As we all are well aware, Jose Valverde’s contract expires following this season, and for most people, this comes as a welcome relief. Valverde, while he’s been better than most people would have you believe, is a roller coaster ride of a closer who will be too expensive for the Tigers to retain in 2013. That begs the question: Who should close for the Tigers in 2013? I did a similar post a few weeks ago regarding who should be the Tigers RF in 2013, and since the closer role, like the RF role, will involve the discussion of prospects, that makes it logical for me to discuss.
There is a variety of in house options for the Tigers to consider, ranging from veterans to younger guys to prospects, all of whom have been argued for by someone at some point this season. Let’s go through them one by one:
Probably the easiest, most logical choice at this point. Benoit will be in the final year of his contract in 2013, and will undoubtedly be pitching for a new contract, be it from the Tigers or someone else. He was absolutely dominant in 2011, and has been pretty good in 2012, despite trouble with the home run ball when he leaves pitches up. This is a problem a lot of pitchers have: they have great stuff, but even great stuff at the belt and above can get drilled. Benoit has expressed his desire to NOT close, and that to me is a large red flag to not make him the closer, since you have to have somewhat of a killer mentality to do so.
Villarreal had an outstanding 2012, really bursting onto the scene with a plus-plus fastball that sits 96-97 and has been clocked as high as 99, as well as a developing slider that is turning into a legitimate swing and miss pitch. Earlier in the season I was quoted many times as saying “he has closer stuff”, and I still believe that. However, Villarreal actually got left off the postseason roster in favor of Rick Porcello, and I’m assuming his struggles with walks down the stretch played a large role in that decision. So, bottom line, do I think that Villarreal has closer stuff? Yes. Do I think that Villarreal will close in his career? Probably not, unless in 2013 he takes another giant step forward, this time with his command.
This is an intriguing choice to me. Al-Al offers easily the best breaking ball in the Tigers bullpen, with his dynamic 70 slider. He also has a plus fastball that he throws consistently in the mid-90’s. Al-Al’s problem in his brief Detroit tenure (1+ years) has been command and durability. Last season he burst onto the scene and pitched some huge innings for the Tigers, but his command became an issue at times and the walks mounted. Furthermore, he had offseason elbow surgery that kept him out of action until September, but when he did come back, he was the same “Amazing Al” that we all grew to love in 2011. If you had to pick a guy to come in at a crucial point in a game and record a K, Alburquerque is your man. That reason, combined with the durability concerns, lead me to believe that Al-Al is better suited for a set up role. I remember in 2006, when all of Detroit was clamoring for Leyland to make Joel Zumaya the closer over Todd Jones, that Leyland said something to the extent of “Look, in a crucial situation, like men on 2nd and 3rd with 0 outs in the 7th inning, I want to bring in Zumaya to get me out of the inning with 0 runs allowed. Todd Jones is not suited for that role. Zumaya is. So that’s why I haven’t flipped them.” I take the same stance with Al-Al, due to his proficiency at getting K’s.
This is probably the sexy pick, as Rondon has yet to pitch an inning in the major leagues, but has blown away (no pun intended) scouts and hitters alike with his legitimate 80 fastball and projectable slider/change combo. His fastball sits comfortably at 97-99, and he was clocked at the Futures Game (by 10+ scout guns, not the stadium gun) at 100-101. Rondon undoubtedly has closer stuff and closer potential, but I don’t like the idea of throwing him right to the wolves in 2013. I think there’s little doubt that he will pitch out of the bullpen in 2013, but I think the Tigers will take the Zumaya route with him, allowing him to set up for a more experienced closer, and then eventually take over the closer role in 2014-2015 (barring injury, of course). Rondon is the closer of the future, just not the closer of 2013, at least for me.
Dotel signed a 1 year contract with a club option for a 2nd year before the 2012 season, and I think there is little doubt that the Tigers will pick up that option. Dotel may be a bit long in the tooth, but he’s proven that he’s still a legitimate, effective, and very solid bullpen option. He strikes out a good amount of hitters, walks very few, and the life on his fastball allows him to get weak contact when the ball is down in the zone (sound familiar?). Dotel has closed in the past, and while he had a disastrous outing as a closer for the Tigers in Seattle early in the season, he has undoubtedly been very effective as a Tiger. He should be back, and I wouldn’t actually be surprised to see him start the season as closer, especially if Benoit makes it known that he would prefer to stay in the 8th inning. I’m not saying that he’s my pick, but he is a decent option.
The free agent market for closers is rather light for the 2012-2013 off season, but there are some intriguing names. Several interesting names have club options for the 2013 season, among them Joakim Soria and Grant Balfour, either of whom would help the Tigers bullpen, but for the sake of this post, I’d like to determine a potential closer from the list of names already within the Tigers organization.
As of right now, I’d say that Joaquin Benoit begins the 2013 season as the closer, with guys like Villarreal, Alburquerque, and Dotel manning the 7th-8th inning roles. I don’t think that Villarreal will ever be the closer, barring a slew of injuries, but that’s not to say he can’t be an outstanding set up man, which I believe he will be. Dotel works well in the 7th inning role, and I see no reason to change that, should the Tigers pick up his option. Alburquerque, like I said, provides the Tigers with a gigantic strikeout weapon out of the bullpen, and I think that he should be saved for really high leverage situations, and may be wasted as the closer. Rondon may come into spring training and set the world on fire, and push for a large role on the 2013 Tigers, but I don’t think it will be as closer. Obviously, all of this becomes a moot point if Benoit tells Leyland that he doesn’t want to close, at which point other options will be explored. I expect the Tigers to go after a reliever in free agency, but I don’t think they will go after a closer.
So there you have it, 1200+ words on a topic that won’t become an issue for 6 months or so.
Per usual, feel free to comment on this post with your thoughts, or follow me on twitter @TigersProspects and @B_Sakowski
Thanks for reading, and Go Tigers!!!