DETROIT – The Tigers have been on a “Closer Quest” ever since Jose Valverde imploded at the end of last season.
Valverde converted 110 saves over three seasons for $22.9 million, and was a great pickup as the last viable closer available in that free agent market. Now Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski must choose wisely again in order to have a viable World Series shot.
The search has centered on 22-year-old rookie Bruce Rondon and speculation that Dombrowski should sign a proven closer such as free agents Brian Wilson and Rafael Soriano.
But I offer one name to keep in the back of your mind: Guillermo “Willie” Hernandez.
No, he’s not making a comeback at 58. I bring up Hernandez because great closers can come out of nowhere, and he certainly did.
Tigers general manager Bill Lajoie obtained Hernandez and backup first baseman Dave Bergman from the Phillies for outfielder Glenn Wilson and catcher John Wockenfuss on March 27, 1984, just days before breaking training camp in Lakeland, Fla.
Hernandez, a left-hander with a great screwball he learned from Mike Cuellar and a cut fastball to keep hitters honest, came as the set-up man. Aurelio “Senor Smoke” Lopez, a 1983 All-Star who had 14 saves in 1984, opened the door for Hernandez with an early-season injury. The rest is history: Hernandez had 32 saves, pitched an amazing 140 1/3 innings and won the AL MVP and Cy Young Award.
So, you never know with closers. They are the hardest group in baseball to predict success for, and minor league rosters are dotted with college closers taken in the first round who never panned out. Former Tigers Daniel Schlereth and Ryan Perry, now attempting to re-invent himself as a starter at Triple-A for the Nationals, are prime examples of that.
Rondon, a hard-throwing converted catcher from Venezuela whom Dombrowski says will get a chance to be the closer, had 29 saves for Lakeland, Erie and Toledo last year. He had a combined 1.53 ERA with an excellent 1.094 WHIP and 66 strikeouts with 26 walks in 53 innings.
“There’s certainly a possibility (Rondon will) get an opportunity,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “I’ll get a pulse for him in spring training — what I feel about him, his makeup. The one thing that Valverde was very good at is he could turn the page pretty quickly. And a closer has to be able to do that.”
If Leyland feels the “pulse” for success isn’t good, look for Dombrowski to then sign a free agent or make a trade.
Jim Bowden, the former Reds and Nationals GM, wrote on ESPN.com that the Tigers should be interested in Wilson, “The Beard” who was a three-time All-Star with the Giants before requiring Tommy John surgery in April. He has been cleared by surgeon James Andrews for spring training and should be ready to go on Opening Day.
“Most in the industry find it puzzling that they’re (the Tigers) not willing to do that, especially considering their willingness to spend big and that their lack of a closer was a big problem in the postseason,” Bowden wrote.
“If the Tigers don’t want to spend big bucks for a closer, that’s understandable, but they should at least go out and find someone with some experience in the role, someone like Brian Wilson, while allowing Rondon to develop with less pressure.”
The Giants declined to offer Wilson the minimum $6.8 million for arbitration, but reportedly still are interested in bringing him back. Wilson got peeved and said he will sign elsewhere, and supposedly has as many as 10 teams interested.
Then there’s Soriano, who opted out of a guaranteed $14.8 million for 2013 to set up Mariano Rivera, who is again healthy. Soriano had 42 saves last year for the Yankees, and his agent, Scott Boras, is seeking four years at $60 million with no takers so far.
Boras zinged Dombrowski with this comment at the winter meetings in regard to Rondon and the virtue of the Tigers signing Soriano: “It’s a philosophical cliff in baseball that you can bring minor league talent to the big leagues and know what you’ve got. I think you count on one hand the number of closers under the age of 23 that have ever gone to the big leagues and at a young age put together 30 saves, let alone pitch in the postseason and be effective.”
Neftali Feliz, with 40 saves for the Rangers while turning 22 in 2010, was the only closer I could find who has 30 or more saves at 22 or younger. However, at 23, that was accomplished by Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez (45 saves, 2005), Craig Kimbrel (46, 2011) and Jordan Walden (32, 2011).
However, it is important to note that each of those pitchers had at least some previous major league experience before those seasons. Rondon does not.
But because of Rondon’s potential, it’s highly unlikely that the Tigers are looking for a long-term contract with a closer. And signing Soriano would cost them a first-round pick as well as a good percentage of their slotted bonus money for 2013 draft picks — a new wrinkle in the equation beginning this season.
Dombrowski can throw up a smoke screen, but I believe him on Rondon. Speculation leads me to believe the Tigers are going to get a look at him in the Grapefruit League before deciding whether or not they are in search of what they hope will be another Willie Hernandez.