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Tigers should stick with Shane Greene as closer

No, Joe Jimenez shouldn’t take over yet.

Detroit Tigers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

For a fan of the Detroit Tigers, it’s perfectly natural to be a little frustrated with Shane Greene right now. He spoiled a brilliant pitching performance by Francisco Liriano on Sunday, and gave away a potential split in a road series. The blown save was Greene’s third of the year, though he’s also converted 10 of them already as well. While it’s true that Greene hasn’t looked his best, and blown saves are one of the most aggravating things in baseball, let’s remember that there’s just no point to moving him out of the closing role.

The Tigers’ bullpen is paper thin right now. Other than Greene, and an extremely encouraging start from Joe Jimenez, you’re looking at a collection of guys with no real foothold on a regular major league gig. The Tigers’ rotation is roughly average in terms of innings pitched, so it’s not like the pen is gassed. They just don’t have enough trustworthy arms available to avoid overusing the same guys night after night. And that’s not a situation that is likely to change any time in the near future.

There is some potential help available in the Tigers’ farm system, but the front office would no doubt prefer to give the young talent as much time as possible before promotions. They also need to test guys who are already wearing out their welcome on the 40 man roster. The hope being that at least one of the more experienced arms can consistently give them quality relief work. So far, the pickings are certainly looking slim in that department.

Alex Wilson perhaps was getting into a groove after a difficult start, but his return from injury is uncertain, and he’s not really a lockdown reliever to begin with. Buck Farmer is fine as a seventh reliever, but there’s a big hole in the pen where they could really use a set of quality relievers. One of either hand. Same old Tigers bullpen story, really.

So for the time being, the only arms you trust to hold a lead are Jimenez and Greene. And despite Jimenez’ superior performance, there are still multiple good reasons to stick with Shane Greene in the ninth.

The first, is Greene’s status as a trade chip. In the grand scheme of things, Joe Jimenez is presumably the more valuable piece. The Tigers look to have themselves a pretty darn good young reliever who’ll remain under inexpensive club control for years to come. It’s interesting to ponder what could be acquired for Jimenez during the summer months. But the Tigers may well have no inclination to trade Jimenez. Their sense of the rebuilding timetable is difficult to discern. Greene however, is undoubtedly the piece that the Tigers need to trade, and leaving him in the closer spot is probably still the best way to highlight him to prospective buyers.

Secondly, Greene isn’t exactly getting wrecked every time he takes the mound. He’s allowed runs in six of his 22 appearances. He’s got 10.55 strikeouts per nine innings. If he just pieces together another string of good outings, that 4.22 ERA and 4.50 FIP he’s got will be a distant memory. So it goes in the volatile world of a reliever’s early season numbers.

Greene’s fastball command has been suspect this season, and while the slider is certainly his best pitch, he can’t overuse it without eventually having an outing where he spins some hangers up there to get cracked. He and pitching coach Chris Bosio need to find a way to get fastball back on track. The velocity and movement continues to be good, but the results haven’t reflected it because of his inability to locate it effectively.

Third, Joe Jimenez is the Tigers’ best reliever so far this year, and you don’t want your best reliever stuck in a closing role. Having the freedom to use them against the heart of the order in the seventh instead of the eighth, or to get the starter out of a jam, can make a reliever like Jimenez especially valuable. He’s dominating hitters of either hand, and has shown some toughness pitching with intensity and composure through a pretty grueling slate of innings in the first quarter of the season.

Using Jimenez in a fireman role may help limit his workload and give lesser relievers a chance to start a clean inning. It also gets Jimenez a lot of valuable experience pitching in traffic, something he didn’t see much of in the minor leagues. Certainly you don’t want to overdo it, but Jimenez is the Tigers best option for slipping a tight spot, and Ron Gardenhire can feel pretty confident using him that way.

Some relievers mentally just don’t handle going in with runners on base well. Others do best with as much of a regular schedule as possible in terms of inning they tend to get ready for. A good coaching staff will with extremely proactive in communicating about their usage plans, but Jimenez seems like a guy who thrives under a bit of pressure.

As a closer throughout his minor league career, Jimenez doesn’t need a lot of seasoning in that role. And his time is likely coming anyway. Ron Gardenhire isn’t going in for some radical bullpen usage. At very least, the Tigers are going to have a dedicated closer during Gardenhire’s tenure, and that’s generally not an issue. But for now, pitching Jimenez in a bit of a flex role, holding close leads in the most meaningful spots may get him the most experience under major league pressure without necessarily leaning on him to get more than three outs.

In the meantime, the Tigers need Shane Greene to be the best he can be so they can still get a decent return for him in trade this summer. Greene has years of control remaining, but he also has some history of arm trouble, and is 29 years old. He won’t be a free agent until 2021, but he’s in the middle of his prime years. This the season for the Tigers to move him to a contender. The question is simply the value he’s going to command in trade. Greene has been a quality reliever for three seasons now, but has yet to put together a really dominant campaign.

While their value over their careers is comparable, former Tigers reliever Justin Wilson was a rare specimen than Greene, and somewhat more consistently effective. A hard-throwing left-hander with a high spin rate and a quality breaking ball is a lot harder to come by than a solid right-handed reliever with some closing experience. Greene isn’t going to be drawing the kind of haul Wilson commanded. However, Greene does have excellent, if erratic, stuff, and teams will be keeping a keen eye on him this season as potential help for their bullpen. For the sake of the Tigers’ farm system, they need Shane Greene to succeed for a few more months as Tigers closer.