A few weeks ago, Tigers general manager Al Avila appeared on MLB Network's Hot Stove and shared his basic philosophy on bullpen-building: grow your own, that's the best way. I completely agree, even if I also rolled my eyes when I heard him say it, because let's be honest -- the Tigers? Grow a decent bullpen out of their butt-of-the-joke farm-system? There's not even a scale in existence that can measure how cynical I feel about that idea.
A couple of days ago, Avila doubled down on Christopher Russo's High Heat program.
"We feel also in the near future we may have a closer -- maybe even two -- coming from our own system. And I've always said, the best closer, sometimes, comes from your own system if you can create them from your own system. And I do believe that by not trading some of these [young] guys away we may be able to come up with a really, really good one at some point down the stretch if needed."
Wait, say what? There's already a "really, really good" closer already in the system, and maybe even two?!
Well, well, well, let the unbridled speculation and drooling begin!
This statement was made in the context of explaining the trade for closer Francisco Rodriguez, and it's well worth noting that Avila said, in K-Rod, "we have an experienced closer to start the season." Got that? To start the season. Follow that up with the statement that he feels there's a possible closer in the farm system who may be ready "down the stretch if needed," and we've got a genuine mystery on our hands. Who in the current Tigers system could be ready so soon? And who would the "maybe two" refer to?
Closer #1: Paul Voelker
A 2014 10th-round pick who vaulted his way through the system during the 2015 season, Voelker began the year with Low-A West Michigan, passing through Advanced-A Lakeland, and finishing the year with Double-A Erie, all within a span of 40 games.
The 5'10 righty boasts two major offerings with an above-average fastball resting in the mid-90s, and a potentially above-average slider that has been known to flirt with the upper-80s. Movement and command are also both notable strengths for the 23-year-old. While in West Michigan, Voelker tossed 16 innings in relief and posted 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings to go along with a NSFW 0.81 WHIP. (Need a point of reference? Wade Davis posted a 0.84 WHIP in 2014.)
With the Lakeland Flying Tigers, Voelker struck out 10.6 batters per nine in 22 innings to go with a paltry 2.5 walks per nine innings. Prefer the baseball card stats? He posted a 90 percent save rate through his 14 games with the Advanced-A squad.
Voelker got his first taste of Double-A action on July 1 with the Erie SeaWolves. In the transition, Voelker's walk rate went up from 2.5 to 5.2 (per nine innings) at the Double-A level. Growing pains aside, he concluded his first full season with a 1.08 WHIP, 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings, 3.3 walks per nine, an ERA of 2.11 to go with a 2.52 FIP, and a 90 percent save rate in 55 ⅓ innings between the three clubs he had the opportunity to make appearances with.
Tell me this isn't promising stuff (h/t TigsTown's James Chipman for the video):
In short? We're talking about a guy who walks a batter once every three outings or so and strikes out slightly more than a batter per inning. If this isn't the home-grown relief ace who's first on Avila's mind when he says "we may be able to come up with a really, really good [closer] at some point down the stretch if needed," then I don't know who is.
Closer #2: Joe Jimenez
The Tigers signed Joe Jimenez out of prep school in 2013 at the tender age of 18, and he spent 2014 playing short-season Single-A ball in Connecticut and the Puerto Rican Winter League.
Big Joe stands 6'3 and weighs in at 220 pounds, so to call him a "dominating presence" on the mound is stating the obvious. His well-above-average fastball sits in the high-90s and has been known to occasionally touch triple digits, and he supplements this fireball with an average slider that still needs some fine-tuning.
As you might expect with a fastball that nuclear, he occasionally has trouble finding the strike zone, but he had great success in 2015 with Low-A West Michigan in getting batters to chase that pitch up and out of the zone. With a bit more control and bit more reliance on the slider, he could easily go from dominant to flat-out unhittable.
His final line for the West Michigan Whitecaps is something to salivate over: 43 IP, an ERA of 1.47 with a 1.67 FIP, a microscopic WHIP of 0.79, 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings, and only 2.3 walks per nine.
It remains to be seen whether Jimenez can continue this rate of success at the higher levels, but the potential is there, and easily makes him a prime candidate for the pitcher Al Avila had in mind when he said "we may have a closer -- maybe even two -- coming from our own system."
K-Rod's contract has a team option for 2017. Suddenly the strategy becomes clear: let Paul Voelker see what he can do at the Triple-A level in 2016, and if he's ready, let him take over for K-Rod in 2017.
If for some reason Voelker doesn't pan out, K-Rod can continue to hold down the fort in 2017 while Joe Jimenez works his way up to Toledo, and perhaps he can be ready for the closer position by 2018. Chances are at least one of these prospects makes the cut, if not both.
Grow your own closer? Maybe it's not as crazy as it sounds.