Now that the Tigers have made the decision to send rookie Bruce Rondon to the minors, manager Jim Leyland will have to decide which pitcher or pitchers will be relied upon to finish games in the ninth inning. Here is a look at the candidates.
A is for Alburquerque, The hard throwing right hander has one of the nastiest sliders in the league, and has a 1.69 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and has struck out 13.5 hitters per nine innings between injuries in parts of the last two seasons. He can be very effective, but two issues here. First, he has to stay healthy go be any value to the team. He first went down after a fluke injury, a ball hit during batting practice struck him in the head during pre game warm ups. Then a hip strain within a week after his return, and then a fracture which required a screw to be placed in the elbow of his pitching arm.
Also, he has a wild streak. The latter is something he has been able to work around, as he tends to not let enough hitters reach base to push a run across. If the team is looking for a reliable option, Al Al has been that guy when he's around. Unfortunately, he's been absent more than present.
B is for Benoit, Ninth inning guy departs, easy. Move up the eighth inning guy, right? That may be what winds up happening. Benoit has been lights out for long periods of time, with just a few gopher balls mixed in between. Actually, 14 home run balls were the most allowed by any reliever in the league last year. But Benoit has been very effective overall since the Tigers targeted him early after the 2010 season and signed him to a three year contract.
Benoit led the club with 71 innings out of the bullpen last year, and other than the home runs, he was very effective. In fact, he gave up a pair of homers in a game four times, but still managed a 1.14 WHIP and was third in the league with 30 holds. Since he is set to be a free agent after this season, taking the closer's role and keeping it would immensely increase his value.
C is for Coke, Tiger fans have memories of "the glove slam" by Coke after he recorded a save to close out a sweep of the Yankees in game four of the ALCS last year. A fan favorite who is best known for his brain and his patented point, Coke can be very effective against left handed hitters. But overall, he posted a 4.00 ERA with a WHIP of 1.65 which was the second highest in the league among relievers with at least 40 innings. Those numbers are inflated by his work against right handed hitters. For good reasons why Coke should not be considered for closer duties, see Kurt's article here. Three years of sheer futility against righties is enough. If Leyland does turn to a committee, we should have no issue with calling on Coke to get lefty hitters out. But you know that he won't pull him when a right hander comes to the plate, and the results for the past three years have not been good when that happens.
D is for Dotel. Octavio has by far the most career saves of any Tiger pitcher on the roster. In fact, he has far more than all of them combined. That should be no surprise, as he has been around longer and been on a record 13 major league clubs in his 14 year career. Dotel has 109 saves for his career, but just eight over the past three seasons.
Dotel was also one of the most effective relievers in the game last year, making 57 appearances and posting a 3.57 ERA with a 1.07 WHIP and striking out 9.6 batters per nine innings. Dotel made another six appearances in the post season without allowing a run, or a hit. He would be my personal first choice to close out a lead in the ninth inning. The issue would be whether he could be relied upon to pitch back to back games for a full season. Durability seems to be a common concern with several of the Tiger relievers who may fill the role of closer.
D is also for Downs. The left hander from Southfield, Michigan, made his major league debut after a long road back from a concussion suffered when he was hit by a line drive during the 2009 season. He threw 20 innings, posting a 3.48 ERA and a 1,30 WHIP. Downs held left handers to a line of .171 .237 .171 .408, but allowed right handers to hit .293 .396 .463 .859. That would make him a, say it with me, LOOGY, not a closer.
D is also for Drew Smyly, who is qualified to be a starting pitcher in the major leagues, but didn't beat out Rick Porcello for the fifth and final spot in the Tiger rotation. Smyly won the a job in the rotation in spring training last year, when star prospect Jacob Turner was given every chance to make the team, but came up short. Smyly pitched very well, throwing 99 innings with a 3.99 ERA and a WHIP of 1.27.
The Tigers want Smyly to get plenty of work, which means multiple inning appearances, so that he will be stretched out as much as possible should the need arise for him to rejoin the rotation. The chances of needing him to start at some point this season are about 98.9 per cent. So what if Smyly was closing out games effectively, then there's an injury to a starting pitcher? This isn't gonna work. I wouldn't hesitate to give him the ball in any situation, against lefty or righty hitters, but he's best in a long relief role because he will inevitably be needed in the rotation.
V is for Villarreal. In his second season in the major leagues, Brayan made 50 appearances, threw 54.2 innings with a solid 2.63 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP while striking out 10.2 hitters per nine innings. He held left handers to a .206 average and right handers to just .190. He did walk 4.6 hitters, but he was effective in almost all situations.Jim Leyland has expressed concerns about his stamina because of a relatively small frame, so he may not throw Villarreal into a heavy duty role as his first choice. He is another, along with Benoit and Dotel, that I would not hesitate to try in save situations regardless of the inning.
Closer by Committee. This is what the Tigers have said they are going to try to start the season. Like they did in the playoffs last year when Jose Valverde imploded and could not be trusted to close out a lead, Jim Leyland will choose a reliever based on the matchup at the time. When clubs say they're doing this, it usually means they will try out one pitcher in the ninth inning and if he's effective, he gets another shot, then another, until he is the unannounced closer, and then they make an announcement.
I do not believe that Jim Leyland, lover of very defined roles for all his players, will stick with a "closer by committe" approach for very long. If he finds a closer among the pitchers that he has in the bullpen, he'll stick with him. If not, he'll be in Dombrowski's office every day asking him when he's going to get one.
Who do you think should be the Tigers' closer to start the 2013 season?