A quick glance at the MLB standings might lead you to believe that everything is fine with the Detroit Tigers.
As of June 13, Detroit has a 4.5-game lead over the Cleveland Indians, the largest first-place margin in the American League and second-largest in the majors. The Tigers also have the best run differential in the league, scoring 81 runs more than they've allowed.
However, the Tigers clearly benefit from playing in the weaker AL Central. Their 36-28 record places them fifth in the league, tied with a Baltimore Orioles club that ranks third in the AL East. Detroit was predicted by many to return to the World Series, yet doesn't currently look like the best team in the league.
While the Tigers could certainly win the AL pennant on the strength of their starting rotation and powerful lineup, it's not difficult to imagine that an increasingly unreliable bullpen might ultimately prevent this team from meeting championship expectations.
The most obvious example of Detroit's bullpen ineptness is closer Jose Valverde, who blew his third save of the season in Wednesday's 3-2 defeat to the Kansas City Royals. Valverde served up a two-run homer to Lorenzo Cain on an 85 mph splitter that, well, didn't split and hung out over the plate. The pitch was just asking to be crushed and Cain obliged.
The loss wasted an excellent effort from Justin Verlander, who pitched seven shutout innings, allowing three hits with eight strikeouts. Unfortunately for the the Tigers, Verlander — nor any of his fellow starting pitchers — will typically pitch nine innings.
Valverde has blown two saves in his past six appearances. But that sentence doesn't really explain how bad the Tigers closer has been recently. Against the Cleveland Indians last Friday, Valverde gave up two home runs against the bottom of the Tribe batting order, turning a comfortable 7-3 lead into an anxiety-ridden horror show.
Two weeks ago versus the Baltimore Orioles, Valverde allowed another two homers, the second of which was a walkoff three-run shot to Chris Dickerson that gave the O's a 7-5 victory. The Tigers took a 5-3 lead into the ninth before Valverde's meltdown.
A team can win without a great closer. Only one club has Mariano Rivera in its bullpen.
But to win consistently, a team needs someone who can perform the role reliably. With a 4.15 ERA, along with eight runs and 13 hits allowed in 17 innings, Valverde is not that guy.
The Tigers have given Valverde every opportunity to demonstrate he can be their closer, but it's not working. Opposing batters aren't swinging and missing at a 92 mph fastball. And that splitter has no movement, allowing hitters to tee off on it. Valverde doesn't have anything else.
It's now clear that a change has to be made — and soon, before he costs Detroit any more wins.
But if it were only that simple for the Tigers. Part of the reason Valverde might not be immediately replaced is because there's really no one else to take the job. Manager Jim Leyland has expressed that frustration himself.
"Who the (bleep) should I be closing with?" Leyland asked reporters, including The Oakland Press' Matthew B. Mowery. "They want some rookie kid? I mean, I don’t understand that."
Well… that's exactly what the Tigers were prepared to do going into this season, all but handing the job to rookie Bruce Rondon. However, Rondon showed he wasn't ready to handle being a major league closer during spring training. With general manager Dave Dombrowski not adding any bullpen help during the offseason, the Tigers have been scrambling for a closer ever since.
Three months later, perhaps Detroit could reconsider Rondon. In 23 appearances with Triple-A Toledo, he's posted an 0.77 ERA with 29 strikeouts in 23.1 innings. That's why the Tigers were so excited about him. But Rondon has also walked 12 batters during that span, which is why he's not currently Detroit's closer.
Joaquin Benoit looks like the most logical next choice. He's having a strong season, compiling a 1.93 ERA with 33 strikeouts in 28 innings. More encouraging is the two home runs Benoit has allowed, compared to the 14 he gave up in 71 innings last year. Yet if the Tigers move Benoit to the ninth inning, then they don't have someone who can pitch the eighth and hand the game over to the closer.
