If rumors are to be believed, and really why wouldn't we believe them, the Detroit Tigers are getting some seriously cold feet about rookie reliever Bruce Rondon serving as their closer in 2013. As a result, CBS Sports is reporting that the Tigers have begun scouring the market for a more proven option to assume the closer role. That's a pretty untenable position for a contender to find themselves in, but the Tigers really only have themselves to blame for this predicament.
This whole saga started off with a smart move by the Tigers which was letting incumbent closer Jose Valverde leave via free agency after he imploded in the post-season. Papa Grande was clearly washed up and needed to be replaced, which is where the hard-throwing Rondon entered the picture. The prospect is a classic flamethrower that matches up with the prototype closer that teams love. The only problem is that Rondon has had issues with his command, yet the Tigers were ready to hand him the job anyway. While they never officially named the kid the closer, they made it clear that it was his job to lose entering training camp.
That's a perfectly fair stance to take with an unproven youngster who has yet to earn anything but it also shows that the organization had a high degree of confidence that he would secure the job. After all, who would know Rondon better than the Tigers? He is a prospect they signed and raised, so they should be intimately aware of whether or not he is up to the challenge. The seemed to double-down on that confidence by bringing in absolutely no one via trade or free agency to serve as a competitor to Rondon.
Welp, it took less than a month for that supposed confidence to get shattered. All it took was four shaky spring training appearances and the franchise seems to have lost all faith in Rondon, which makes one wonder what could've changed so drastically from the off-season when they were certain he was going to be the man for the job.
The real issue is that all of that misplaced trust in Rondon has left the Tigers in a bad position. They now need a closer, but have precious few options for finding one. This isn't a week after the Winter Meetings when they could have hedged their bet on Rondon and signed a veteran to step in. That isn't to say that they needed to drop major coin on a closer like Rafael Soriano, but rather that they could've spent a fraction of what Soriano got on a guy like Mike Adams or Joel Peralta or even Jon Rauch or Kyle Farnsworth. After all, it isn't like the Tigers have a lights out bullpen to begin with, so it wouldn't have been a bad thing had they added more talent.
But now the Tigers have none of those options available to them in free agency unless they want to take a chance on Francisco Rodriguez having a bounceback season or want to stick it out a closer-by-committee until Brian Wilson can get healthy. Things don't look much better for them internally either. While Phil Coke briefly moonlighted as a closer in the World Series last year, he isn't even remotely suited for such a role. Octavio Dotel is similarly ill-suited due to his platoon splits. That pretty much leaves Joaquin Benoit as the best option, but he was miserable in the second half of 2012, posting an ERA over 5.00 in that span, and was bypassed by the aforementioned Coke when the Tigers needed a battlefield promotion to closer in the post-season.
That means the Tigers are going to have to get creative. One idea that is already being floated is moving spare starter Rick Porcello into relief. However, as a starter, Porcello has struggled and never lived up to his lofty draft position. Maybe he can find new life in relief, though his inability to miss bats seems like a real hindrance to him becoming a high leverage reliever which really makes him only a slightly safer bet as closer than Rondon does. A better use of Porcello might be using him as trade bait since many teams reportedly still covet his potential.
The trade path is no easy route either though. To put it plainly, teams just aren't trading quaity players at this time of year. The only real way to make an impact trade is by vastly overpaying for a player or taking on a guy who has major question marks or, more likely, both. Detroit could try and pry Andrew Bailey loose from Boston or they could roll the dice and take on Carlos Marmol and his big salary. Options like Bailey, Marmol or even Heath Bell just aren't that attractive, especially when factoring in the potential price.
Thanks to their lack of planning for the contingency that Rondon might fail, the Tigers are stuck having to choose from the lesser of several evils. The one thing they do have going for them though is time. It is still very early in the spring, so there is more than enough games left for Rondon to straighten out his mechanics and regain the club's trust. If that doesn't happen, then the Tigers will be forced to make a choice, even if they don't like any of the alternatives very much. If that day comes, they'll only have themselves to be upset with for their lack of options.