Sitting in the upper deck of Comerica park during the tenth inning of game four of the 2012 World Series, I could feel the sense of inevitable doom that had spread throughout Tigerdom. The Tigers were about to be swept by the San Francisco Giants. Although I remained convinced that the Tigers were the better team, and should beat the Giants in any given game, but this sinking feeling was a reaction to events that led up to that final moment of doom.
It wasn't just the fact that the Tigers were not scoring runs, while seemingly every ball that came off San Francisco bats seemed to find a hole somewhere on the field. Although, there’s that. All the momentum was going in the wrong direction, like a tidal wave that drowned the hopes of the Tigers that were so high following a sweep of the New York Yankees when they won the American League pennant.
Tiger hopes were built on the foundation of the best pitching rotation in the major leagues, and an offense that scored enough runs to get by. The Tiger rotation was rock solid in the post season, shutting down opponents game after game. But there was a glaring weakness. From the moment that Jim Leyland removed the starting pitcher from the game, it was nervous time for Tiger fans.
The Tigers have been very fortunate in recent seasons to have a closer who would suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and walk off the mound with the lead in tact. From Todd Jones, dubbed "the roller coaster"by the late great Ernie Harwell, to Fernando Rodney who saved 37 games in 38 chances in 2009, to Jose Valverde’s perfect season going 49 for 49 in 2011, Tiger closers defied the projected outcomes of statistical probability and maintained some of the best save percentages in the game, never falling below an 84% save rate.
The demise of El Papa Grande could have been forecast. From the day that he blew his first save opportunity of the season, to his playoff performances when he allowed nine runs in less than two innings of work, there was a sense that there was an accident waiting to happen. It finally happened at the worst possible moment. Blowing a lead in the ninth inning is the worst feeling a baseball fan can have, and Tiger fans were not used to it.
Tiger fans had waited 28 years for a championship, and as they stood on the doorstep of glory, their closer went AWOL, leaving the bullpen in complete disarray. To make matters worse, Joaquin Benoit had simultaneously developed a case of homeritis in the league division series in Oakland, blowing one lead and coming within inches of blowing another.
Leyland summoned Phil Coke from the pen, and for a while, there was relief. Coke had been reduced almost strictly to the role of a LOOGY, and for good reason. Having allowed a .500 average against right handed batters in second half of the season, and a .446 on base percentage with an OPS over a thousand for the full season, he was not to be trusted against righties. But he was trusted, for lack of a better option, and he came through, for a while.
Coke was on the mound for two saves against the Yankees, including the game that had been blown by Valverde, and he was on the mound for the final two innings of the LCS, sending the Tigers to the World Series. But Phil Coke is not a closer. Not even close.
In the tenth inning of game four of the World Series, the game tied at three, Coke rode a streak of nine scoreless post season appearances to the mound. After two hits by right handed hitters, and a sacrifice between them, the game was no longer tied. Although the Tigers had their big guns coming up, and fans in Comerica waved our towels in the freezing cold, there was a sense that the game was over.
The Giants had something that the Tigers didn’t have- a closer- to finish the game. Sergio Romo struck out the side, and when mighty Miggy had struck out, we watched the Giants celebrate. The Tigers were so close to winning it all, and yet so far.
As fans filed out of the park, in the minds of Tiger fans everywhere, thoughts were swirling about what went wrong, and what needed to be done to take that final step. The end of the season left the bittersweet feeling of a successful season, but one that ended with a heart wrecking thud.
It stands to reason that a team that came so close would not need to make dramatic changes in the off season that follows. Yet, there were areas that needed to be addressed. At a minimum, there were players leaving that needed to be replaced. Delmon Young left, and is replaced by the return of
Jose Valverde Victor Martinez. The massive hole at second base had already been addressed, and the gaping hole in right field was plugged by the addition of Torii Hunter.
Then, there’s that elephant in the living room. Jose Valverde is gone, but who will take his place? According to Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers are happy with their internal options. Specifically, minor leaguer Bruce Rondon, who began the 2012 season in the Florida State League, will be given the chance to win the closer’s job in spring training. If Rondon isn’t ready, Dombrowski mentioned Benoit, Coke, and veteran Octavio Dotel as possible options to close.
What’s wrong with this picture? You have a $ 140 million payroll. You have a team that is primed to win now. You have a hole the size of Montana in your bullpen. You have proven that, when Valverde couldn’t get the job done, there was nobody else suitable to step in. Your bullpen ranked tenth out of 14 teams in the league in ERA last year. Yet you pretend that you have an internal solution? You’re kidding, right?
I don’t mean to disparage Rondon. By all accounts, he has all the tools, and the makeup to be a closer, eventually. In fact, Dombrowski said that they considered bringing him up to the majors in September, but they didn’t. They called up Luis Marte, and Luke Putkonen, but not Rondon. How much has changed since then, other than the failure of the bullpen during the post season, and the departure of Valverde?
