Evolution of the Tigers closer, November to now
First, there was no more Jose Valverde.
Then there was Bruce Rondon and other candidates.
Then there was the bullpen by committee.
Then there was the bullpen by committee without Rondon.
Then there was Joaquin Benoit at the head of the bullpen by committee.
Then, for a couple hours (but no game, thanks to the weather), there was the bullpen by committee with Rondon joining in.
Now, there’s Valverde. And there’s Rondon.
Did you follow all that? I covered it, and I’m still not sure I followed all of it. But here’s my best shot at a recap:
When the World Series ended last fall, the Tigers bid farewell to Valverde. He became a free agent, and Dave Dombrowski said they would not sign him. Part of the reason behind it was to keep the competition open for Bruce Rondon to try to win it.
From Dombrowski’s end-of-season remarks:
“This guy is a special potential closer with the makeup of a closer, and normally you’re not going to thrust that in a young guy’s hands and say automatically, ‘It’s your job.’ But it would not surprise me if he earned that job. With the number of good arms that are out there, there are not many arms like this, and he cherishes that type of role.”
Manager Jim Leyland, meanwhile, wouldn’t discount the possibility of having a set closer:
“I think we will have a closer. I think it might be a surprise closer, but I think we might have one.”
At the Winter Meetings in December, when agent Scott Boras was looking to talk about his top closer client, Rafael Soriano, he not-so-subtly referenced a “philosophical cliff” to treating prospects as known quantities. He also talked about the rarity of closers under age 23 putting together 30-save seasons.
Dombrowski, while not anointing Rondon, used Andrew Bailey, Neftali Feliz and Craig Kimbrel as examples of closers who succeeded as rookies.
“The reality is, it can be done,” Dombrowski said.
He wasn’t saying it would be, but at that point, he also made it clear they weren’t searching for a closer.
“We feel comfortable where we are at this point,” he said.
When Spring Training began in mid-February, Leyland left open the possibility of a bullpen by committee, but also noted Rondon as possibly the best candidate they had to hold the job outright. While guys like Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel could close a game, he admittedly wasn’t sure whether they could be the closer.
“Am I concerned about it? Yes. Am I excited about it? Probably moreso,” Leyland said. “I’m really looking forward to it. I like talent. I’m excited about it, I really am, and I know that I’ve got enough pieces to mix and match a little bit if I have to.”
He also made it clear he believes in the value of a set closer.
“Some writers in baseball, numbers guys and everything, don’t believe in the closer. But Jim Leyland does,” he said.
On March 4, after a Joel Sherman report for the New York Post said Leyland was pushing for the Tigers to re-sign Valverde but that the price tag was too high, Leyland said Valverde “has not been discussed at all.“
Leyland said at that point he had been recommending Valverde to other teams, but that they had known all offseason Valverde wasn’t coming back to the Tigers. He also said nobody was writing off Rondon yet despite his early struggles.
Leyland also re-iterated the importance of the closer role as a different situation than simple relief pitching.
“There have been a lot of guys in baseball that could get outs 22, 23 and 24, but not 25, 26 and 27,” Leyland said.
Somewhere soon after that, the idea of Rondon as part of a closer by committee seemed to gain traction.
On March 6, Phil Coke questioned whether the Tigers had to have a set closer:
“I don’t understand why there’s a panic button. We’re not going to die. We’re not all going to die if we don’t have a closer. If we go out there and we need to have a guy step into a situation, we will. If it’s a closer by committee, it’s a closer by committee. If [Rondon's] the closer, he’s the closer.”
On March 10, Joaquin Benoit said the Tigers should have a set closer, pretty much the exact opposite. In hindsight, he might have had the best prediction of the spring, albeit an ironic one considering he briefly became the closer.
“I think we need to have a closer and we need to have the setup guys set,” he said, “because it’s going to be really hard on our bullpen if it’s do-by-committee. We need to get one person to step up and throw the ninth inning, for the rest of the guys just to know what they’re going to do in the game.”
On March 28, the closer by committee became a reality, and it didn’t include Rondon, who was optioned to Toledo to get some work.
“There’ll be a guy out there in the ninth to close games for us,” Dombrowski said. “We have guys that we feel very comfortable can close games. We may not have a closer anointed, but we have many guys that we think can close games. And so Jim will, kind of like he did in the postseason at times last year, mix and match.”
At that point, Leyland said, it was wide open.
“Any one of the seven could close a game,” Leyland said. “That’s just the way you have to look at it. I might call on anybody, and I’ll have a little meeting with them. You have to be ready to pitch at all times unless you need a day off. Any one of them might get the ball to get the third out in the ninth.”
That same day, Boras said that Valverde had thrown for scouts from three Major League teams back in his native Dominican Republic and was scheduled to throw for two more. He did not specify which teams, but it turned out the Tigers were one of the two.
The next Thursday, April 4, the Tigers signed a minor-league deal with Valverde. It came a day after the Tigers, mixing and matching with Benoit and Coke, blew a ninth-inning lead and lost to the Twins.
“We do not have a dominant closer and most clubs that have a chance to win have a closer,” Dombrowski said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t win by mixing and matching, either, but right now we’re in a situation where we’re mixing and matching and if the situation ends up being better with Papa Grande, with Rondon, with whomever it may during times, we’re open-minded to that.”
Dombrowski also said at the time that he and Boras had kept in touch on Valverde the past couple months, but that the breakthrough came when Valverde was willing to accept a minor-league contract with no guarantees.
On April 10, Leyland was getting tired of the bullpen questions, and he said he could anybody at any time.
“It’s safe for all of you guys to say just what I’ve been telling you all along — I’m going to use anybody at any time,” Leyland said. “So you might as well write that, and you can put it in your pipes and smoke it, because there’s nothing else to do.”
But he also said he’d like to use Benoit in the ninth if he could.
“On a lot of the days, if it’s doable, I think [Joaquin] Benoit is the most experienced and versatile enough against righties and lefties to pitch the ninth,” Leyland said. “But it’s not going to be doable every day. You’re liable to see anybody at any time … until something else happens, if it does happen.”
He did not reference what that something else might be, but you could figure it out.
On April 23, something else happened.
“One thing you know about him: He’s done it before, and he’s not afraid,” Leyland said of Valverde.
As for the order of the bullpen, the challenge he cited often with a bullpen by committee, Leyland said, “It reads better than it did before. Will it be better? I don’t know.”