Detroit May Want to Rethink Their Closer Strategy

Phil Coke, Alex AvilaAll offseason long Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski held firm that his team had no intention of signing a closer on the free agent market. Last year’s closer Jose Valverde wasn’t going to be walking through the door regardless of managers Jim Leyland’s pleas to sign the free agent. Instead the Tigers were going to have an open competition during the spring to see who would get the ball in the 9th inning with minor league flamethrower Bruce Rondon listed as the favorite. But Rondon struggled with walk issues and posted a 5.94 ERA in 13 spring training outings, earning him a ticket to Triple-A Toledo to work on his control. That left the Tigers with an unenviable situation staring them in the plate: a smorgasbord of middling relievers forming a closer-by-committee.

Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to the Twins on a blown save by Phil Coke may have Detroit rethinking that strategy however. Now, there’s nothing wrong with using a closer-by-committee. In general it can be a very effective strategy if you have a nice set of relievers to work with. But do the Tigers have the right ingredients to build a solid closer? That’s debatable.

The team’s closer in the first two games, Phil Coke, has horrendous splits against right-handers, allowing them to hit .396 a year ago. That came back to bite the Tigers against light-hitting Twins shortstop Eduardo Escobar, who blasted a double to deep left-center to give his team the win. Coke can be a very effective reliever when used in the right spots and right-handed hitters, even weak ones, aren’t those spots.

Detroit also has Joaquin Benoit available in the bullpen and he may be their best option to close. Benoit has been extremely effective over the past 3 seasons, posting a 2.71 ERA in just about 200 innings of work while striking 202. He has no discernible lefty/righty splits and he does a good job of limiting his walks. When Coke inevitably fails to appease Jim Leyland’s desire for 9th inning perfection I’m expecting Benoit to get the call.

If Benoit can’t get the job done than they should probably look at the pitchers available on the market. Closers are only necessary on teams that intend to play in the postseason which means plenty of ball clubs should be able to be convinced to part with a hard-thrower. The Tigers could also bit the bullet and resign Jose Valverde, something Jim Leyland wouldn’t be opposed to. Leyland was quoted as saying

“I’ve talked to a couple of people and recommended him very highly,” Leyland said. “I won’t say who they were, but I’ve recommended him very highly. I don’t know the ins and outs. It’s none of my business. I don’t know what the agent’s talking about, so I don’t want to stick my nose into anything, because I don’t have any idea. But it just breaks my heart, and I’m totally shocked.”

I sincerely doubt Leyland’s opinion of Valverde has changed all that much. There’s also a couple of other available arms on the market with closing experience including Francisco Rodriguez, who was shelled in Milwaukee last year if Dombrowski doesn’t want Valverde back, but whatever the decision is, Phil Coke probably isn’t going to cut it on a team that’s all-in for a World Series title.

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