There may be some lessons to be learned by looking at what Dombrowski and the Tigers have done when faced with the challenge of filling the role of closer on their roster.
Dombrowski has always, always made the closer position a top priority. He has never hesitated to sign a free agent closer from the day he arrived in Detroit. He has signed Ugueth Urbina, Troy Percival,Todd Jones twice, Brandon Lyon, and Valverde as free agents. Even during a three year span when the Tigers signed no free agents to multi year contracts, closers were signed as needed.
The last time the Tigers handed a job to a player without any major league experience, things didn’t go well. Scott Sizemore was sent to the Arizona fall league instead of being called up to Detroit, but he was at second base on opening day in 2010. We were told that Sizemore was ready for the majors. In reality, the club had decided that they needed to adjust the payroll before acquiring any more players, even to replace the players who were leaving as free agents.
Tiger brass met after the 2009 season, still reeling from a season lost in game 163, and facing a payroll that had escalated and was going to go even higher, even if they replaced every departing free agent internally. Adjustments had to be made to the payroll before any players were added.
When Dombrowski and the Tiger management sorted out their priorities three years ago, they decided that if they added one player, it would be a closer. They let Placido Polanco walk away without so much as an offer of arbitration, for fear that he might accept and be paid $ 6 million. In doing so, a hole was blown in the lineup and in the infield that would not be plugged until July, 2012. They did offer arbitration to both Fernando Rodney and Brandon Lyon, but both players sought multi year deals as free agents.
Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson were swapped that winter for younger, cheaper players. Adam Everett was a cheap option at shortstop, and payroll was cleared, giving Dombrowski some wiggle room to acquire his closer. This is not to say that there weren’t legitimate reasons to make that trade other than money, but the closer was a priority.
The approach that Dombrowski took prior to the 2010 season, which was the last time that the Tigers needed a closer, is also telling. He waited out the market until after Christmas. We all know that after Christmas is the best time of the year to go shopping. Jose Valverde was the best free agent closer on the market that year, having led the National league in saves and having a string of successful seasons in that role.
Despite his impressive record, Valverde was still available in January. He and the Tigers were like a match made in heaven. Dombrowski signed El Papa at about a 30% discount off the going rate for a top closer, which is a rate that the Tigers have never paid to fill that role. The deal was for two years, plus a club option for a third season. A lesser alternative would have been someone like Kevin Gregg. The rest, as they say, is history.
There are similarities in the situation that the Tigers find themselves in currently. Entering the 2010 season, the Tigers had several highly regarded relievers in the system, mainly due to the great relief draft of June, 2008, led by Ryan Perry, who was said to be the closer of the future. Unlike Rondon, Perry had been tested, pitching 61 innings for the Tigers during the previous season. They also had Joel Zumaya and his 100 mph heater. Sound familiar? The inference in Dombrowski’s statements now is that Rondon is different. Rondon is better, we're led to believe.
Dombrowski has been careful not to anoint Rondon as the Tiger closer entering the 2013 season. But if Rondon can’t make the transition from minor league prospect to major league closer, the Tigers don’t have anyone else. The 2012 playoffs proved that, quite conclusively. If Rondon isn’t ready, they’re screwed.
The Tigers need not succumb to the sales pitch of agent Scott Boras, and sign Rafael Soriano, who is the best free agent closer on the market just as Valverde was three years ago. Should his price tag fall through the floor, and it would need to fall significantly in terms of both dollars and years to be realistic, then perhaps the Tigers should take a look.
When Dombrowski identifies a player that fits a need and decides to pursue that player, he acts very quickly, as he did with Torii Hunter and with Joaquin Benoit. This is made possible by the generosity of an owner who is not shy about paying the going rate for a quality player. In this case, there was no such player that stands out. At least not at any reasonable rate. In this case, as in the case three seasons previous, Dombrowski will wait out the market and see what his options are as spring training approaches.
Among the other options are the Giants’ former closer, Brian Wilson, who missed the entire season in 2012 after having surgery, and may be open to a one year contract. He’d also come in with the expectation of being the closer, and Rondon would have to wait his turn. Matt Capps, the former Twins and Pirates closer is a lesser, cheaper option. Joel Hanrahan is said to be on the trade block, and he can fill a closer or a set up role for one season, but he’d cost both money and prospects.
As the season approaches, free agent players who remain unemployed tend to get nervous. The longer Dombrowski can hold out and keep agents convinced that he is willing to enter the season with Rondon and the remnants of the 2012 bullpen, the better deal he can get.
I take solace in the fact that there are closers available, both as free agents and on the trade market, and in looking at Dombrowski’s modus operandi when it comes to filling the role of closer. It is too obvious that the Tigers need, at a minimum, to purchase insurance against the probability that Rondon will not be immediately able to transition into the role. We’ve waited too long, and come too far to fail for lack of a closer.