Thursday, we learned the Detroit Tigers were not ready for the Bruce Rondon experience in the ninth inning as they demoted him to Triple-A to work on his inconsistency. Rondon had an awful start to the spring, seemed to turn a corner a few weeks ago, but his most recent outings were a step in the wrong direction. Now, we are left with an imperfect storm of a bullpen with many talented options and a manager whose picture occupies the wikipedia page when looking up the phrase, "old school manager."
What will Leyland do (WWLD)?
This process started for Leyland back in the 2012 postseason as Papa Grande Jose Valverde imploded before our very eyes. When asked about the closer role by the media, here is what Leyland had to say (full reply here):
"Yeah. I will answer your second one first. I totally disagree with anybody that thinks the closer can be interchangeable parts. And if I was ever in the right place to have a lot of people on my side, this is the place because they had a guy named Mariano Rivera that I don't think they wanted to interchange too damn often. That's the answer to one question. I disagree with it totally, I mean the thought process...I definitely disagree with the stuff about not having a definite closer. All I know is I go to Winter Meetings every year, and everybody is talking about closers, and everybody is talking about trying to get one, and some of the new philosophy in baseball is that anybody can close; I totally disagree with that. And I am not staying I am right, but I totally disagree with that. Like I said, I am in a pretty good place to state my guys today. That guy No. 42, they didn't interchange him very often."
Now, flash forward to yesterday when Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski gave this charge to the Detroit media:
"It's what we said all along," said Dombrowski. "There will be a guy out there in the ninth inning who will close games for us. We might not have a closer anointed, but we have guys we're comfortable with that can close games."
"(Manager Jim Leyland) will mix and match."
The boss gets what the boss wants, so how can Leyland mix and match the pen to get saves in lieu of entrusting a volatile rookie or bringing back Valverde?
Leyland talked about the situation at Tigersfest in late January and from that discussion, we learned that he has a lot of confidence in Phil Coke and that he lacks the confidence in Joaquin Benoit working on consecutive days. The Benoit charge is someting Ben Lindbergh of BaseballProspectus covered late Thursday and found the accusation is more mythical than factual. For the record, the charge surrounded Benoit in Tampa Bay as well as he was rarely used on consecutive days, but that was also in the season following his shoulder surgery that he is now three years removed from.
While Benoit has the velocity and skills, the one red flag with him is his propensity for the inopportune longball. Benoit is a two-pitch guy who throws a low 90s fastball and a devastating off-speed pitch that sometimes hangs up in the zone. Last season down the stretch, he allowed 13 earned runs in 23 innings due mainly to the seven home runs he allowed. That said, Benoit's contract was structured in this final year to be treated as the closer as he has incentives built into it for games finished.
The Phil Coke love from Leyland and even others in the fantasy industry is rather perplexing. Simply put, Coke is a LOOGY and needs to be used in this manner. Coke's career OPS versus lefties is .623 while his OPS versus righties is 179 points higher at .802. Over each of the last four seasons, Coke�s batting average against righties has increased from .227 to .276 to .314, and all the way up to .396 last season. Somehow, he has amassed 422 plate appearances against righties over the past two seasons and has struck out just 54 while walking 35 and has allowed 37 extra-base hits. Coke could be used for certain situations in the ninth - say to face Justin Morneau or Joe Mauer - but using him against righties is a recipe for disaster. The Twins could use a lineup of Mauer-Willingham-Morneau-Doumit which would force Leyland�s hand to strategize or close his eyes and pray.
Another known evil is the human hat rack Octavio Dotel who has pitched for more teams in his career than any other active pitcher. Dotel has a long, and I mean long established record of effectiveness against righties dating back to the Civil War era. However, his OPS splits are over 130 points apart. If you look at his year to year numbers against lefties, they are actually improving as his OPS against them has improved each of the past four seasons but reliever volatility, at any age, could lead to that trend reversing itself with increased exposure.
Al Alburquerque, contrary to what Mike Francesa thinks, is a real pitcher albeit one with limited major league experience. The hard throwing right-hander has worked just 59 innings in the major leagues but they have been very dominating. What Alburquerque lacks in experience, he makes up for with the fact he has shown no splits in his time with the Tigers. He has faced nearly the same amount of righties and lefties and has held both to sub-.440 OPS�s.
Most of the Rotowire staff leans with the kid, and for good reason because he has dominating stuff and lacks the splits of the others in the mix. Admittedly, he lacks the experience of the others and had an injury-shortened 2012, but on a pure talent level, he appears to be the guy with the highest ceiling of the bunch. Even if Rondon were to come back to the majors, his high-ceiling arm has the lowest floor of the bunch as he too demonstrated extreme splits in the minor leagues and his lack of control makes even Carlos Marmol chuckle.
Alburquerque's biggest hurdle could be pitching for a manager that does not even like to tinker with his lineups and is on record with his disdain for committees in the late innings. Some pitchers in this bullpen have the experience, some have the stuff, but none of these guys are without flaw. After seven weeks of auditioning, the Tigers appear to be back at square one with their closer situation and the committee could quickly adjourn if one of them establishes himself in the beady eyes of the old skipper.