First, Tigers’ general manager Dave Dombrowski said young fireballing right-hander Bruce Rondon would be given “every shot” at closing this coming year. Then there were rumors that the Tigers were “targeting relievers capable of closing.” Last week, the manager said he doubted that anyone would be “anointed the closer out of spring training.” Whether or not there’s a real difference in the team stance at any of these points, there do seem to be some different ideas being put forth about the team’s perception of the closer’s role.
It was difficult for Tigers fans to watch Jose Valverde implode in the playoffs last season. The natural reaction to the situation might have been to go out and sign the best free agent reliever on the market. There are two problems with that approach, however. The first was availability. Here are the free agent ‘closers’ that were on the market this year, how they’ve fared over the past three years, as well as the deal they got this offseason:
Not to denigrate the pitchers on this list, but for a contender coming off a year that ended with their closer demoted, there’s really only one name that would ‘solve’ the situation in one fell swoop. And that guy? He got a deal that he’d be hard pressed to be worth by the wins above replacement metric on our site. A win has been worth about five million dollars most recently, and Rafael Soriano has three of them in the last three years.
Which is of course the other problem. Other than the hurlers on the list above, here are the free agent closers currently atop their bullpen depth charts across the league, how they’ve done over the past three years, and their current contracts:
By this grouping, your current free agent closer is twice as likely to not be worth his salary as he is to be worth it this season. Yes, WAR gives credit to late-game relieving by using leverage index, and also yes, a legit stopper might be worth more than his WAR suggests to a team that’s closer to contention. Either way, it certainly doesn’t look any better than a 50/50 proposition. Remember also how good a 31-year-old Jose Valverde was in Houston. And then how he’d lost all his whiffs by the time he was 34. And how Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman showed us that aging is harder on relievers than starters.
Francisco Rodriguez is probably the best reliever on the market that has closing experience — and maybe he’ll end up with the Tigers. As you can see from the list above, teams can have success buying better setup men and installing them in the role for the first time, but unless you think Joey Devine is going to stay in one piece this year, there really isn’t that guy on the market anymore.
Maybe one of their capable relievers currently on the roster will close. Closers are born all the time. Al Alburquerque has a 95 mph fastball and a wicked slider that gest whiffs — but the right-hander uses a platoon-unfriendly slider as his secondary weapon and walks over 15% of the batters he sees. Phil Coke is a good lefty, but he has a 4.85 xFIP against righties. The 35-year-old Joaquin Benoit actually shows great rates, has gas, and enough weapons that his platoon splits are neutral — perhaps he’s the actual closer. Maybe they’ll make it work, as they did for much of the postseason. It’s not like their 3.63 ERA after the seventh inning in the playoffs was terrible. That’s why you have Dombrowski saying that the club might “mix and match” at the position.
And yet there still is this sense that something needs to change in Detroit’s bullpen. Jim Leyland did say recently that it was “a front-burner thing that is on the back-burner.” Enter the 21-year old Bruce Rondon, who hasn’t shown an ERA above 2.25 since rookie ball, and has struck out exactly a quarter of the batters he’s seen in the minor leagues. But Rondon is a rookie, and he also walked 13% of the batters he saw on the farm.
Is the rookie thing a big deal? We see rookie closers all the time. But for a team straight out of the playoffs, hoping to get back there again? Here are the rookie closers that took over and saved more than ten games for a playoff team since 2000:
|2006||Jonathan Papelbon||Red Sox||68.1||35||29.2%||5.1%||37.3%||0.92||2.14||3.13||3.2|
|2006||Bobby Jenks||White Sox||69.2||41||26.7%||10.3%||58.8%||4.00||3.20||3.08||2.0|
The list looks nice at first, but consider this: 36 rookie relievers managed 10+ saves since 2000. Seven of them did so for teams that had been in the playoffs the year before. Finding a rookie reliever seems like it’s normally done on worse teams. If everything breaks right for Rondon, though, his numbers could look like one player on that list in particular, given his big fastball and iffy control. Yeah, the guy on the way out in Detroit.
You’d have to say it was unlikely for Bruce Rondon to take the reins from day one and dominate, given those odds. There’s going to be a lot of scrutiny, and he has some aspects of his game to work on. But if you combine his odds, with the odds Al Alburquerque controls the ball a little better this season, and the odds that Joaquin Benoit has one last strong year in him — then you’re probably doing better than the odds that a (more expensive) free agent closer would be any more valuable.