As the Detroit Tigers made their run to the World Series last season, closer Jose Valverde struggled (nine earned runs allowed in four postseason appearances) and saw his role minimized, with just one appearance after Game 1 of the ALCS. So it was no surprise the Tigers made no effort to keep Valverde from entering the free agent market this offseason, and he remains available.
Bruce Rondon, despite never having pitched in the big leagues, was considered the frontrunner to take over as Detroit’s closer this season. But his struggles this spring (5.84 ERA in 12.1 innings) led to him being sent to Triple-A Toledo this week. So the defending American League champions will open the season with multiple candidates to close games, with Joaquin Benoit, Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel all possibly getting an opportunity.
With the Tigers expected to win plenty of games again in 2013, fantasy baseball owners should keep an eye on their bullpen situation. Could one guy emerge as the primary option for saves? Let’s look at each of the notable candidates.
Coke had a strong postseason last year, with a 0.84 ERA in 10 total playoff appearances, and he had two saves against the New York Yankees in the ALCS. Coke struck out more batters last season (8.5 K/9), but right-handed batters have hit .299 against him during his career and that may limit the save chances he gets.
It was a tale of two seasons for Benoit in 2012, with a 2.87 ERA through the end of July and a 5.25 ERA after that. A significant spike in his home run/fly ball percentage overall (18 percent in 2012; 7 percent in 2011) is partially to blame, but his batted ball percentages tilt fly ball-heavy (44 percent fly ball rate and a 36 percent ground ball rate last season), which has prevented him from becoming a closer during his career.
Benoit’s peripherals are closer-worthy, with plenty of strike outs (K/9 rate of at least 9.3 in five of his last six seasons) and good control (BB/9 rate less than 3.0 for three straight seasons), but his propensity for allowing fly balls creates the potential for his surface numbers to suffer if the poor luck he had late last season resurfaces.
The venerable Dotel put together another good season in 2012, posting a 3.57 ERA over 57 appearances in his first season with Detroit. He also maintained nice peripherals (9.6 K/9 rate; 1.9 BB/9 rate) and continued to dominate right-handed batters (.197 batting average against). Manager Jim Leyland may look to limit the 39-year old’s workload, and Dotel may be most effective in a late-inning setup role anyway with just four saves over the last two seasons.
Alburquerque did not pitch in the big leagues until September last season as he recovered from right elbow surgery, but he was dominant upon his return with a 0.68 ERA and a 12.2 K/9 rate in eight appearances (13.1 innings). He still walks too many batters (eight walks last season, 6.0 BB/9 in 2011), but an elite level ground ball rate (57 percent over 41 appearances in 2011) coupled with his raw stuff is a rare combination.
Leyland would surely like one guy to emerge as his closer at some point, but it looks likely he will use a closer-by-committee early in the season and let matchups dictate his overall bullpen usage. That will make this situation a frustrating one for fantasy owners to predict on a game-by-game basis. If Rondon looks good at Triple-A, he will likely re-enter the mix at some point.
All things considered, Alburquerque is the Tigers’ reliever I would target in mixed leagues right now. He should contribute plenty of strikeouts regardless of his role, and he has the most upside if he can improve his control and force Leyland to give him the majority of the save opportunities.
Leaving saves out of the equation, Benoit, Coke and Dotel all have some value in AL-only leagues. If one happens to emerge as the primary closer, that would put him on the radar in deep mixed leagues.
Valverde is not expected to come back to Detroit, but as long as he remains available rumors are likely to surround him. Fellow free agent Brian Wilson may also become a rumored option if the team can’t find a sure-fire closer over the first few weeks of the season. The presence of either veteran would further complicate the Tigers’ bullpen for fantasy owners, and possibly make it one to avoid all together.
Brad Berreman is a contributing writer at Rant Sports.com. Follow him on Twitter @bradberreman24.