How much is it worth for the Tigers to have a "proven closer" to work the ninth inning starting the 2014 season. They watched their bullpen let leads slip away in the ALCS while they were shut down cold by the Boston Red Sox bullpen. The bullpens were enough to make the difference in the Tigers going to the world series or going home.
The Detroit Tigers have a history under Dave Dombrowski of signing proven closers as free agents to fill the ninth inning role.
Consider the closer chronology of seasons past:
- 2004 - Tigers signed Ugueth Urbina, $4 million salary for 2 years
- 2005 - Tigers signed Troy Percival, $6 million for 2 years
- 2006 - Tigers signed Todd Jones, $5.5 million for 2 years
- 2008 - Tigers extended Todd Jones, $6 million for 1 year
- 2009 - Tigers signed Brandon Lyon, $4.25 million for 1 year
- Lyon lost the closer’s job to Fernando Rodney in Spring Training
- 2010 - Tigers signed Jose Valverde, $7 million for 2 years with a $9 million option for the 3rd year
2013 was the first time that the Tigers did not have a free agent as the favorite to fill the role of closer starting the season. For the most part, the Tigers have filled out the rest of their bullpen with prospects and inexpensive free agents. One notable exception to that rule is Joaquin Benoit.
Following the 2009 season, Dombrowski sought out Benoit and signed him to a three year contract, paying him $5.5 million per season, which was the going rate for a good setup man at the time. While Benoit had been lights out with the Rays during the previous season, the signing was considered something of a risk, since Benoit was just a year removed from surgery and he did not immediately recover.
Dombrowski had to be thinking at the time that, if Valverde were to depart or not perform in the closer’s role, Benoit would be ready to step up. Some speculated that the Tigers might not pick up Valverde's $9 million option for 2012, and would just insert Benoit into the role at a substantial savings. As things went, Valverde was near flawless as a closer and Benoit was fantastic in a set up role, so they brought both of them back and even added veteran Octavio Dotel for another $3 million.
Entering the 2012 season, Detroit had three free agents filling the three key bullpen roles. By season’s end, everything was in turmoil. Valverde’s splitter had split town. Benoit led the league in home runs allowed by a relief pitcher, and Dotel was having elbow issues, but had been the best reliever on the team during the season.
Entering the 2013 season, Dombrowki tried a different plan. The closer's job was given to rookie Bruce Rondon, if he could handle it. He couldn't, so they turned to two familiar former free agents, Valverde and Benoit.
Benoit filled the closer role capably, saving 22 games in 24 chances, with the two blown saves coming in the last week of the season. He cut the home runs allowed from 14 down to just five. He reduced his ERA from 3.68 down to 2.01, and his WHIP from 1.14 to 1.03. He struck out more than a batter per inning and walked a hitter less than three times per nine frames. He became the shut down closer that the team so desperately needed.
Benoit made an infamous critical error during the playoffs when he served up a grand slam to David Ortiz in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the ALCS. With the Tigers holding a 5-1 lead, he came in with the bases loaded to get Ortiz, but hung a "vulcan change" -- which is basically a splitter that didn’t split in classic Valverde style. Benoit had earlier given up a pair of runs to Oakland in the ALDS, with the Tigers holding an 8-4 lead, but he held on for the non save victory. In his final appearance of the postseason, he surrendered a ground rule double and a fluky triple that took a terrible hop over the first base bag to score a run, but also closed out that game for the Tiger win.
Tiger fans could be forgiven for seeing ghosts of Valverde and Benoit past, and wondering if bad Benoit had returned to haunt them. If Dombrowski or Leyland share those concerns, Benoit won't be returning, at any price.
At a $5.5 million salary, Benoit was a relative bargain for a closer. Many closers on the free agent market make $7 million, or $10 million per season and up.
The Tigers got Valverde, the consensus best closer on the free agent market, at a bargain rate of $7 million per season for two years, plus a $9 million option for a third. That was more money than Dombrowski had ever paid for a relief pitcher.
