One of the more exciting components to following a baseball team is following the amateur and minor league circuit. The simple possibility of a new name, a new face, a new jersey has a simple romantic appeal to it. Baseball fans know that they can always turn to prospects if, and when, the big club becomes a failing enterprise. If anything, there is always hope in the up and coming young player that a fan can root for. Just look at fans of the Phillies these days.
That said, the Tigers have spent the last five or so years in the top of the division and the minor leagues, and their product, are universally seen as a very poor farm system, with more pitching prospects than hitting ones (a significant reason that Nick Castellanos should never be traded), and even those aren’t earth shattering. It’s not that the Tigers haven’t been able to develop players, look at Alex Avila, Al Albuquerque, Andy Dirks, Drew Smyly, among others and you know they can develop respectable MLB caliber talent, but because when it comes to the end of July, the executive powers that be are trying to find those one or two veteran players that can push the team into the realm of serious playoff contention.
The cost of this reality is that any young name worth anything on the national level becomes available, becomes trade bait. Jacob Turner, Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller. These are a few of the significant names off the top of my head who have been highly regarded names and have subsequently been traded away. While you can look at most of them and say that the Tigers have significantly prospered by dealing these players away (at least, for the players they have received if not for the failures the prospects proved to be), this has not always been the case, nor will it continue to be so. Such is the law of averages.
The Tigers have made no secret of the fact that they are going to allow Bruce Rondon to compete for the closing job this spring, and I can’t applaud this notion enough. Rondon is a wild card, there’s no doubt about that. His loose arm is going to be an issue at some point, whether it will lead to his failure this spring or cause some problem over the first few months. He’s simply not polished enough at the professional level. This isn’t to say that he won’t be a dominant big league closer for many years, he has the stuff and the makeup, but to expect Craig Kimbrell type numbers is simply absurd.
But that’s okay. Given what we know regarding relievers, they are neither significant contributors to an overall team -Tigers relievers contributed a total of four and a half wins to the team last year- and should not be paid the type of money that 175-200 inning pitchers get. Thus, they let Jose Valverde and his disaster of a fastball walk away rather than pay $9mm to see him implode in the postseason once more. They ignored Rafael Soriano and his $14mm per year price tag, despite Scott Boras’ best efforts, based on the belief that he’s simply not worth that kind of money, but also because they know that they already have the necessary arms on the team. The Tigers are, on the surface, saying that the proven closer notion, is a silly notion.
That may be true, but I think there’s another variable at work here.
They are going to let Rondon compete for the job with the knowledge that they have a certain arm available should he implode.
That’s the significance of Joaquin Benoit.
He’s the hidden wild card that the Tigers have. He’s the veteran arm that the more traditional minds on the team, Jim Leyland for example, want in the back end of his bullpen. Dave Dombrowski is quite obviously the reason that Rondon is being given a chance to close, and Leyland is okay with it because he knows that if Rondon fails, he has a pitcher who’s finished 95 games in his big league career, or more importantly, a pitcher who has averaged a 10.4 K-9, 2.3 BB/9 and WHIP of 0.967 over the last three years on his team sitting in the setup spot.
If the team had a bullpen of Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Al Albuquerque, Brayan Villarreal, and Duane Below to go with Bruce Rondon, I’d bet, quite safely, that they would have signed someone else this off season. Such cannot be said if the Tigers didn’t have Dotel or Coke on the roster. They are good pitchers, good set up arms, but not arms of such significance as Benoit’s is.
Benoit’s home run troubles last year are certainly concerning but I’d be shocked if he gives up 10+ dingers again this year. The notion that he’s turning into a pitcher that makes mistake after mistake after mistake is a silly one. He’s pitched far too long to suddenly turn into a launching pad for opposing hitters. In fact, his K rates and other peripheral numbers suggest that the 3 year $16.5mm deal they gave him prior to the 2011 season is one of the smartest investments they’ve made in recent years.