If you listened at all to the analysts dissecting Tuesday night’s MLB All-Star Game, one recurring theme as they talked about the Detroit Tigers and a potential run to the postseason was the need for Detroit to obtain a closer before the July 31 trade deadline.
I guess none of these guys have been paying attention to what has happened in Motown lately, because while the Tigers may certainly be in the market for bullpen help, there is no need to pay top dollar for ninth inning relief; Joaquin Benoit has that locked down.
Benoit has been one of the elite set-up men in all of baseball over the past three seasons and began 2013 in the same role for the Tigers. Though the club came into Spring Training hoping that rookie Bruce Rondon would assume the closer’s role, then wound up bringing veteran Jose Valverde off the scrap heap to reprise his role from the previous few seasons, the Tigers had been unable to find the late-inning combination they’ve needed to close out games.
A couple weeks ago, when Valverde was designated for assignment, Tigers manager Jim Leyland made some adjustments to the late inning roles in his bullpen. Benoit was moved from the eighth to the ninth, Rondon was called up to take over seventh inning duties, and left hander Drew Smyly took over Benoit’s job as primary set-up man in the eighth.
How have those moves worked out? Over their last 20 combined appearances, Benoit, Smyly, and Rondon have worked a total of 19.2 innings. During that time, they have allowed a total of 13 hits, four walks, and two earned runs (0.91 ERA). They have 26 strikeouts as a group as well.
Leyland’s hesitancy to use Benoit as his closer early in the season was based more on the success that his stalwart set-up man had enjoyed in the eighth than any kind of doubts that were held about his ability to pitch the ninth. Benoit has long been Detroit’s best reliever and Leyland has enjoyed the luxury of using him as that relief ace, able to get out of jams from the sixth inning on, as needed. Smyly’s emergence as a shut-down reliever this season, his first as a member of the bullpen, has allowed Leyland to feel comfortable in moving Benoit to the ninth and Rondon has looked much more comfortable as a big leaguer in this, his third stint with the Tigers this year.
Leyland’s best-laid plans in April included getting a lead and handing it over to guys like Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Benoit, and Valverde. Three months later, Valverde’s in Toledo, Coke owns an ERA of nearly 6.00, and Dotel is facing a potentially career-ending injury. But after all that, the Tigers bullpen is in far better shape late in games than it was in April.
The Tigers can certainly improve by adding a relief arm or two; dealing a mid-level prospect for a reliable veteran sixth inning piece would be a wise move as the club looks to fortify their place in the AL pennant race.
But there is no reason to move top prospects to land a big name, big money closer. Jim Leyland now believes he’s found his man and the Tigers will be better both this year and in the future by trusting Benoit in the ninth.