The big name among free agent closers during the last offseason was Rafael Soriano, who signed with the Nationals for $28 million over two seasons.
The Tigers, meanwhile, spent upward of $80 million over five years to re-sign starter Anibal Sanchez and $26 million over two seasons for outfielder Torii Hunter.
You might argue that Sanchez, as solid as he may be, was an expensive luxury item. Detroit already had three awfully good starters — Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Doug Fister — and a fairly reliable fourth option in Rick Porcello.
Hunter was one of those coin-flip situations. Which was the lesser of two evils, Brennan Boesch as your everyday right-fielder or untested Bruce Rondon as your closer?
Negotiations with Sanchez meant the money wasn’t there to fill both holes. So Detroit signed Hunter and held its breath over the closer situation. The Tigers are still holding it.
Rondon wasn’t ready at the start of the season, he wasn’t ready during a late-April call-up, and he arguably isn’t yet ready. His numbers with the Mud Hens aren’t bad, but the Tigers privately fret over a recent lack of fastball movement and Rondon’s occasional inability to throw his secondary pitches for strikes.
The Jose Valverde experiment was worth a try, and there may still be a spot for him in the bullpen. But it’s hard to identify which is his primary pitch and which is secondary. Neither is very good.
Valverde has given up five homers and seven earned runs in his last 5⅓ innings. It is beginning to look a lot like the fall (in more ways than one) of 2012. Bottom line: The Tigers can’t win a pennant or world championship with a closer who can’t close.
Sometime between now and the end-of-July trade deadline, Detroit is going to have to find a ninth-inning pitcher in whom it can trust.
The Tigers might want to take their time. The AL Central offers little urgency with no other team above .500. And it would behoove Detroit to let the sellers and buyers better identify themselves because right now the closers most likely to be available via trade do not exactly comprise a who’s-who list.
In the meantime, the Tigers have several options. They can insert Joaquin Benoit in the closer’s slot and see how he fares. They can call up Rondon for another audition and see if he might grow into the job. Or they can think outside the box.
Why not give Drew Smyly a shot? The Tigers have made it clear that with their current roster he’s not going to start. The southpaw has proved he can pitch out of the bullpen. He is aggressive and gutsy and throws strikes with 39 strikeouts in 38 1/3 innings. Opponents are hitting .213. The pressure is unlikely to affect him. The bullpen would still have situational lefties with Phil Coke and Darin Downs.
Left-handed closers are not typical, but neither is that thought off the reservation. Think John Franco, Billy Wagner, and Randy Myers.
Heck, think Willie Hernandez and John Hiller. Hernandez won the Cy Young and MVP awards by finishing 68 games when Detroit won its last World Series in 1984. Hiller pitched out of the bullpen for the ’68 champions and was the franchise saves leader from the pre-specialist era.
The Tigers have time and they have options. Why shouldn’t Smyly be one of them?
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.