“He’s a guy who’s done this before. He has the track record. The track record speaks for itself.”
The sudden bouts of ineffectiveness—see: the second half of 2010, the often hair-raising saves in 2011, and the playoff implosion in 2012—were nothing in the face of Valverde’s past success!
Read on after the jump
Well, no one—not the Tigers’ front office, not the fans, not Valverde himself—can point to that past success anymore. This is not the man who saved 50+ games for the Tigers in the 2011 regular season and playoffs. He’s not even the same guy who had a passable if rocky 2012 season before imploding in the playoffs. All Valverde is bringing to the table right now is a low-90s fastball—sometimes he can touch 94mph but not with any consistency—and a spotty, often ineffective splitter he actually seems reluctant to throw.
Leyland obviously knows Valverde is no longer effective enough to hold down the ninth inning, and yet continues to run him out there. He has insisted he has no other choice. Beat writer Matthew Mowery tweeted this response from Leyland a few times today: “I don’t understand who they think we should be closing with. So I’m asking that question — who the (bleep) should I be closing with?” (Leyland rant edited for length.)
Well, that’s what this post is for!
The obvious first (and best) candidate is Joaquín Benoit, the Tigers’ current set-up man. Benoit has been reliable since signing with the Tigers after 2010. He hasn’t been as effective as he was in his one year in Tampa, but he’s been more than good enough. The knocks against Benoit are that he allegedly said he doesn’t want to close—I’ve found no direct quotes from Benoit stating this for a fact; it’s most likely just a misinterpretation based on a comment he made about how he prefers to know his role—and that he’s not as effective when he pitches in consecutive appearances.
Benoit has never been called upon to be a full-time closer. He spent several seasons with the Texas Rangers’ organization as a starter before being moved to the ‘pen, and then only got a few opportunities here and there. It’s why you can’t point to Benoit’s current save percentage and claim he’d be a terrible closer; he just hasn’t gotten the opportunity and those blown saves mostly came in the sixth, seventh, eighth—well before the ninth inning.
He definitely has the repertoire to close, though. He still features a mid-90s fastball, even as he approaches his 36th birthday, and has a knockout fosh change. Benoit also occasionally utilizes a slider to throw off batters who sit on his other two offerings.
Another apparent knock on Benoit is his sudden bout of homeritis during the 2012 season. This also seems to have colored some fans’ opinions of him. Even when Benoit was brought up as a potential replacement for Valverde after today’s loss, someone mentioned Benoit’s problem with the longball.
While Benoit was indeed homer prone last year, all stats seem to indicate it was nothing more than a fluke. Benoit’s current homer rate is in line with his career homer rate since becoming a reliever, as is his HR/FB ratio, and his stuff’s still good. Though I haven’t looked at his charts, I’m going to guess Benoit’s problem was an over-reliance on one pitch and mistakes in location. Perhaps he thought hitters were beginning to sit on the changeup and went to the fastball far too much. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Either way, Benoit’s fluky homerun numbers have corrected themselves.
Lynn Henning seems to suggest, in the piece he penned after today’s loss, that the Tigers would be creating an eighth inning vacancy by moving Benoit to the closer’s role. It’s a valid point, I suppose, but if the Tigers dumped Valverde and brought up Bruce Rondon or even Al Alburquerque, they could use Drew Smyly and Rondon or Alburquerque in the eighth, use Phil Coke in a LOOGY role he’s more suited to, and perhaps give Darin Downs some more innings (he’s only pitched once since May 24th, by the way). The main pieces would be in place, and the rest of the bullpen could sort itself out.
Should the Tigers refuse to use their best closing option because he may—or may not—have said he doesn’t want to close, or because they’ll have to reshuffle some other pitchers’ bullpen roles? Is that really a good enough reason to stick with an ineffective Valverde?
The other current popular alternative is Smyly. This year Smyly is absolutely destroying lefties, holding them to a .113 BA, .259 OPS (yes, you read that right), and he’s posting a 8.00 SO/BB against them. His numbers against righties aren’t as good; they’re hitting .262 against him, with a .762 OPS and his SO/BB is only 2.56.
The main knock against Smyly is probably his numbers against righties. While not terrible, they’re certainly not lights-out and you have to consider if he was closing, teams would utilize pinch hitters against him in place of their left-handed bats. Would he be able to handle, say, three straight righties in a one-run game? Also, if you move Smyly to the closer’s role, you lose the flexibility with him that has made him such a valuable piece of the bullpen to this point.
