Mighty Max the Closer? A Look at the 2013 Bullpen


In the wake of yet another blown save (and a blown hold), I am left pondering the hopes and despairs of the Tigers bullpen; now and for years to come.  There are reasons for both excitement and gloom, with a radical proposal perhaps tying it all together.

First lets look at our current state of affairs.  Jose Valverde is a free agent at the end of the year.  He will be 35 next year and will probably seek at least a two year deal in the neighborhood of $8-10 million a year.  I believe the Tigers need to let him walk.  His pitching prowess seems to be in decline.  His walk rate is higher than at any point in his career, and no save seems clean.

As far as the rest of the bullpen goes, there are several pieces that I would welcome back for the next year or two.  Joaquin Benoit will be under contract next year and fans should welcome him holding down the 8th inning for another year.  Octavio Dotel has an option for 2013, and while he has shown some chinks in his armor recently, he is still valuable as a 6th or 7th inning pitcher in a tight game.  Phil Coke is under team control until 2015 and will continue to be used as a late inning left-hander.  He is not, nor will he ever be, a great pitcher.  But he is both serviceable and durable (two adjectives that mean a MLB reliever will earn a living).

What about the youngsters?  Who is out there to give hope for bullpens of the future?  We are getting a look at a couple of guys to get excited about right now in Luis Marte and Brayan Villarreal.  Both are 25 years old and have excellent stuff.  They are helping settle the middle relief question right now and could be important to next year’s bullpen as well, so long as they are not included in a trade package this summer.

The one true future closer prospect is Bruce Rondon.  He is only 21 years old but is already in his 3rd season as a closer in the Tigers system.  This year, in 18 innings, he has 26 strikeouts and 8 walks, an ERA of 1.96, and 11 saves at single A Lakeland.  His fastball can touch 100 mph, and as long as he can limit the walks, he has great potential as the closer of the Tigers future.

The Tigers figure to take their time with Rondon, with 2014 maybe the earliest we would see him in the big leagues.  This begs the question:  If the Tigers let Valverde walk, who takes the closer role in 2013?  There are some free agent options – J.J Putz, Brandon League, Casey Janssen, but none worth the big free agent contract they will pursue.

It would be interesting, therefore, for the Tigers to pursue some more creative, internal options, like converting Max Scherzer to closer.  Teams want closers to have a bulldog mentality to go along with at least two plus pitches.  Good control is also necessary.  Max Scherzer, despite struggling with his command on occasion, possesses all of these tools.  He pours his fastball in at 95 mph consistently, but if he was pitching just one inning, he could pitch consistently at 97-98.  That plus fastball could go along with an outstanding swing and miss change-up and a good slider.  Typically, when a pitcher has 3 plus pitches, the starting rotation is where he belongs.  But, for whatever reason, Max has not been able to stay consistent in his 4 years as a starter in the majors.  His ERA is over 4.00 for his career, and this year he has a WHIP of 1.5, higher than average for a MLB starter.  One start he looks like the number two starter the Tigers were hoping for when they traded for him.  The next start, he looks like he should be traded away while he still has some value.

If Max continues this up and down trend in 2012, maybe he has more value as a closer?  The Tigers have options to replace him in the starting rotation, Jacob Turner is the first name that comes to mind.  Nor does it have to be permanent.  If the experiment doesn’t go well, he can go back to starting.  As the Texas Rangers have shown with Alexi Ogando and Neftali Feliz, pitchers can handle changing roles, even if they end up back where they started.