Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 2/22/13
First, Tigers’ general manager Dave Dombrowski said young fireballing right-hander Bruce Rondon would be given “every shot” at closing this coming year. Then there were rumors that the Tigers were “targeting relievers capable of closing.” Last week, the manager said he doubted that anyone would be “anointed the closer out of spring training.” Whether or not there’s a real difference in the team stance at any of these points, there do seem to be some different ideas being put forth about the team’s perception of the closer’s role. It was difficult for Tigers fans to watch Jose Valverde implode in the playoffs last season. The natural reaction to the situation might have been to go out and sign the best free agent reliever on the market. There are two problems with that approach, however. The first was availability. Here are the free agent ‘closers’ that were on the market this year, how they’ve fared over the past three years, as well as the deal they got this offseason: Name SV IP K% BB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP WAR Deal Rafael Soriano 89 169.1 23.8% 8.2% 34.5% 2.50 3.28 3.80 3.1 2/$28m Brian Wilson 85 131.2 26.3% 10.4% 50.0% 2.46 2.70 3.35 3.0 n/a Ryan Madson 37 113.2 27.2% 6.3% 49.5% 2.45 2.42 2.85 2.9 1/$3.5m Joakim Soria 71 126 24.9% 6.3% 44.2% 2.86 2.99 3.10 2.9 2/$8m Brandon League 58 212.1 17.7% 8.0% 57.0% 3.14 3.34 3.55 2.5 3/$22.5m Fernando Rodney 65 174.2 21.0% 10.5% 54.8% 2.73 3.35 3.79 2.4 1/$2.5m Jose Valverde 110 204.1 21.1% 10.9% 43.0% 3.00 3.64 4.27 2.4 n/a Jonathan Broxton 56 133 22.4% 9.5% 49.3% 3.52 3.27 3.52 2.0 3/$21m Matt Capps 71 168 15.9% 4.9% 45.0% 3.38 4.04 3.92 0.9 MiLB Brett Myers 19 67.1 15.7% 5.4% 50.5% 3.34 4.33 3.86 0.1 1/$7m Not to denigrate the pitchers on this list, but for a contender coming off a year that ended with their closer demoted, there’s really only one name that would ‘solve’ the situation in one fell swoop. And that guy? He got a deal that he’d be hard pressed to be worth by the wins above replacement metric on our site. A win has been worth about five million dollars most recently, and Rafael Soriano has three of them in the last three years. Which is of course the other problem. Other than the hurlers on the list above, here are the free agent closers currently atop their bullpen depth charts across the league, how they’ve done over the past three years, and their current contracts: Name SV G IP K% BB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP WAR contract Mariano Rivera 82 134 129.2 22.8% 4.2% 48.7% 1.87 2.46 3.10 4.5 1/$10m Grant Balfour 26 194 192 24.8% 8.6% 34.9% 2.44 3.17 3.67 3.0 2/$8.1m J.J. Putz 80 177 166.1 28.7% 5.7% 45.4% 2.60 2.48 2.84 4.9 1/$7m Jason Grilli 3 92 91.1 33.1% 9.6% 36.4% 2.76 2.98 2.99 1.4 2/$6.75m Jonathan Papelbon 106 198 201.1 30.9% 6.8% 39.1% 3.08 2.66 2.84 5.6 4/$50m Rafael Betancourt 40 200 182.1 30.4% 3.9% 31.1% 3.11 2.69 2.79 5.1 2/$8.5m Huston Street 72 146 144.2 25.8% 5.4% 37.0% 3.24 3.26 3.17 2.7 2/$14m Joe Nathan 51 114 109 27.0% 6.0% 40.8% 3.63 3.40 3.16 1.8 2/$14.75m Frank Francisco 42 158 145.2 25.2% 9.0% 37.1% 4.20 3.58 3.50 1.6 2/$12m By this grouping, your current free agent closer is twice as likely to not be worth his salary as he is to be worth it this season. Yes, WAR gives credit to late-game relieving by using leverage index, and also yes, a legit stopper might be worth more than his WAR suggests to a team that’s closer to contention. Either way, it certainly doesn’t look any better than a 50/50 proposition. Remember also how good a 31-year-old Jose Valverde was in Houston. And then how he’d lost all his whiffs by the time he was 34. And how Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman showed us that aging is harder on relievers than starters. Francisco Rodriguez is probably the best reliever on the market that has closing experience — and maybe he’ll end up with the Tigers. As you can see from the list above, teams can have success buying better setup men and installing them in the role for the first time, but unless you think Joey Devine is going to stay in one piece this year, there really isn’t that guy on the market anymore. Maybe one of their capable relievers currently on the roster will close. Closers are born all the time. Al Alburquerque has a 95 mph fastball and a wicked slider that gest whiffs — but the right-hander uses a platoon-unfriendly slider as his secondary weapon and walks over 15% of the batters he sees. Phil Coke is a good lefty, but he has a 4.85 xFIP against righties. The 35-year-old Joaquin Benoit actually shows great rates, has gas, and enough weapons that his platoon splits are neutral — perhaps he’s the actual closer. Maybe they’ll make it work, as they did for much of the postseason. It’s not like their 3.63 ERA after the seventh inning in the playoffs was terrible. That’s why you have Dombrowski saying that the club might “mix and match” at the position. And yet there still is this sense that something needs to change in Detroit’s bullpen. Jim Leyland did say recently that it was “a front-burner thing that is on the back-burner.” Enter the 21-year old Bruce Rondon, who hasn’t shown an ERA above 2.25 since rookie ball, and has struck out exactly a quarter of the batters he’s seen in the minor leagues. But Rondon is a rookie, and he also walked 13% of the batters he saw on the farm. Is the rookie thing a big deal? We see rookie closers all the time. But for a team straight out of the playoffs, hoping to get back there again? Here are the rookie closers that took over and saved more than ten games for a ployoff team since 2000: Season Name Team IP SV K% BB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP WAR 2011 Craig Kimbrel Braves 77 46 41.5% 10.5% 44.8% 2.10 1.52 1.94 3.2 2006 Jonathan Papelbon Red Sox 68.1 35 29.2% 5.1% 37.3% 0.92 2.14 3.13 3.2 2006 Bobby Jenks White Sox 69.2 41 26.7% 10.3% 58.8% 4.00 3.20 3.08 2.0 2000 Byung-Hyun Kim Diamondbacks 68.1 14 35.7% 13.8% 4.08 3.51 1.3 2003 Jose Valverde Diamondbacks 50.1 10 34.8% 12.8% 33.3% 2.15 2.91 3.33 1.2 2008 Jensen Lewis Indians 66 13 17.8% 9.3% 35.3% 3.82 4.59 4.65 0.1 2005 Yhency Brazoban Dodgers 72.2 21 19.2% 10.1% 39.2% 5.33 4.84 4.44 -0.5 The list looks nice at first, but consider this: 36 rookie relievers managed 10+ saves since 2000. Seven of them did so for teams that had been in the playoffs the year before. Finding a rookie reliever seems like it’s normally done on worse teams. If everything breaks right for Rondon, though, his numbers could look like one player on that list in particular, given his big fastball and iffy control. Yeah, the guy on the way out in Detroit. You’d have to say it was unlikely for Bruce Rondon to take the reigns from day one and dominate, given those odds. There’s going to be a lot of scrutiny, and he has some aspects of his game to work on. But if you combine his odds, with the odds Al Alburquerque controls the ball a little better this season, and the odds that Joaquin Benoit has one last strong year in him — then you’re probably doing better than the odds that a (more expensive) free agent closer would be any more valuable.
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