Fans have even been proposing the Tigers move Porcello to the closer’s spot, while putting Smyly back in the rotation (even though this would no longer be doable since Smyly has spent too much time in the ‘pen to be fully stretched out and wasn’t even asked to spot start recently when Anibal Sanchez was unable to make his start).
What about bringing back Rondon to close? Leyland seems resistant to bringing the hard-throwing right-hander back, but the young reliever has nothing left to prove at Toledo. Rondon’s currently shutting down AAA opponents with a 0.77 ERA, and opponents are only batting .118 against him. He’s also struck out 29 batters in 23.1 innings. The one knock against him has been walks; yes, he’s walked 12 batters, but four of those came in 2/3 of an inning. Outside of that one appearance, Rondon’s BB/9 is a much more palatable 3.17.
The urgency to immediately throw Rondon into the ninth isn’t necessary, though, not if the Tigers turn to Benoit first. Rondon could be brought up to take a lower leverage role while Benoit or someone else closes. If they falter, Rondon is there as a safety net.
The options outside the organization are limited, yes, but there are still options out there. Particularly if the Tigers stop repeating the “Must get a proven closer!” mantra and take a look at capable set-up men who have the ability to close.
The New York Yankees will most likely hand over the closer’s role to current set-up man David Robertson, once Mariano Rivera retires after the season. The Dodgers finally took the ninth inning away from the awful Brandon League and made their deserving set-up man, Kenley Jansen, the new closer. Even the highly sought-after Rafael Soriano was a set-up man before cashing in on his success and eventually landing a closer’s role. It’s not unfathomable to think that a current set-up man could make a cheap but effective closer.
The Tigers have been linked to the San Diego Padres before, although Dave Dombrowski denied it. The Padres have three potential closer options in Luke Gregerson, Huston Street (he’s currently on the DL, with Gregerson filling in as closer), and Dale Thayer. Thayer is the lesser known of San Diego’s three relievers, but was linked to the Tigers in that apparently erroneous report along with Gregerson. Thayer would undoubtedly be cheaper than the other two, but he’s also homer prone in a ballpark that plays to pitching. In fact, it might be easier to pry away Street, who will be a free agent after 2014 while Gregerson will be arbitration eligible.
Another “name” closer that’s, so far, been jokingly linked to the Tigers by Phillies fans is Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon would fill the need for a “name,” and he has the track record, so that would put Leyland at ease at least. He’s still owed a lot of money, though—he’ll be owed $26 million between 2014 and 2015—and would surely cost at least a couple valuable prospects. Would the Tigers be willing to give up that much for Papelbon, though? Would it be worth it?
Tom Wilhelmsen from Seattle might also be a trade option. Wilhelmsen has that shiny “proven closer” tag, throws hard, and is posting decent numbers. He also has a teammate in Carter Capps that could push him out of Seattle sooner than later. Wilhelmsen is not having as good a season as he did in 2012, but he’s been okay. His strikeouts are down, his walks are up, and his BABIP is unsustainably low right now, and he’s also yet to give up a homerun. The Tigers have also traded with the Mariners in the recent past, to their benefit. Would Seattle be willing to trade with the Tigers again?
The Florida Marlins also have a couple attractive candidates in Steve Cishek, their current closer, and Mike Dunn, their left-handed set-up man. Cishek has been serviceable, but his peripherals are scary, particularly that 4.00 BB/9. He is a proven closer, though! As for Dunn, he’s a lefty who could be valuable in late innings, and was connected to the Curtis Granderson trade back in 2009; a rumored deal sending Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson, Coke, and Dunn to Detroit was nixed before the three teams eventually went back to the drawing board and worked the trade out. The current Tigers brass also have a long history when it comes to trading with the Marlins organization.
The thing is, while the Tigers should be able to pick up a closer as we get, uh, closer to the deadline, the market’s just not there right now. The other teams have all the leverage; they know the Tigers want a closer, so the Tigers will be forced to overpay. They can more than get by with Benoit as closer, and work on landing a “proven” guy by the deadline.
Despite what Leyland claims, the options are there. Leyland and the Tigers’ front office just need to be willing to use them.
Check out these pieces if you’d like to read more on the Tigers’ Valverde situation:
Jose Valverde’s splits and his splitter reveal big issues by Patrick O’Kennedy
A Plea To Tigers Brass: End The Jose Valverde Experiment by Grey Papke
Jose Valverde’s struggles have a familiar feel for Tigers by Jay Jaffe