It’s no secret that the Detroit Tigers are in dire need of bullpen help.
They know it, the rest of the MLB world knows it, and as long as it’s not fixed, this otherwise ready-made World Series contender may always find itself coming up short just as it did again in 2013 — no matter how many aces the Tigers might have on their roster, and even if they’ve got the best hitter in the game today leading the way.
Whether the Detroit needs to shell out for a closer, however … well, that’s a little more debatable.
That might sound crazy given the roller coaster that was the Tigers’ closer chair through much of 2013, but even with 36-year-old Joaquin Benoit potentially parlaying his solid season that saw him earn 24 handshakes to a big contract with another team (he could be re-signed by Detroit, though it won’t come cheap), one could easily argue that what they should be really looking at are the bridge guys leading to the ninth.
After all, Detroit already has a young closer-in-waiting in Bruce Rondon — a guy who they were so confident in going into Spring Training in 2013 that they practically gave him the job straight out of triple-A.
While most Tigers fans will remember how that plan ultimately blew up and was aborted before the youngster really had a shot to get going, what may have been overlooked is how much he improved after getting his groove back in the minors and how, after just 28.2 big-league innings, he might actually be ready for the gig in 2014.
It’s true. Ridiculous triple-digit fastball aside, Rondon’s biggest accomplishment after being sent to the minors in early 2013 was how much he was able to harness it as he returned for the summer months. From the All-Star break on, he walked a batter in just six of his 20 outings, good for a more than acceptable 3.20 BB/9, especially when you consider that struck out batters at a rate of 10.07 K/9 after the break.
There were a stretch of three outings at the end of July where he allowed three runs on five hits with just two strikeouts, and just as things looked to unravel, the fireballer was given a breather and bounced back with a pair of two-inning outings to open August, striking out six through four scoreless innings.
He’d basically gone under the radar at that point with Benoit rolling, but by the time he got hurt at the end of the year, he’d allowed runs in just two of his last 15 outings and was a bright spot in an otherwise very unreliable bullpen.
That’s a bullpen that’s under threat to be depleted, especially if Benoit ends up going elsewhere. Fortunately for the Tigers, this offseason’s class of relievers happens to be pretty strong, with players ranging from former closers needing a rebound (Joel Hanrahan, Ryan Madson), to guys who are established stalwarts at the setup role (Jesse Crain, Boone Logan, Eric O’Flaherty).
You can pick you choice of names really, but they all point towards one thing — if the Tigers want to rebuild their bullpen, the pieces are there … and it doesn’t have to cost a ton of money either.
Players like Joe Nathan, Grant Balfour and Benoit, on the other hand, will cost Detroit a fair bundle of money, and given that their needs are much wider than just needing an Established Closer, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that they should focus on having quality depth and letting someone like Rondon grow into the role in 2014.
With the kind of money spent on a player like Nathan, it’s quite possible that the team could get three solid relievers that will ultimately provide more security and value to a relief corps that was short on both.
Is moving Rondon to the ninth before Spring Training risky? Sure, but depth will compensate for that. Depth will also alleviate the biggest issues that the Tigers’ bullpen face in 2013 — not having a “next man up” when they got into trouble on the mound. One expensive closer isn’t going to fix things if they don’t have the bridges to get to the ninth, and with the money saved by not shelling out for one, the team can build a solid foundation punctuated by triple-digit heat.
Besides, they could use the savings to move the team to bigger things … like finding the money to extend Max Scherzer, perhaps?