The images are ingrained forever in the minds of Tiger fans. Phil Coke slamming his glove to the ground as Prince Fielder caught a pop fly to finish off a sweep of the New York Yankees, sending the Tigers to the world series. Perhaps a less vivid memory is Coke allowing a couple of unremarkable base hits to right handed hitters in the tenth inning of game four of the World Series that finished off the Giants’ sweep of the Tigers.
For three years, Jim Leyland handed the ball to Jose Valverde, "El Papa Grande" as he was affectionately known, whenever the Tigers had a lead to protect in the ninth inning. For three years, Valverde slammed the door. 110 out of 118 times, a 93% save rate. He was one of the best closers in the game.
Over three seasons, the Tigers had a closer who allowed opponents a batting average of just .205, who slugged barely .300 and had an OPS barely over .600. Entering the playoffs last year, Valverde had blown just one save opportunity from July 15 through the end of the season. But then, the wheels came off the wagon. Suddenly, the Tigers were without a closer.
Jim Leyland refused to throw his closer under the bus, insisting that Valverde would be available to pitch, and he would not name a replacement closer. That was not only the professional, courteous, and classy thing to do, but it was the only thing Leyland could do. He didn’t name another closer for the simple reason that he didn’t have one.
Joaquin Benoit had also developed a case of home-run allergies, blowing one playoff game and nearly blowing another against Oakland in the league division series. Octavio Dotel was shelled in a save opportunity in Seattle. Phil Coke was regularly slaughtered by right handed hitters, a group which comprises seventy percent of hitters in baseball.
As circumstances would dictate, the Yankees had a very lefty laden lineup, so Coke was given the ball, and he came through with flying colors. In the World Series, not so much. After nine straight appearances without giving up a run, the dam finally broke in extra innings, and the Tiger season was over. Don’t blame Phil Coke, who stepped up like a champion when the team needed him. But the team’s greatest need at the time was pretty obvious for all to see. They needed a closer.
When we polled BYB readers in November about what they felt the biggest off season priority was for the Tigers, closer far out polled every other need.
During the off season, Dave Dombrowski has remained adamant that he felt the team could fill the closer’s role from within. This is not in line with his history, as demonstrated in this article last December Dombrowski’s history of making the closer position a top priority on his winter shopping list is well documented. But this year is different. Bruce Rondon will be given a shot at the closer’s job, and if he can’t cut it, they’ll turn to other in house options.
Dombrowski has systematically and diligently gone about upgrading almost every weakness on the roster. Right field, the designated hitter, and the rotation all have been upgraded. The fact that former Tigers who filled key positions in 2012 are having trouble finding major league contracts only serves to verify the need for a change in those positions. But the one position where an upgrade was most needed at the end of last season remains the biggest question today.
Jim Leyland spoke plenty about the other pitchers in the bullpen during the recent press conferences at Tigerfest. He told us that he basically has no idea who the closer will be. He has not seen Rondon pitch. The key, Leyland said, will be whether he can bounce back after blowing a save opportunity, and treat the next opportunity like it never happened. It’s about the mentality required for the job.
Leyland also went through the other options a few times. These were the same options that he went through in his mind when Valverde wasn’t an option during the post season. Benoit, he said, couldn’t be used multiple times for consecutive games. He could save a game here and there, as could Dotel, or Coke.
So, the closer’s job is now Rondon’s to lose. What are the odds that he’ll take the job and keep it? We’ve all heard about his triple digit heat and his strikeout ability- around 10 K per nine in the minor leagues. He doesn’t allow many home runs, just three in 53 innings last season. He does give up too many walks, 4.4 BB/9 across three levels last season, and over five per nine innings in his minor league career. That is cause for concern.
Rondon has been extremely effective when he throws strikes. Of the 58 batters who reached base off him in 2012, 26 were by walk, and 32 by base hits. That’s good for a WHIP of just 1.09. Whether his stuff, when in the strike zone, is good enough to get past major league hitters is something that remains to be seen.
Rondon wouldn’t be the first rookie to have success in the closer’s role, if he’s able to pull it off. Jonathan Papelbon, Andrew Bailey, Huston Street, and Frankie Rodriguez come to mind. But the number who have been handed the job to start the season and made it all the way through as a rookie is a pretty small number, but it has been done. Here's an interesting list of successful rookie closers at SI.com
Leyland has also expressed a strong preference for having that one guy who will pitch the ninth inning. The Tiger skipper is nothing if not a man who likes his defined roles for players. He won’t be one to stick with a "closer by committee" very long.
The Tigers have some talented relievers in their bullpen. The aforementioned are some, and there is also Al Alburquerque, if he can stay healthy, and a host of others with the stuff to make it. But if the Rondon experiment doesn’t work out, the Tigers could be in for a rocky ride to start the season.
Tiger fans have been incredibly fortunate as far as closers go. While almost every other team, save for the Yankees, has experienced turmoil at the back end of the bullpen in recent seasons, the Tigers have only once had to change closers before last October. That was when "the roller coaster", Todd Jones, finally ran out of gas and the season of expecations was headed down the drain regardless.
The question of what will happen with the Tigers’ closer role is by far the biggest question remaining entering the 2013 season. Dombrowski has systematically plugged every other hole on the roster, to the point where we’re debating whether they should add a platoon partner for the .322 hitting left fielder, or keep one or two guys that are basically pinch runners on the roster. Closer is really the only major concern with this Tiger roster.
Nobody is pulling harder for Rondon to make it than Jim Leyland. Because if Rondon doesn’t make it, Leyland is right back where he was when the Tigers lost Valverde last October. When the media asks who his closer is, he won’t throw the rookie under the bus, but he won’t be so quick to name a new closer either. Because he doesn’t have one.