*editor's note: updated this post after Patrick won the award for worst timing on a pre-scheduled post.
So here we are, just days before the Tigers open the 2013 season, and the biggest question they have is the same question that they ended the 2012 season with. Who is their closer?
Well, we know who's it's not: Bruce Rondon was optioned to Triple-A Toledo, leaving the team with a closer-by-committee after a winter of GM Dave Dombrowski talking up his virtues.
But Jim Leyland wasn’t so comfortable, and he still isn’t. Leyland likes veterans. More importantly, he likes each player to have a pre determined, narrowly defined role. He could do without the veteran if he knew that the rookie could handle the role, but that is far from certain.
The decision was a curious one for Dombrowski to make, particularly for a man who has always made the closer a priority. He hasn’t gone mad, spending over $10 million a year on a closer -- the $9 million option that was picked up for Valverde’s 2012 season was the most they’ve ever paid a relief pitcher. But from Troy Percival to Todd Jones, to Brandon Lyon to Valverde, he has never hesitated to go shopping when the ninth inning job had an opening.
This isn’t the first time that the Tigers have given a critical job to a rookie, sight unseen. When Placido Polanco’s contract expired after the 2009 season and a payroll crunch forced the Tigers to shed salaries before adding any new players, they let Polanco walk and handed the second base job to Scott Sizemore.
Like Rondon, Sizemore had no major league experience. Like Rondon, the organization hyped him beyond what any numbers could justify. Last September, as in 2009, the team was more concerned with the current pennant race than giving a chance for a prospect to get his feet wet in the major leagues.
2009 was also a bit different. The Tigers were cruising along at the beginning of September, well ahead of the second place Twins. They saw playoff revenues, and lots of season ticket sales the following season, in their near future. They actually won most of their games in September, but the Twins went on a tear, beat the Tigers in game 163, and suddenly, the Tigers were in a world of hurt.
Not only did the Tigers miss the playoffs that season, but they had allowed Magglio Ordonez’s $18 million option to vest for the following season. In all likelihood, they never envisioned letting Polanco walk away without so much as an offer of arbitration. They were set to lose their closer, Fernando Rodney, and their set up man in Brandon Lyon, and that was Dombrowski’s priority, so there was no room for Polanco.
The Tigers sent Sizemore to the Arizona fall league, where he broke his leg, and they knew about that going into the 2010 season. As much as they hyped, and sold Sizemore, there were questions, and there was no apparent plan B. The big difference then was that they didn’t have the money to spend on a new second baseman. Money has not been an issue this time around.
We all know what happened. Sizemore showed that he could get on base, but that didn't impress Leyland. He didn't show the kind of pop that he had earlier in the minors, and didn't have great footwork around the bag on his broken ankle. He was sent to Oakland for a washed up left handed reliever named David Purcey, and the Tigers didn't plug the hole at second base until two and a half seasons later. One would hope it doesn't take that long if closer becomes an issue in 2013.
The moves that Dombrowski has made this off season have been very impressive. In one move, the signing of Torii Hunter, he rid the team of a big defensive liability and a big hole in the lineup in right field- finalized by the release of Brennan Boesch. In another move, he extended Anibal Sanchez, giving the Tigers probably the best rotation in the league. Add the return of Omar Infante for a full season and the return of Victor Martinez, and there is plenty of cause for optimism in Detroit.
Sending Rondon down after an offseason of doing nothing about the closer's role may have been a tough choice to make, but ultimately it shows the Tigers may have learned from their prior mistake.