Late in the season last year, one of Detroit's glaring weaknesses was its back end of the bullpen. Specifically, Tigers' closer Jose Valverde had one of his worst seasons as a professional, posting a 5.01 xFIP in the regular season and imploding during the playoffs. The team declined to re-sign Valverde, and spent the majority of the offseason endorsing hard-throwing righty Bruce Rondon as their closer. Then, on March 29 Rondon was optioned to Triple-A and Manager Jim Leyland said the entire bullpen could factor into the discussion for saves:
Any one of the seven can close a game, that's just the way you have to look on it. I might call on anybody, and I'll have that little meeting with them. You've got to be ready to pitch at all times, unless you need a day off. Any one of them might get ball to get the third out in the ninth.
Fast forward to the present and one week into the season the Tigers' bullpen sports a 5.00 ERA and has blown one of the two save chances it has had. And it doesn't seem like Leyland is really playing the matchups. For now the world still does not seem ready to accept an unconventional bullpen, so it seems that Detroit will need to select a closer. Who should get the ball in the ninth inning?
Leyland's first choice for the gig, Coke has gone 1 for 2 during the first week in saves. The lefty split 2011 between starting and relieving before joining the pen full time last season. Coke finished 2012 with a 3.47 FIP and 3.65 xFIP, striking out just over 20% of the batters he faced and walking less than 8% of hitters. Those are all fine numbers for a middle reliever, but Coke is not exactly the type of pitcher a contending team typically deploys in high leverage situations. Plus, he lacks an out pitch (only his slider and change are above average for his career) and he struggles against righties, allowing them to post a .350 wOBA over his career.
After Coke's blown save, Leyland endorsed Benoit as the next viable option. The manager told the press on Saturday:
We will use anybody, but the ideal situation probably - as we sit right now - would try to get to Benoit to the ninth inning. I'm not saying Benoit's the closer. What I'm saying is, we figure the lefty-righty combination of him being effective against both guys, if rested and available, we would lean that way probably more often.
Leyland is correct that Benoit has shown no real platoon advantage or disadvantage over his career (.299 wOBA for LHH, .319 for RHH), and he does have some minor experience closing in the past. Benoit's issues stem from the fact that he allows home runs (especially in 2012) at an inflated rate, and he has seen his production fall off drastically for three straight seasons.
Alburquerque definitely has the best swing and miss stuff in the bullpen, striking out batters at a 36.1% clip in his young career. His problem, like high strikeout relievers, is throwing strikes. Along with the high strike out rate, he has also walked 16% of batters. Thus far in his career he has limited line drives, and home runs, but I am a believer that some of that will regress. When it does, the high walk totals will hurt him and probably drive Leyland crazy.
Dotel offers the most experience in the closer role, racking up 109 saves in previous seasons. His fatal flaw is his struggles against LHH. Dotel dominates right-handed hitters, while lefties have hit at league average against him over his career. Also his closing experience has not really been that successful, as those 109 saves have come in 157 attempts. He largely has piled up saves on bad teams that had no other options to turn to.
Someone not in the Tigers' pen
The Tigers could deal for a reliever, but sending Rick Porcello or a top prospect like Nick Castellanos for a closer should be out of the question. The value returned by a late inning bullpen option just isn't high enough to part with a piece like that. They also could recall Bruce Rondon, or recently signed Jose Valverde to try in the ninth inning. But again, both of those pitchers were not considered options to start the season because of huge flaws. Maybe as the trade deadline nears, an outside option may be more viable, yet for now it seems the solution must come from within.
In all, I think the best solution would be to leverage these pitchers and use their differing abilities to play matchups. The media and fan pressure, added to Leyland's seeming reluctance to utilize relievers in this way makes it an unlikely solution. Instead, it looks like the Tigers will have to hope Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, and Miguel Cabrera can cover up the weakness in the pen until someone emerges as the stopper.
All stats courtesy of our friends at FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.