Leo Nunez Would Be Perfect For the Detroit Tigers

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Reports surfaced yesterday about the Florida Marlins’ potential interest in a Brandon Inge for Leo Nunez deal. It certainly sounds like a trade proposal fit for sports talk radio, and I have to believe that this one gets filed under “least likely of actual trade scenarios”, but Inge or no Inge, Nunez would be a fantastic addition to the Detroit Tigers.

Nunez (about to turn 28) earns about $3.6 million this season and is expected to net around $5.5 million next year as a third-year arbitration player.

His addition would make the back end of the Tigers bullpen the best in baseball. It would also mean the end of David Purcey in medium-to-high leverage situations. But the biggest upside to acquiring Nunez would be in the extra wiggle-room it would afford the club in dealing with Jose Valverde’s $9 million team option for 2012.

$9 million isn’t too much for a closer if he’s absolutely lights out, but I’m doubting whether Valverde can continue to be the dominant closer for much longer. His ERA this season is good, and his save percentage is impeccable, but his peripheral stats bring up some question marks. His WHIP has jumped up to 1.44 due to an increased walk rate (5.40 BB/9) and a decreased strikeout rate (8.86 K/9).

His defense-independent pitching numbers (3.87 FIP, 4.14 xFIP, 4.00 tERA, 3.80 SIERA) show him as pitching more like an average reliever, not a dominant closer. I would want to explore every available option before committing $9 million to a reliever with those numbers.

With Leo Nunez in the fold, the Tigers would not pick up Papa Grande’s option. Instead, they would leave themselves with a couple of choices.

First, they could simply let Valverde walk. Decline the option, thank him for his service, and wish him good luck in the free agent market. Leo Nunez (who has friendlier peripheral statistics) would be named the team’s closer, saving the club $3.5 million next year.

A second route the Tigers could take would be to decline Valverde’s 2012 option, and offer him salary arbitration (an arbitration award would likely come out around $9 million anyway). This option is only particularly good if you think Valverde will decline arbitration to pursue a mult-year deal. If he does decline, the Tigers would be entitled to two additional first-round picks in next year’s draft (Valverde is almost certain to be a type-A free agent).

A similar process could be repeated with Nunez after the 2012 season. Detroit could either work out a multi-year deal to keep him as the team’s closer, or they could offer him arbitration (he’d almost surely turn it down and seek free agency) and reap two more first round picks (he’s also a good candidate to end up as a type-A free agent after 2012).

I view Nunez as a better closer than Valverde right now anyway, so with the potential to save money and gain draft picks in the coming years, it would seem foolish for the Tigers not to pursue Nunez with some vigor, even if they can’t off-load Brandon Inge in the process.

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