As you know, Tigers closer Jose Valverde was injured Tuesday night while warming up in the bullpen during the eighth inning. He didn't seem too concerned during his locker room interview on Fox Sports Detroit, but the Tigers reportedly had him undergo X-rays and an MRI to be sure. We're yet to hear results. But this isn't the first injury that kept Valverde from finishing his duties, either. In May, he left the game with back troubles and missed more than a week. That has people thinking: If Valverde is out for any period of time, who takes over the ninth-inning duties for Detroit?
Some want to shoe-horn rookie Brayan Villarreal into this role. He has a 1.31 ERA this season, 0.919 WHIP and 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings. Oh, and his fastball is averaging 97 miles per hour. So he fits the bill of a shut-down, fireball throwing closer pretty well, it would seem. It's almost certainly not going to happen.
The Tigers, during GM Dave Dombrowski's years, have shown little desire to trust the game's final inning to the uninitiated during a season he expects the team to win games. In 2004, he brought in Ugueth Urbina, who had six seasons with at least 20 saves before he came to Detroit. He continued in that position until he was traded for Placido Polanco midway through 2005. In 2006, with Urbina gone and Troy Percival's career feared over, Dombrowski brought the veteran Todd Jones back to town. After 2006, all the hype was about how Joel Zumaya, another hard-throwing strikeout pitcher, was closer-in-waiting. Jones continued in his role through 2008. Fernando Rodney, by now long apprenticed in the late innings, stepped up for a season in 2009 when the Tigers spent little more during the offseason. A popular thought was that after he inevitably declared free agency, the Tigers could again promote from within -- the recently drafted former college reliever Ryan Perry was one such name discussed. Instead, Dombrowski went to the market himself and brought in Valverde.
The Tigers played eight games this May while Valverde was unable to pitch. They lost most of them due to low-scoring efforts and seldom had the lead in the late innings. In one of the wins, the starter went the distance. So it's hard to look to past actions to see what Detroit might do.
However, Joaquin Benoit did pitch during the team's only ninth-inning save opportunity. Phil Coke earned a promotion to the eighth inning. Octavio Dotel remained in the seventh. So it seems most likely the Tigers would continue to view that as the pecking order. They remain cautious about not overworking Benoit due to past injury concerns, so if he couldn't go I suspect we'd see Coke. As for Villarreal, he might earn an apprenticeship with a few more eighth inning performances, but I wouldn't expect any big changes out of Detroit's bullpen usage.
Benoit has just 12 saves for his career, but the thought entering 2011 after his success with the Rays was that he might be due to move into a high-priced closer's role, despite his injury history. He chose to take the eighth inning in Detroit instead. Since then, he has a 2.62 ERA with 1.10 WHIP. This season he's striking out batters at his best rate yet -- 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings, though he is offering more free passes (3.7 / 9 IP) as well. Still, Tigers fans would undoubtedly feel comfortable with him in the closer's role.
The true loss of Valverde would likely be felt in the middle innings. Now instead of having Villarreal and Octavio Dotel available in the sixth or seventh innings, there'd be a space open for another middle reliever and Luis Marte pitching in more leveraged innings. Luke Putkonen is already on the team. Already on the 40-man roster, Thad Weber could rejoin the Tigers (but not immediately, of course, due to recently being optioned). Jose Ortega and Adam Wilk are both on the 40-man roster as well. None are exactly exciting options.
So you could probably feel pretty confident about the late innings -- some might point out more confident, given Valverde's stumbles this year. But expect a continued mess in the middle innings. If Valverde was out long term, one should probably expect the Tigers to trade for bullpen depth, depending on how confident they feel about Al Alburquerque's return.