Managers, general managers, and executives have come and gone, but finding an adequate heir to the Willie Hernandez-throne of stopper has continually eluded the Detroit Tigers. It is noteworthy that the ‘high points’ over the last 20 years have been three high wire acts (Todd Jones, Fernando Rodney and Jose Valverde), that caused extreme emotional distress even when they somehow managed to earn the save. As for the low points… they have been indelibly etched into the memories of Tiger fans young and old alike, culminating in the total collapse against the Orioles in the 2014 ALDS.
The most pressing need in returning to the postseason in 2016 is finding 350+ innings of quality starting pitching, but 2013 demonstrated that even assembling the best starting staff in MLB is not sufficient to win a championship. The 2015 playoff teams account for seven of the top 12 bullpens as rated by ERA and all have effective 9th inning men, so examining how they found their closers may be instructive in identifying closer candidates for 2016. The options can be broken down into six archetypes. Stats and salaries are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.
1) The big free agent closer (Andrew Miller, Yankees, salary -- $9 million, WAR -- 2.3). Surprisingly, five of the 10 teams have closers making near the league minimum and all 10 are making less than what the Tigers paid Joe Nathan to retire a single batter this season. What a depressing way to start this whole exercise! It turns out other holes can be patched if you don’t blow the budget on a player that pitches 60-70 innings a year. This notion should give us all pause before we conclude that the best course of action to solve the long running closer problem is to throw more money at it. See also Percival, Troy.
2016 Candidates: This is not a banner year for free agent closers. If Brad Ziegler’s option is picked up by the Diamondbacks, Joakim Soria is the best of a bad lot. Honorable mention: Jonathan Papelbon is basically a free agent as the Nationals would probably give him away if the recipient team pays most of his salary.
My take: Pass. I enjoyed watching Soria, but his price tag is too high. Paps? Nah, Tigers closers choking have been an all too frequent occurrence as is.
2) The career set-up man (Luke Gregerson, Astros, salary -- $6M, WAR -- 0.8). The aura of the ’save’ stat among some fans makes it seem like some special characteristic separates set-up men from closers, but the titles are mostly just create arbitrary distinctions. But, overall, this is still not a great place to shop because the going rate for top set-up men has gone up of late and they often have more mileage on their arms.
2016 Candidates: Darren O’Day, Tyler Clippard, Tony Sipp, Antonio Bastardo, Tommy Hunter, Carlos Villanueva.
My Take: I would kick the tires on O’Day and Sipp to see what the market is.
3) The bounce back candidate (Mark Melancon, Pirates, salary -- $5.4 million, WAR -- 1.9). After being a closer for Houston earlier in his career, Melancon bombed in Boston in 2012 to the tune of -0.5 WAR before being traded to the Pirates after his one disastrous season in Beantown. 6.3 WAR in the next three seasons eventually earned him the closer’s job from former Tiger Jason Grilli, who was a nice bounce back candidate himself this season for the Braves.
2016 Candidates: Fernando Rodney, Alfredo Simon, Neftali Feliz.
My Take: I would tender Feliz a contract and gamble that he will be better in 2016 after a few glimpses of competence in late 2015. It doesn’t sound like Al Avila is inclined to do so based on his recent comments.
4) The effective guy already there (Wade Davis, Royals, salary -- $7 million, WAR -- 3.4. Shawn Tolleson, Rangers, salary -- $520K, WAR -- .8. Jeurys Familia, Mets, salary -- $524K, WAR -- 2.7. Hector Rondon, Cubs, salary -- $544K, WAR -- 2.1) As stated frequently on Bless You Boys since last off-season, a good strategy to building a bullpen is collecting high variance arms like lottery tickets and seeing who pans out and who doesn’t. Of course, it also helps to have a manager who puts the best pitchers in the highest leverage situations and is not inextricably tied to unbreakable bullpen roles. Hmmm….
2016 Candidates: Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy.
My Take: Give Willie a shot. He had 1.7 WAR in 2015.
5) The former starting pitcher prospect (Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals, salary -- $535K, WAR -- 2.6. Roberto Osuna, Blue Jays, salary -- $507K, WAR -- 1.7). The eternal debate for top starting pitching prospects like Aroldis Chapmen and Rosenthal is whether it is worth it to take a potential 200-inning starter and make him a reliever who only pitches around 70 innings. In the case of Drew Smyly in 2013, this change can be extremely beneficial on a temporary basis. It can also greatly expedite the arrival time of a pitcher. Osuna pitched in A ball in 2014.
2016 Candidates: Buck Farmer, Drew VerHagen, Jairo Labourt, Luis Cessa, Michael Fulmer.
My Take: Farmer and VerHagen are probably a given as relievers at this point. Fulmer is an interesting sleeper. He might be needed in the rotation long term if his durability issues remain in the past, but 2016 might be an opportunity to break him into the majors through high-leverage innings in the bullpen.
6) The minor league relief ace (Kenley Jansen, Dodgers, salary -- $7.4 million, WAR -- 1.4). Jansen was originally a catcher before being converted to a closer in the minors. Since his 2010 arrival in LA, he has fanned 14 batters per nine innings and racked up nearly 10 WAR. This is no doubt the trajectory that the organization hoped that Bruce Rondon (or Ryan Perry) would’ve taken by now, but Rondon represents a huge question mark heading into 2016 and can’t be expected to make much of a contribution.
2016 Candidates: Bruce Rondon, Angel Nesbitt, Paul Voelker, Joe Jimenez.
My take: The latter two seem more like 2017 ETAs. Rondon and Nesbitt are total enigmas.
Ultimately, there are more pressing areas than closer that need investment. Many of the playoff teams have modestly priced closers that frequently outperform expensive name brand closers. The goal should be to look for reasonable bargains in free agency and keep stockpiling quality arms.