely threw his last pitch when he blew his arm out in 2015.
The hope is that K-Rod doesn’t follow that path. As for the others on that list, Fernando Rodney was never that good in the first place, and outside of 2012 and 2014, has never been that good; Joaquin Benoit, despite his late-season mistakes (including his unforgivable pitch to David Ortiz), was good with the Tigers and continues to be good without them; and Joakim Soria was good when he finally got healthy and will more than likely be good with the Royals.
The mistake the Tigers have been making repeatedly is buying veteran closers and catching them at the tail end of their career. Although it seems like a good idea to buy someone who’s proven, the downside is the fact that even the greatest pitchers expire. Let’s look at how some of the greater closers in the league became who they are:
- Greg Holland (before his injury): Came up as a reliever in late 2010, didn’t find his all-star form until 2013
- Wade Davis: Started as a starter with the Rays in 2009, traded to the Royals in 2013, converted to a reliever in 2014 as has been lights out ever since
- Trevor Rosenthal: Came up as a reliever in 2012 and has been All-Star caliber almost the whole time
- Aroldis Chapman: Came up as a reliever in 2010, found his All-Star form in 2012
- Craig Kimbrel: Came up as a reliever late in 2010 and has been All-Star caliber ever since
With the exception of Craig Kimbrel and Trevor Rosenthal, all of those good closers took time before being great. The Detroit Tigers have had a win now attitude pretty much since 2006, but really since about 2011-2012 when it became clear that their time is now and their core won’t last forever. The problem with that is that they don’t have time to try to develop a good closer in their own system. Developing a good closer can take years if you include the fact that there’s a lot of trial and error and inevitably you’ll have some duds.
The one time the Tigers seemingly attempted to develop their own closer is when they brought up Bruce Rondon in 2013. Unfortunately, he just hasn’t worked. The Royals having such a great bullpen came at a slight cost, over the years they had a lot of players go through their system who didn’t pan out before getting the combination they have today. It just didn’t matter back then because they were bad and had nothing to lose. Although there are occasional relievers who are great as soon as they hit the majors, that is rare, and since the Tigers have been good for a while they’re not going to get the high draft picks that are usually needed for that.
The only other option for the Tigers is trying to acquire a young closer who has his best years ahead of him. The problem is that’s a lot easier said than done. When closers are good in their early years, teams tend to lock them up and make them nearly untouchable. On the rare occasion that a team is willing to deal them, they will ask for a king’s ransom. With the Tigers just now restocking their depleted farm system, they are in no shape to trade away top prospects, and they can’t afford to give up much of their big league roster. The only thing that leaves them with is the free agent relievers who are proven but not young anymore.
Although the bullpen curse is becoming a new tradition for the Tigers, it may be a little simpler than a curse. For a team that can’t spend years trying to groom relievers and produce a home-grown closer and can’t afford a young expensive closer, buying aged closers is really just the next best option for the team. The question for now is whether or not K-Rod can anchor down the 9th inning this season.