Could the Tigers Depend on Brian Wilson to Still Be a Big-Game Playoff Closer?

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Could the Tigers Depend on Brian Wilson to Still Be a Big-Game Playoff Closer?
Denis Poroy/Getty Images
Brian Wilson is still looking for a team to pitch with in 2013.

It's difficult to believe Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski when he suggests that his team is ready to go with 22-year-old Bruce Rondon as its closer next season.

This typically hasn't been the Tigers' move since Dombrowski took over as GM and team president in 2002. Detroit has frequently opted for a veteran closer, spending free-agent dollars on a proven commodity for the role. 

Ugueth Urbina began the trend in 2004. He was followed by Troy Percival, who only pitched 26 games with the Tigers. Todd Jones was the closer when Detroit returned to playoff contention, saving 93 games in three seasons. After letting Fernando Rodney handle ninth-inning duties in 2009, the Tigers used Jose Valverde for the past three seasons.

Despite touting Rondon, could Dombrowski tab another veteran to be the Tigers' closer for 2013? In his latest column for ESPN.com, former Reds and Nationals GM Jim Bowden thinks Detroit should give Brian Wilson a shot at the job, believing going with Rondon is too big a risk for a team with World Series aspirations. 

Wilson is still looking for a 2013 employer, after the San Francisco Giants didn't tender him a contract after this past season. He pitched in only two games after suffering a season-ending elbow injury that required the second reconstructive surgery of his career. 

With two Tommy John procedures performed on his right elbow, the Giants weren't interested in bringing Wilson back for anything near the $8.5 million he earned last year. As the San Francisco Chronicle's Henry Schulman explains, the Giants would have had to pay Wilson at least $6.8 million—or 80 percent of the previous season's salary—had he been tendered a contract.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Will 22-year-old Bruce Rondon be the Tigers closer?

The Giants could still re-sign Wilson, but he's reportedly sore about being let go after seven seasons in San Francisco and has been looking for offers elsewhere throughout MLB, according to Schulman.

To this point, the Tigers are not one of the teams that have been attached to Wilson in offseason rumors. The 30-year-old right-hander has previously been linked to the Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels, but nothing has come from those rumblings as of yet.

However, the Red Sox signed Koji Uehara and traded for Joel Hanrahan, while the Angels took a chance on another reliever coming off Tommy John surgery in Ryan Madson. Those two teams are likely no longer options for Wilson.

But the Dodgers could still be a possibility, especially after losing out on Hanrahan. As a Los Angeles resident during the offseason, Wilson reportedly prefers to sign with the Dodgers. Yet, according to the L.A. Times' Dylan Hernandez, the Dodgers don't have mutual interest. Despite the pursuit of Hanrahan, a left-handed reliever is believed to be a priority. 

CBS Sports' Scott Miller tweeted shortly after Christmas that Wilson has narrowed his list of teams to approximately five clubs. However, the specific teams on Wilson's radar weren't named. 

Should the Tigers take a shot at Wilson, if he's interested? He would presumably fill a current hole in Detroit's bullpen.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Brian Wilson could be bullpen insurance for Detroit.

Rondon certainly had an impressive 2012, rocketing through the Tigers' minor league system from Single-A Lakeland to Triple-A Toledo by the end of the year. Overall, he finished with a 1.53 ERA in 52 appearances, striking out 66 batters in 53 innings. 

Those are the kinds of numbers that Detroit has been yearning for from a reliever since Joel Zumaya blew everyone away with his triple-digit fastball in 2006. But frequent arm injuries prevented Zumaya from developing into the Tigers' closer, depriving fans, coaches, executives and players from seeing a formidable presence in the ninth inning. 

In recent seasons, the Tigers haven't entrusted their closer role to a reliever without major league experience. But sinking free-agent dollars into the position has only been moderately successful, with Valverde's 2011 season of 49 saves without a blown opportunity appearing to be an obvious exception. 

What Dombrowski and the Tigers may be afraid of is giving the job to one pitcher and then leaving other relievers in the bullpen unprepared for the responsibility if needed.

When Valverde lost his touch in the postseason, it put Detroit's bullpen into disarray. Phil Coke became the closer of choice during the 2012 playoffs, but that left him unavailable to pitch to left-handed batters earlier in the ballgame.

Though the Tigers had other options such as Octavio Dotel, Al Alburquerque and Joaquin Benoit, those pitchers were needed for middle innings. In the case of Benoit, he was shaky as the setup man and Detroit likely didn't want to take a chance with him in the ninth.

Yet the so-called "closer by committee" approach, with the job rotated among a handful of relievers, is what Detroit is faced with if Rondon proves that he's not ready to pitch the ninth inning in the majors.

Going with the "hot hand" or using the best relievers based on matchups and the high leverage of the situation appears to be a rational approach on paper, but major leaguers seem to respond better when they know what their role is in a particular game—or better yet, throughout the season.

Relievers generally want to know, for example, if they're going to pitch in the eighth inning. 

For the purposes of team harmony, a bullpen is better served by having a designated closer. The Tigers appear to have learned that investing big money in that position doesn't yield impactful results, and have stayed away from expensive free-agent options like Rafael Soriano. 

Chris Trotman/Getty Images
The Tigers have had mixed success with veteran closers such as Jose Valverde.

But some insurance wouldn't be a bad thing either.

Wilson is exactly the sort of reliever Detroit should take a chance on—a previously successful closer who might sign for a less expensive deal, pitch one season to show he's healthy and then go back into the free-agent market with a better profile. He could compete with Rondon in spring training and perhaps share the role with him during the season, essentially serving as a mentor. 

The question is whether or not Wilson wants that role.

Other relievers coming off Tommy John surgery, such as Madson and Joakim Soria, signed for around $4 million per season in their latest contracts. Wilson is apparently seeking more, since he's still available. Either that, or he's looking for a team where he can be the closer. 

Detroit could fulfill both criteria for Wilson, though it would be a mistake for the Tigers to take a chance for more than current market value. In the past, Detroit has put clauses in contracts with Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, allowing the club to opt out of their deals if previous back or knee injuries put them on the disabled list.

But those were multi-year agreements. Would Wilson agree to such terms on a one-year contract? Maybe, if the contract was worth enough money. 

The Tigers won't know if Rondon can handle being their closer until they give him a shot in that role. He should be the favorite to win the job, regardless of who else the team might add. It's time for Detroit to take a chance on a young pitcher, as they have in the starting rotation.

Yet Wilson would provide some low-risk/high-reward insurance. If Rondon succeeds and Wilson is capable of pitching in a setup role (probably the seventh inning), Detroit has a fabulous bullpen—one certainly better than the one holding them back in the postseason.

That looks like a potential win-win situation for the American League champions. 

 

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