Welcome back to another season of the Bottom of the 9th, our weekly look at key closer situations in major-league baseball as we identifies potential buys for your fantasy team. The most obvious unsettled situation heading into the 2013 season is in Detroit, which is where we’ll focus our first article.
The Tigers enjoyed perfection from Jose Valverde in 2011 as the former closer collected a save in all 49 opportunities that season. However, the beautiful 100 percent conversion rate managed to hide troubling trends in Valverde’s statistics. His strikeout rate continued the downward trend it first started in the 2007 season, falling under one K per inning for the first time in his career as Valverde had just 69 strikeouts in 72.1 innings. His walk rate also stayed above 4.0 per nine innings for the second consecutive year. Despite his perfect season, Valverde was nowhere near the pitcher he had been in previous seasons.
The path to mediocrity came to a head in 2012, as Valverde struck out only 48 batters in 69 innings while posting a 3.78 ERA and 1.25 WHIP, his highest marks in each category since the 2006 season.
It was even worse for Valverde in the playoffs, where he took the loss after allowing three earned runs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the ALDS against the Athletics. After the Tigers advanced by virtue of a complete-game gem from Justin Verlander in Game 5 of that series, Valverde continued his meltdown in Game 1 of the ALDS, allowing the Yankees four earned runs in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game 4-4 and being removed in favor of Octavio Dotel in the middle of the inning.
A change clearly had to be made, and was. The Tigers steamrolled through the rest of the ALCS before being swept by the Giants in the World Series. Valverde made just one further appearance, allowing four hits and two earned runs while only recording one out in a game against the Giants. He was not brought back to Detroit after the season and still remains a free agent.
The Tigers headed into 2013 hoping to see rookie Bruce Rondon win the closer job, with general manager Dave Dombrowski revealing as much during the offseason. A 22-year-old fireballer coming off an inconsistent year in the minors, Rondon looked capable of striking out the world while putting far too many runners on base by virtue of a free pass. He walked 60 batters in 93 innings over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, which is why it came as no surprise when Rondon battled control issues this spring. Although he had an impressive 19 strikeouts in 12.1 innings, he also walked nine batters and surrendered eight earned runs. It was enough for the Tigers to send him to the minors to start the year.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, there was no backup plan in place in the very real possibility Rondon faltered. In fact, most of the offseason was spent poking holes in the Tigers’ other closer candidates. But they are all we’re left with as the season begins, so let’s take a look at each and determine where the saves lie. I’ll organize them in descending order of who offers the most fantasy appeal.
Manager Jim Leyland came out against Benoit in January, saying that the reliever may not be capable of handling save opportunities on back-to-back days physically. This appears largely due to Benoit’s unfavorable 4.50 ERA and 1.41 WHIP while pitching with zero days rest, according to Baseball Reference.
However, this comes on the strength of just 22 innings of sample size in a season where Benoit also didn’t pitch particularly well on one day rest or on three days rest. When you look at Benoit’s relief appearances over his entire career, you see he’s actually pitched at his best on zero days rest (2.36 ERA and 1.07 WHIP vs. 3.32 ERA and 1.16 WHIP overall as RP), and that includes last year’s numbers.
It seems likely that Benoit will get the first shot at closing, even if Leyland is hesitant to go to him on back-to-back days until Benoit earns his trust. The 35-year-old Benoit posted a 1.64 ERA with 12 strikeouts in 11 innings this spring, though Leyland didn’t use him in official spring-training starts on back-to-back days. If Leyland sticks with a committee, Benoit seems likely to head it. He’s capable of averaging one save a week until the team makes a more definitive move in the ninth inning (Rondon promotion, trade acquisition, FA signing).
On the surface, Coke would seem like an unlikely option for ninth inning duties. He’s a lefty, a red mark against any potential closer in a righty-dominated field. He posted a 4.00 ERA in 2012 while appearing far too hittable, allowing 71 hits in his 54 innings of action. He’s also the only key lefty setup man; the Tigers have two other southpaws in the ‘pen, but one (Darin Downs) has little MLB experience and the other (Drew Smyly) is expected to serve as the long man.
But what Coke does have going for him is recent experience. When Valverde melted down in the ALCS, it was Coke who was called upon to serve as the team’s closer. He finished six of the Tigers’ seven remaining games, notching saves in the team’s only two save opportunities after Valverde’s removal from the role. At the end of 2012 at least, Coke was Leyland’s preferred option.
Coke has been pretty up and down this spring, allowing five earned runs in 12 innings while striking out nine batters and walking five. If Leyland sticks to matchups based on handedness, Coke could be a candidate to finish the season with double-digit saves, especially if we don’t see Rondon promoted quickly.
Alburquerque is far from the highest-profile name in the bullpen mix, but he may very well be the most talented. However, he was very similar to Rondon in his last extended work with the Tigers in 2011, striking out 67 batters in 43.1 innings but also walking 29 for a 6.0 BB/9 rate that is nearly impossible to maintain if you want to close long-term.
The main concern with Alburquerque stems from elbow surgery that caused him to miss most of 2012, a huge red flag for any pitcher. He returned to allow just one earned run in 13.1 innings with the Tigers last year while striking out 18, but he also walked eight. If Rondon was too wild to close for the Tigers, where does that leave Alburquerque?
Still, he possesses the highest upside of anyone in the bullpen, capable of striking out batters at a nearly unparalleled level. He converted just one of three save opportunities this spring, surrendering four runs (three earned) in his last of the three chances by walking three batters and allowing just one hit while recording two outs. If Alburquerque lands in the closer role and posts one of those types of lines, he’s a sure bet to find himself back in the middle innings soon after.
Octavio Dotel seems a poor bet to serve as a traditional closer, considering his struggles against left-handed batters. He may pick up a handful of saves if a tough righty is at the plate of a close game, but he’s not someone that should be counted upon for a regular steam of saves.
Brayan Villarreal had a solid 2012 season in Detroit despite allowing a few too many walks, 28 in 54.2 innings. He did a fine job in spring training, striking out 16 batters in 13 innings while walking only three and allowing three earned runs. He also converted both of his save opportunities. In such a tough-to-read situation where it seems like anyone can emerge as the favorite for saves, why not Villarreal?
Darin Downs might be a lefty, but he’s coming off a strong spring in which he allowed just one earned run on nine hits and three walks in 14 innings while striking out 16. If no one else emerges as a reliable option, he could wind up getting a crack at some point, despite his inexperience and his lefty status.
And finally, Drew Smyly may get a little closer buzz, partly because he’s extremely talented and partly because Leyland refused to rule out Rick Porcello as a closer option if he were to land in the bullpen (he didn’t). However, the Tigers are lacking for rotation depth, and it would make little sense to wind Smyly down to an inning-per-appearance role when he’ll likely be needed in the rotation at some point this year.
Benoit should be the first guy owned in this bullpen, as he seems like the safest option to lead a committee for however long one exists. Coke and Alburquerque should also be owned in most leagues as either could land the gig as the team’s regular closer if Leyland decides to stick with one ninth-inning option after a few weeks of games are in the books. Villarreal and Downs loom as sleepers for the same role as steady closer. Dotel may collect some saves, but they should be few and far between. And don’t forget to keep tabs on Rondon, who is likely to be promoted if he gets things smoothed out on the minor league level. He’s worth a bench stash in many formats.
R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and contributes to CBSSports.com's MLB Rumors blog. He has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
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