The highest-paid relief pitchers, by average annual value:
- Mariano Rivera - $15,000,000 (2008-10) (2011-12)
- Rafael Soriano - $14,000,000 (2013-14)
- Brad Lidge - $12,500,000 (2009-11)
- Jonathan Papelbon - $12,500,000 (2012-15)
- Francisco Rodriguez, $12,333,333 (2009-11)
- Jonathan Papelbon - $12,000,000 (2011)
- Joe Nathan - $11,750,000 (2008-11)
- Rafael Soriano - $11,666,667 (2011-13)
- Francisco Cordero - $11,500,000 (2008-11)
- Billy Wagner - $10,750,000 (2006-09)
- Kerry Wood - $10,250,000 (2009-10)
- Mariano Rivera - $10,000,000 (2013)
Now, Benoit is a free agent closer, at age 36. There is always a demand for closers, but there is limited demand for aging closers who want long term contracts. Benoit should be able to get a two year contract, but will be hard pressed to get a three year deal.
The Tigers have until five days after the World Series to make Benoit a "qualifying offer" of $14.1 million in order to receive compensation should he leave as a free agent and sign with another team. I would be shocked if they made that offer. The Tigers are likely hoping that they can pay Benoit that much for two years.
MLB Trade Rumors lists the free Agent closers this off season
Grant Balfour (36)
Joaquin Benoit (36)
Rafael Betancourt (39) - $4.25MM mutual option with a $250K buyout
Kevin Gregg (36)
Joel Hanrahan (32)
Casey Janssen (32) - $4MM club option
Ryan Madson (33)
Edward Mujica (30)
Joe Nathan (39) - $9MM club option with a $750K buyout, Nathan may void
Fernando Rodney (37)
Jose Veras (33) - $3.25MM club option with a $150K buyout
Brian Wilson (32)
You can scratch Veras, Janssen, and Betancourt off that list because their options will be picked up. Nathan is expected to void his option and seek a multi-year contract as a free agent.
The Tigers could allow Benoit to walk, and sign another free agent as their closer, or they could try to trade for a closer, or they could install Jose Veras, the former Astros closer, into the ninth inning role, and sign another relief pitcher for set up duties. Or, they could repeat the 2013 plan and hope that they have enough quality arms in the organization to fill the bullpen roles in 2014.
Dave Dombrowski is more likely to favor reliance upon internal options, although he has not been shy in recent years about acquiring veterans for late inning duty. He traded valuable prospects to the Astros to acquire Veras, sending Danry Vasquez and David Paulino to Houston. Veras will more likely fill the role of Octavio Dotel, who is also a free agent and will turn 40 this winter. But Veras could be held as insurance in case Rondon is not able to step up and sieze the role a second consecutive spring.
If the Tigers do extend Benoit, they will only help the team. But if he is offered $10 million per year or more, don’t expect the Tigers to match the bid. Two years and about $15-16 million would be near the top of the range for Benoit.
Dombrowski has left himself open to criticism for failing to address the glaring issues in the bullpen that were present at the end of the 2012 season. He has poured tremendous resources into the lineup and the starting rotation, but the bullpen surrendered a pair of game losing grand slams after starting pitchers had held Boston to one run.
In my view, the Tigers should not just allow Benoit to walk without replacing him, as they did with Valverde after the 2012 season. The decision to throw Ortiz a pitch that had any possibility of hanging out over the plate like it did was a very ill advised pitch to attempt in that situation.
I think they would be foolish to bet on Rondon or Veras being able to step in as the closer in 2014. As much as I believe that closers are over valued and over paid, I think that the Tigers need to fill that role with a pitcher who has demonstrated the ability to handle the job. I would not trade a starting pitcher, such as Rick Porcello, to fill that role.
There are no guarantees with Benoit or any of the other free agent closers. It might be the case that Rondon or Smyly or Veras is just as capaple as any of them. Nathan would be the exception, but he will want a lot of money if he’s going to void a $9 million option and seek a multi year deal at age 39.
The likely scenario is that the Tigers will try to extend Benoit at a reasonable cost for two years, in the $15 million range. If they can’t do that, Dombrowski will probably wait out the market and see who is available in January. Prices always drop after Christmas, when unsigned players begin to get nervous about having a summer job. That’s when he got Valverde at about a 30% discount, and that’s where he will find the help that the Tigers crave for their bullpen in 2014.