That doesn't leave much else for Leyland to choose from. Octavio Dotel is on the disabled list with an injured elbow. Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal were demoted to the minors because neither could find the strike zone consistently.
Phil Coke got the call during last year's playoffs and at the beginning of this season, but if anyone's pitching worse in the Tigers bullpen than Valverde, it's probably the 30-year-old left-hander.
Coke has a 5.49 ERA in 19 appearances and right-handers are hitting .325 against him with an .864 OPS. That should typecast him as a left-handed specialist (though Leyland hasn't restricted him to that role).
Though Leyland seems to prefer experienced closers, he should probably consider trying Drew Smyly out as closer.
The 24-year-old lefty should be in the Tigers' starting rotation, but there isn't a spot available for him and he's being wasted in long-relief/mop-up duty. So why not give him a try in the ninth? With 39 strikeouts in 38.1 innings, Smyly has the strikeout stuff preferred in a closer. He also pitches decently against right-handers, allowing a .267 average and .767 OPS.
One more possibility, proposed by Bless You Boys' Rob Rogacki, is another left-hander, Darin Downs. Downs isn't a flamethrower, averaging 89 mph with his fastball. But he does feature four pitches in his arsenal, which has helped him strike out an average of 10.6 batters per nine innings. Downs can also handle righties, holding them to a .213 average and .685 OPS.
Unless an in-house option seizes the opportunity, Dombrowski will have to look for outside help at closer. He'll probably have to, regardless of whether or not someone has short-term success in the role. But will anyone be on the trade block for the Tigers?
The name often mentioned early in the season was the San Diego Padres' Huston Street. But he's currently on the DL with a strained calf. Perhaps because of that injury, Street had a 4.43 ERA, the highest of his career. His strikeout rate of 5.3 per nine innings is also the lowest of his nine major league seasons. The 29-year-old is also under contract through next season with an option for 2015, a deal the Tigers probably don't want to get involved with.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates fall out of the NL Central race for the third straight season, former Tiger Jason Grilli could be a possibility. But Grilli burned some bridges when Detroit traded him in 2008. He's also making $2.25 million this year with a $4 million salary for next season. That's the sort of bargain contract the Pirates would surely like to keep on their payroll.
Tom Wilhelmsen of the Seattle Mariners? He's blown more saves (five) than Valverde. Brian Wilson is still out there, but how is he throwing the ball a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery?
Is Jonathan Papelbon going to be available? Tigers fans wince at the idea because of his personality, but he'd surely become popular in Detroit if he locked down the ninth inning. With 11 saves and no blown opportunities for the struggling Philadelphia Phillies, Papelbon looks like the lights-out closer the Tigers covet.
But if Street's contract is a turn-off, how unattractive does Papelbon's look? The 32-year-old is owed $26 million through 2015, and will likely trigger a $13 million option for 2016 based on incentives. Of course, that doesn't include what remains of the $13 million he's owed for this season, likely up to $7 million.
The Tigers tried to save money by penciling Rondon in as their closer during the offseason, steering away from high-priced closers like Rafael Soriano. Would Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch be willing to flip on that stance to pay the remainder of the ridiculous contract Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. signed Papelbon to?
One big problem, however: CSN Philly's Jim Salisbury reports that Papelbon did not list the Tigers among the 12 teams he would accept a trade to. No-trade clauses can be worked around, of course, but would Detroit be willing to offer anything, considering what Papelbon is already set to be paid?
Taking all of this into consideration, it's understandable why Leyland is so cranky about his closer situation. This is an issue that should have been addressed during the offseason, and the Tigers are suffering the consequences now. The team took a chance with Valverde and he's shown why he was still available once the regular season began.
So do the Tigers keep holding open tryouts, hoping someone stakes a claim to the job? Or do they go for a sure thing, even if it means taking on a contract that could handcuff them in years to come? Detroit has about seven weeks to consider its options and decide just how vital a dependable closer is to their World Series ambitions.