Could the Detroit Tigers really go into the 2013 season without an established closer in their bullpen?
That's the plan, according to reporters who cover the Tigers, such as MLB.com's Jason Beck. General manager Dave Dombrowski insists that 22-year-old Bruce Rondon, who progressed from Single-A to Triple-A last season, could be Detroit's ninth-inning guy this year.
But until Rondon—or another Detroit reliever—proves capable of being a major league closer, people who cover and follow baseball will believe that the Tigers need to acquire a veteran for that role.
For most of the offseason, the prevailing belief was that the Tigers would sign Rafael Soriano. With Soriano going to the Washington Nationals, however, Detroit presumably has to look elsewhere. That's led to the latest rumor, from Fox Sports' Jon Paul Morosi, that the Tigers could trade Rick Porcello to the Baltimore Orioles for Jim Johnson.
Porcello is believed to be expendable after the Tigers re-signed Anibal Sanchez to a five-year, $80 million contract. That pushes the 24-year-old to the fifth spot in the Detroit rotation, a job he'll have to compete for during spring training with left-hander Drew Smyly.
Ideally, the Tigers would love to trade Porcello to Baltimore for shortstop J.J. Hardy, who would provide a defensive upgrade over Jhonny Peralta. According to FanGraphs' ultimate zone rating (UZR), Hardy was the second-best defensive shortstop in the American League last season.
(Curiously, Peralta ranked third in UZR. Yet, the Tigers want a shortstop with better range, which could expose a flaw in this particular defensive metric—at least for the 2012 season.)
But the Orioles don't want to trade Hardy despite having Manny Machado ready to move over to shortstop. That would weaken the infield at third base because the O's have no viable alternative at that position.
Yet, is Porcello a good fit in Baltimore? Despite the Orioles' success in challenging the Yankees for the AL East title and eventually making the postseason as a Wild Card, starting pitching was a weakness throughout the season.
Wei-Yin Chen emerged as Baltimore's top starter and Jason Hammel pitched well before missing two months with a knee injury. Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman and Steve Johnson also developed into strong starting pitching options who should fill out the rest of the rotation.
But Porcello could provide something of a veteran presence, at least in terms of experience.
Despite being only 24, the right-hander has four MLB seasons on his resume because the Tigers called him up so early in his career. (They probably called him up too early, preventing him from developing his off-speed pitches in the minors.)
As a sinkerball pitcher, Porcello would likely also benefit from a much better infield defense in Baltimore than what he has to work with in Detroit. With Peralta at shortstop, Miguel Cabrera at third base and Prince Fielder at first, many ground balls that should be outs end up as hits.
That affected Porcello adversely last season, during which he compiled a 10-12 record with a 4.59 ERA. He also allowed 226 hits, the highest total in MLB.
The strength of the Orioles pitching staff last season was its bullpen. Baltimore went 29-9 in one-run games, which would have been impossible without getting excellent pitching from its relief corps. As a unit, the O's bullpen compiled a 3.00 ERA, the third-best mark in the AL.
Johnson led the majors with 51 saves. He was one of five Orioles relievers with an ERA under 3.00 for the season. Four of Baltimore's top five relievers posted an ERA below 2.50.
Why would the Orioles tinker with what is clearly an asset? Perhaps it's about money.
Johnson has two more seasons of arbitration eligibility remaining and figures to get more expensive over the next two years. He made $2.6 million last year and MLB Trade Rumors' Matt Swartz projects him to make $6.9 million this season.
Porcello has three seasons of arbitration eligibility left, but Swartz projects a $4.7 million salary for him this year.
Not only will he be cheaper, but the Orioles would also get better value from him as a starting pitcher. Porcello could provide 200 innings of work, while Johnson would probably throw 70 innings at most.
One of Baltimore's other outstanding relievers could likely take over the closer role. The top candidate for the job might be Pedro Strop, who compiled a 2.44 ERA and struck out 7.9 batters per nine innings last year.
Darren O'Day actually has better numbers, with a 2.28 ERA and strikeout rate of 9.3 batters per nine, but Orioles manager Buck Showalter might prefer to use him in different situations throughout a ballgame, rather than tie him to the ninth inning.
Though Johnson's save totals were certainly impressive last season, he struck out an average of 5.4 batters per nine innings. That might not be the sort of reliever the Tigers are looking for as their closer. After years of using Todd Jones and Jose Valverde, who didn't blow away opposing hitters in the ninth inning, Detroit might want a flamethrower in that role.
Rondon certainly appears to have the strikeout stuff for the job. He punched out an average of 11.2 batters per nine innings last year. His rate of 4.4 walks per nine could be a concern, yet the Tigers are apparently willing to take a risk on a young reliever after employing expensive free-agent closers for the past several seasons.
If the Tigers feel the need for some security like Johnson, they may reach that decision during spring training. The team has to get a look at Rondon in Lakeland and determine if he has the control to be a reliable closer. If not, then Dombrowski could pursue a veteran like Johnson.
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