The answer to the Tigers' closer woes seems so obvious I cannot help but put a palm to my forehead. Drew Smyly.
Yes, I've used this space and other places to tout the young left-hander, because he's one of the best pitchers in the bullpen. After a promising start to his bullpen year, in which Leyland had him throw multiple late innings, he was consigned to mop-up duty for awhile there. I don't know if the theory was attempting to keep him stretched out or trying to save the rest of the bullpen. But for whatever the reason, a player who could have been a key late-inning figure was throwing in lost causes.
Is that beginning to change? On Wednesday, Smyly tossed in the eighth and was allowed to continue in the ninth. (To be fair here, he allowed a baserunner, who later scored. Y) That was the first situation Smyly came into since May 17 that constituted a save situation. I can't say for sure whether he would have finished the game successfully for the Tigers -- but I can say I have a lot more faith in Smyly doing so than Valverde.
Now that Smyly is no longer stretched out to start -- thus Jose Alvarez being called up for a spot-start Sunday in place of Anibal Sanchez -- the best solution would be to use Smyly in the closer role.
Smyly has the second-best ERA in the bullpen (2.11, behind Joaquin Benoit's 1.93). He has the best Fielding Independent Pitching (2.23). For the SIERA fans, he's third best (2.94) behind Benoit and Darin Downs. He's striking out more than a batter per inning (25.7 percent of plate appearances) and has the second-lowest walk rate (7.2 percent).
What about splits? Can a left-hander close? Why not? True, he's better against lefties, holding them to .127 batting average and .285 OPS in 2013. But .267 and .767 against right-handers isn't exactly Phil Coke territory. Beside that, Smyly is already allowed to face right-handers with regularity and the results this season speak for themselves.
The only good argument I can find against Smyly closing is that he's too good of a reliever to be "wasted" in the ninth inning. Your closer doesn't have to be your best pitcher. He just has to get three outs without giving up the lead. The key moment in a baseball game isn't always in the ninth inning. Sometimes it's in the sixth, seventh, or eighth. Maybe the starter runs out of gas and leaves a few base runners. Somebody has to get the job done.
Seeing as this is Jim Leyland we're talking about, that's just playing "theoretical" baseball. In reality, he doesn't think that way, nor do most managers in the game. There are few roving "firemen." So in reality, using bullpens as they are actually used, Smyly would make an excellent closer candidate.
The Tigers can find plenty of other players to mop up uncompetitive games. What they need is one they can trust consistently at the end of the game.
That player is Drew Smyly.