Detroit Tigers free agent rumors: bullpen edition

In my last piece, I analyzed three main outfield targets for the Detroit Tigers this offseason. Now that Angel Pagan and Torii Hunter are officially free agents, the games will begin. Click here for more on that story.

Another point of interest this offseason is what the Tigers will do with their bullpen. Jose Valverde is out. And with that, Tigers fans can finally breathe. But they also must consider who will be closing games in 2013.

Detroit Tigers, Joaquin Benoit

Joaquin Benoit, NOT your 2013 Detroit Tigers closer

Here is the list of players definitely back in next year’s bullpen mix:

  • Joaquin Benoit – still viewed as the 8th inning guy if at all possible.
  • Octavio Dotel – the Tigers picked up his option. He will almost certainly remain a 7th/8th inning option for Jim Leyland.
  • Phil Coke – as huge as he was closing games this postseason, Coke is best suited for a setup role. If he had better command of the strike zone the Tigers would be more intrigued by his prospects as a closer.
  • Al Alburquerque – Senor Slider should be healthy and ready to roll for a full season. He has a closer’s repertoire and mentality but Detroit quietly worries about his ability to physically withstand a full season of closing.
  • Brayan Villarreal – he also has closer’s stuff but not the mentality, at least not yet. The Tigers were so worried about his mental makeup that he didn’t even make the postseason roster.

Those 5 pitchers will without question be members of the 2013 Tigers’ bullpen. Other rostered players that are in contention include:

  • Luis Marte – he has been up and down with health issues but the Tigers like his stuff and it would not be a surprise to see him land on the Opening Day roster.
  • Daniel Schlereth – yes, remember him? He is going to be healthy and ready to compete for a roster spot. The Tigers still like to view him as a member of their future plans, if he can find the strike zone consistently. And that, as they say, is a mighty big ‘if’.
  • Luke Putkonen – he was also back and forth from Detroit to Toledo much of the year. The Tigers like his big arm and sharp breaking ball. He should see a lot of big league action in 2013.
  • Darin Downs – if the aforementioned Schlereth can’t get it together then Downs likely projects as the 2nd lefty in the Tigers’ pen.

Of the 9 pitchers mentioned above, all of them are currently residing on the Tigers’ 40-man roster, which greatly enhances their hopes of sticking on the big league roster.

One name not on these two lists is minor league fire-baller Bruce Rondon. Rondon is a player that the Tigers’ brass absolutely loves. His fastball is described the same way some people’s digestive tracts are after eating a plate of chili fries: ‘easy gas’.

He throws an effortless 100 MPH and can work his off speed stuff in when needed. He started 2012 at High-A Lakeland, then went to AA Erie, and finished up his season at AAA Toledo, nearly missing September call-up status by the Tigers.

Over his 3 stops last year he pitched 53 innings, and laid down a 1.53 ERA and 1.09 WHIP to go along with 29 saves and 66 K’s. He played in the MLB Future’s Game and looked really impressive.

There is no reason to believe that the Tigers won’t give the big fella a chance to be this team’s closer come Opening Day. They like him that much. Rookie closers can be a very hit or miss proposition. But when you’re working with a guy of Rondon’s skill set, who has been a closer throughout his minor league career, it may be worth a shot.

As is often the case with a young flamethrower, his command of the strike zone can sometimes wiggle. He made big strides from 2011 to 2012 in that area and should continue to progress. Rondon will get a nice, long look this spring training season.

Other free agent names that are worth mentioning include:

  • Jason Grilli – that’s right, the guy who was run out of town by Tiger fans in 2008 has resurrected his career with the Pirates. He posted a startling 90 K’s in just 58.2 innings of work in 2012. His fastball regularly hits 95-96 and his slider is sharp. Grilli might get a contract that exceeds Detroit’s willingness to spend, but the soon-to-be 36-year old can’t request a truckload.
  • Ryan Madson – Madson, 32, signed a 1-year, $8M deal to be the Reds closer in 2012. He blew out his elbow, never threw a regular season pitch, took a $2.5M buyout and is once again a free agent. He will need to take a shorter term deal than he had hoped to prove he’s healthy, which he should be. His last meaningful action was a dominating 2011 season with Philadelphia (2.37 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 32 saves, 62 K’s in 60.2 innings).
  • Rafael Soriano – Soriano filled in for Mariano Rivera as the Yankees’ closer in 2012. He had a 2.26 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 42 saves, and 69 K’s in 67.2 innings. He’ll turn 33 in December. The only way he enters the Tigers’ radar is if other teams don’t bite on a long-term deal that he’ll be seeking, and he sits as a free agent into the wee hours of the offseason. Don’t bet on it, but he’s worth noting.

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No matter which player it is that the Tigers tab as their closer, it is likely going to make or break the overall effectiveness of the pen. And we all saw how important that can become during the playoffs. Losing Valverde in the 9th forced Drew Smyly to log big innings in a spot that should’ve been Phil Coke’s. In other words, not having a reliable closer thins out the bullpen, often times beyond repair.

This is a big decision no doubt, and right now my gut tells me that Rondon gets the first chance to impress.

  • http://twitter.com/isportsJoe Joe White

    Yeah, I thought about including him too but left him out for some undisclosed reason. I think he’ll be around but I think the Tigers are hoping they have better options surface.

  • Vince

    What about Duane Below?

  • http://twitter.com/isportsJoe Joe White

    I agree Craig. It seems like they have enough high upside pieces to give it a go internally and then if it fails, grab somebody midseason to fix it up.

  • Craig Coxen

    Rondon sounds intriguing. I’d also like to see what a healthy Alburquerque could do in that role.