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Detroit Tigers finding lack of options on 'proven closer' market

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The Tigers need a closer, but the market for "proven" closers is very thin, leaving a couple of former Tigers as the best options.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers have had ninth inning issues since Jose Valverde melted down at the end of the 2012 season. They struggled in their march to the World Series that year, eventually demoting Valverde from the closer role. They went from Phil Coke's glove slam against the New York Yankees to Joaquin Benoit giving up a grand slam against the Boston Red Sox the following October. Each season, the results were the same.

Detroit went shopping for a closer prior to the 2014 season. After a couple of payroll-shuffling trades, the Tigers bought the most expensive reliever on the market in Joe Nathan, just as they had done three years prior with Valverde. Nathan, as we know, flopped. He allowed a 4.81 ERA and 3.94 FIP in 58 innings in 2014, converting 35 of 42 save opportunities.

Joakim Soria was acquired prior to the July 31 trade deadline in 2014 to be a set up man for Nathan. Just as Benoit served as Valverde's setup man, Soria eventually inherited the ninth inning role. Both Soria and Benoit capably filled the closer role until their time in Detroit was done. After dealing Soria at the trade deadline in 2015, the Tigers are back where they started, looking for a closer and a setup man. And none of the internal options look capable of filling either role.

Tigers general manager Al Avila acknowledged the importance of strengthening the bullpen when he spoke to reporters last Thursday, but recognized the reality of this year's free agent market.

"That’s a tough task. If you look at projected free agents out there, I don’t know that there are any. It’s something that we could get via trade, say a legitimate closer. But this is an area we’re going to be experimenting, exploring, whether it be with the use of analytics in combination with our scouts — can we come up with a couple of names that have the potential to be closers?

"And that’s going to be very important. Because sitting here today, I can’t tell you that there’s an absolute closer right there that we’re locked in on. So we really have to explore every avenue to figure out who can do that job for us."

The easy thing to do when shopping for a closer is to peruse the list of pitchers with some closing experience. But this winter, the list is not very appealing.

Former Tigers
Player IP SV ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP fWAR
Joe Nathan (2014) 58.0 35 4.81 1.53 8.38 4.50 0.78 3.94 0.0
Fernando Rodney 62.2 16 4.74 1.40 8.33 4.16 1.29 4.92 -0.7
Joakim Soria 67.2 24 2.53 1.09 8.51 2.53 1.06 3.71 0.4
Jim Johnson 66.2 10 4.46 1.46 6.75 2.70 0.68 3.73 0.3
Has saves, will travel
Player IP SV ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP fWAR
Tyler Clippard 71.0 19 2.92 1.13 8.11 3.93 1.01 4.28 0.2
Edward Mujica 47.1 1 4.75 1.25 5.70 1.33 1.90 5.12 -0.5
Bobby Parnell 24.0 1 6.38 1.96 4.88 6.38 0.00 4.18 -0.1
Tommy Hunter 60.1 1 4.18 1.24 7.01 2.09 1.04 3.83 0.3
Brandon League (2014) 63.0 0 2.57 1.46 5.43 3.86 0.00 3.40 0.3
Team options
Player 2016 option IP SV ERA WHIP K/BB FIP fWAR
Joaquin Benoit $8 million 65.1 2 2.34 0.90 2.74 3.75 0.3
Brad Ziegler $5.5 million 68.0 30 1.85 0.96 2.12 3.44 0.6
Chad Qualls $3.25 million 49.1 4 4.38 1.11 5.11 3.52 0.5
Casey Janssen $7 million 40.0 0 4.95 1.15 3.38 4.08 0.0
Jonathan Broxton $9 million 60.1 0 4.62 1.38 2.86 3.65 0.3
Joel Peralta $2.5 million 29.0 3 4.34 1.24 3.00 5.00 -0.3

That leaves four former Tigers, five deposed closers and six others with options held by their current clubs. None of the above spent the full 2015 season as a closer, and just one finished the season in a closer role. All in all, not exactly a smorgasbord of healthy options. The most attractive options on the list of current or recent closers might be the former Tigers.

Soria worked well in the closer’s role with Detroit, saving 23 games in 26 chances with a 2.85 ERA in 41 innings pitched. However, he was not without issues. He struck out just 7.90 batters per nine innings, well below his career rate, and he gave up a whopping 1.76 home runs per nine innings. This led to a 4.87 FIP with the Tigers, the worst of his career by more than a full run. Luckily, his low walk rate and batting average allowed kept the damage to a minimum.

Soria sorted those issues out in Pittsburgh, allowing a 2.03 ERA while striking out 9.5 batters per nine innings. He didn’t allow a home run in 26 2/3 innings, yielding an attractive 1.93 FIP. If the Tigers are going to go the old route and sign a "proven" free agent closer, Soria is their best option on the free agent market.

Benoit has an $8 million option (with a $1.5 million buyout) with the San Diego Padres for the 2016 season. He has been used in an eighth inning role since signing with San Diego as a free agent after the 2013 season, first setting up for Huston Street and then Craig Kimbrel. Benoit worked 65 innings in 2015 with a 2.34 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, and 63 strikeouts to 23 walks.

Benoit, now 38, says that he would like to pitch for a few more seasons, but he is under contract for just one more season. Eight million dollars for a setup man is relatively expensive, but he still has some trade value. With several teams looking for a new closer, the Padres will likely pick up Benoit's $8 million option and potentially look to trade him.

Other players with team options are in a similar situation as Benoit. If the player is worth the salary, his current club will exercise the option and either keep or trade him. Ziegler is a bargain at $5.5 million for either a closer or a good setup man. Janssen was the closer in Toronto, and may eventually inherit the role in Washington after their current mess is cleaned up. Broxton’s closing days are in the past, while Peralta and Qualls are good relievers who may be worth trading for if available.

Of the deposed closers, Tyler Clippard may be the most attractive with a 2.92 ERA in 71 innings between Oakland and the Mets in 2015. An uncanny 81% left-on-base rate, together with elevated walk and home run rates suggest some regression is in order, although his extreme fly ball tendencies gravitate towards these types of numbers.

As Avila prepares to do his winter shopping, he can benefit from the hard-learned lessons of the past by at least knowing what not to do with the bullpen.

  1. Don’t spend the entire budget on a multi-year deal for a "proven closer" and neglect the rest of the bullpen.
  2. Don’t rely on Bruce Rondon, Joba Chamberlain, Neftali Feliz, or any other pitcher who was not successful the previous season to fill a major role in 2016.