Tigers' Spring Training Backup Plans If Bruce Rondon Doesn't Pan out
One of the big questions the Detroit Tigers have coming into the 2013 season is whether or not Bruce Rondon is ready to handle the closer’s role.
General Manager Dave Dombrowski and Tigers manager Jim Leyland seem ready to enter the season with a 22-year-old rookie as their man.
After José Valverde lost the job in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series last fall, the Tigers were torn with either giving Rondon the chance or scouring the trade market. Starting pitcher Rick Porcello was offered around, but the Tigers found no dance partners.
While all sides hope that Rondon can learn on the job this spring, the Tigers’ front office would be unwise to not be aware of other alternatives if Rondon cannot meet expectations or is injured.
Here are four options the Tigers have if the flame-throwing Venezuelan fizzles out in his first go-round.
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Alburquerque’s résumé is similar to Rondon’s. He strikes out batters by the bushel but has a hard time keeping the ball in the strike zone.
Coming off an injury in 2012, Alburquerque will be entering just his third season in the bigs. Carrying a career 1.12 WHIP, he has shown the ability to get you four outs every time he steps on the mound.
With a K/9 ratio of 13.5, he certainly has the stuff needed to close out games. It is his 5.9 BB/9 number that is a problem. Albuquerque walks more hitters than he allows base hits. In his 56.2 innings with the Tigers, he has walked 37 while allowing only 27 hits.
If Rondon struggles with his control this spring, replacing him with Alburquerque may be seen as a lateral move.
On the other hand if Rondon gets lit up, Alburquerque already has a good track record out of the pen and could be given a chance to audition for the role himself.
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Octavio Dotel has been the closer for parts of four seasons in his career already—last seeing action in the role with the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 2010 season.
At 39, Dotel would not be a long-term answer if the Tigers had to use him. He does, however, have a K/9 rate of 10.8 in his career and an ERA+ of 121. Those are not great numbers for a closer, but if the Tigers needed a stopgap, they certainly are acceptable.
Dotel’s control with the Tigers last year was impeccable. In 58 innings, he struck out 62 batters and walked just 12. He also only surrendered 50 hits.
Slated to be the seventh-inning pitcher, Dotel could see a promotion if he is just as productive and Rondon falters.
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Benoit has the fundamentals down to close games if Jim Leyland gives him the chance. In 71 innings in 2012, Benoit walked 22 batters and struck out another 84. He also only allowed 59 hits, but on the flip side, also surrendered 14 home runs.
That home run number is troubling. With the high pressure of closing out one-run games, Leyland cannot take extra risk by trotting Benoit out there if he cannot keep the ball in the yard.
The closer’s role is one built on the confidence of getting the job done. If Rondon fails to exude that poise, the Tigers would need to make sure that Benoit feels he can perform the task.
A telling sign was Leyland going with Phil Coke a couple times as closer in the ALCS.
Benoit has not averaged an inning per appearance since he was with the Texas Rangers in 2008.
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The only left-hander in the pen, Phil Coke earned two saves in the Tigers sweep of the New York Yankees in the 2012 ALCS. He should get a lot of credit for performing in the role under the circumstances last year.
On paper, Coke does not come across as a candidate for closer. In 54 innings last year, he gave up 71 hits and had an ERA of 4.00. He does have good control, however, striking out 51 hitters while only walking 18.
His ERA+ of 106 in 2012 is barely above league average.
He also has a disadvantage of being the only left-hander the Tigers have at their disposal. Would Jim Leyland risk taking the percentage play of lefty-lefty matchups to have Coke pitch the ninth?
In his two full years in the pen, Coke has not averaged a full inning per appearance. It took him 66 games last year to put in 54 innings of work.
While Leyland was correct last year in trusting Coke to do the job in the ALCS, running him out there three games out of five in one-run situations is risky.
If the Tigers wanted to go to closer by committee, Coke certainly would be an option. But as the main closer, he doesn’t quite fit the profile.
Trade or Free Agency
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If Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland do not feel comfortable with the four in-house options they have, they could make Rick Porcello available via trade again—or perhaps Jhonny Peralta—In an effort to obtain someone that could close while Rondon finds his way in Toledo.
Andrew Bailey of the Boston Red Sox certainly is an option.
Bailey closed out games before with the Oakland Athletics and was slated to be the Red Sox closer in 2012 until an injury cut his season short in spring training.
The Tigers could also wait to see if any other former closers have a hard time adjusting to their new roles and see if a deal can be made.
They could also—in a worst-case scenario—re-sign José Valverde if he is still on the open market. That option, however, seems very remote. There would have to be a substantial injury to one of the other relief pitchers to even give that more than a passing thought.