The Detroit Tigers dealt closer Joakim Soria to the Pittsburgh Pirates for infield/outfield prospect JaCoby Jones on Thursday. Coupled with the trade of David Price, the Tigers are making no bones about the fact that the 2016 season is now the organization's focus. However, there will be games to save in 2015, and the Tigers have not officially named Soria's heir in the ninth inning. Unless Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski deals for a new bullpen arm by 4 p.m. Friday, the team is going to have to make due with the players available.
So, who is the Tigers new closer? There are two main candidates at Brad Ausmus' disposal.
Wilson has clearly been the best pitcher on the remaining relief staff in 2015, posting a 1.79 ERA in 55 1/3 innings. In addition, he racked up his first career save on Thursday, the first opportunity since Soria's departure. Whether that means he's first in line to close games remains to be seen, as a shortened Tigers' bullpen was depleted when Wilson came on in the eighth for a five-out save.
Wilson's numbers make a nice case on their own. No one else on the club can touch his stats this season. It bears mentioning that he posted a 1.91 ERA in 28 1/3 innings with the Boston Red Sox last season, so this isn't just a single year where everything has gone right for him. A superb ERA and WHIP are backed by an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio and very low home run rate. In addition, his excellent RE24, which takes into account the actual run expectancy of the situations in which Wilson pitched, indicates that he's handled higher leverage situations very well.
Wilson isn't the type of pitcher people tend to associate the closer role with. He has solid velocity, averaging just under 93 mph with his fastball, but he doesn't strike out all that many hitters. A bit of improvement in his breaking ball could make that a moot point, but thus far Wilson's strikeout rates in the majors haven't rebounded to his minor league levels. Traditional organizations like the Tigers tend to prefer a pitcher who strikes out close to a batter per inning, and has closer experience. And yet, Wilson's consistency over two seasons tells you that he's no fluke.
Nearly half the balls put in play against Wilson are grounders, which plays into the Tigers' excellent middle infield, and he doesn't give up much hard contact. As he rarely walks anyone, Wilson is making opposing offenses work very hard to score runs against him. He has been used in every possible situation this year except as a traditional closer, and has been tough as nails in all of them. With no set role to settle into, giving him high leverage appearances like last night seems like the best possible use for him.
Rondon's case for the closer role is the anti-thesis of Alex Wilson's. Rondon has the "traditional closer" look. He came through the Tigers farm system groomed for that role, and the organization went so far as to pencil him the closer's role in 2013 before he had ever thrown a pitch in the major leagues. Rondon has the look and arsenal of a future dominant reliever, but his numbers don't back his case quite yet.
Rondon's horrific ERA can be ignored, as he's only thrown 12 innings this season, and just 40 2/3 total innings in his major league career. For all intents and purposes, he's still a rookie in terms of experience. A .455 BABIP indicates that he has been somewhat unlucky in his short stint with the Tigers in 2015. His FIP is a lot closer to his true ability as long as he maintains his low home run rate. His walk rate isn't great, but command is often the last thing to return for a pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery, and Rondon's elite arsenal balances out his penchant for issuing a few too many walks.
The Tigers have wanted and expected Rondon to be their closer for several years now and his potential is enormous. If he can harness the command he's shown only in short stretches, he has the ability to be one of the elite relievers in the game. His fastball/slider combination is devastating, as his eye-popping strikeout rate attests.
My best guess is that the Tigers will turn to Rondon to close out games in August and September. Two months of expectation-free baseball is the perfect opportunity to allow Rondon time to grow into the role the organization has always envisioned him in and, frankly, rushed him toward. Neftali Feliz is the only other pitcher on the Tigers' staff with closer experience, but he's a long way from being able to hold leads in the late innings. While the Tigers could try Wilson, or even Al Alburquerque, neither seems likely to be anointed the closer of the future heading into 2016, so moving ahead with Rondon and seeing how he performs seems like the most likely scenario.
In addition, David Price's absence makes Wilson more valuable in other ways for his ability to be a stop-gap in any situation. It might prove impossible to keep your bullpen in any sort of order with Wilson locked into the closer role due to the diminished amount of innings the Tigers can expect from their current rotation. However, situations like last night show that Brad Ausmus might be more willing to utilize a non-traditional closer down the stretch.
If Rondon does well, the Tigers will finally find themselves with a cost-effective solution to the bullpen issues that have plagued them. If Rondon fails, then the Tigers will once again be forced to pay premium prices to acquire a closer in the offseason. No matter what moves Dombrowski makes to finalize next year's starting rotation, the bullpen is going to have to be a lot better for the Tigers to return to prominence. Wilson and Rondon should be a big part of that future relief corps, and the next two months will hopefully serve as a laboratory to see exactly where they fit in.