After closing for the Detroit Tigers for the past three seasons, Jose Valverde was granted his free-agency. The pitcher’s departure–perhaps not to-be-missed by fans who watched him under perform in the playoffs (16.20 ERA and 2.40 WHIP in 1.6 IP)–has left the team without a seasoned closer.
Yet, even though Valverde’s 3.00 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 110 Saves seems good enough for a closer, the righty only posted a 1.94 K/BB and alarmingly annual xFIP spikes (from 3.75 xFIP in 2010, to 4.01 xFIP in 2011, to 5.01 xFIP in 2012). The Tigers might not have a “proven” closer going in 2013, but they certainly have some good options to potentially fill the void.
Even though the 22 year-old Bruce Rondon has yet to log a Major League inning, the right-hander is still considered the favorite to take over the closing reigns. This is mostly due to his consistently high-90’s fastball–which has been clocked at 105 MPH–as well as his great strikeout numbers (career 9.8 K/9 in Minors, with his 13.7 K/9 rate in 2011 being his individual season best).
There is no doubt that Rondon has “what it takes” to be a dominating pitcher (career 2.53 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 6.1 Hits/9 in Minors), but the righty also carries a worrisome control problem. The righty walked batters at a rate of 4.4 BB/9 in 2012, which was better than his career rate (5.1 BB/9), and a significant improvement over his 2011 rate (7.6 BB/9). Even with a blazing fastball, Rondon success in 2013 in contingent on whether his downward BB/9 is a trend, or an anomaly.
If Rondon were to struggle in the closer’s role, the Tigers, fortunately, have a very serviceable setup man in Joaquin Benoit. The 35 year-old reliever not only emerged as a bullpen force in 2010 (1.34 ERA, 0.68 WHIP, 6.82 K/BB), but did so after not playing at-all in 2009, and posting a horrendous 5.00 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, and 1.23 K/BB the year before.
Yet, over the past three seasons, the veteran has compiled a sensational 2.71 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 4.44 K/BB, 151 ERA+, and 4.2 WAR in 192.3 IP. Benoit might only have 13 saves in his 11-year career, but since 2010, the four-pitch reliever has certainly been capable of handling the job.
Two very different versions of Brayan Villarreal showed up in 2011, and 2012 respectively. In 2011, the then 24 year-old posted a miserable 6.75 ERA (vs. 4.49 xFIP), 1.93 WHIP, 1.40 K/BB, 63 ERA+, and -0.4 WAR in 16 IP for the Tigers. His performance not only mirrored his putrid Triple-A season (5.05 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 1.38 K/BB in 66 IP), but also put into question the hard-thrower’s future as a Major League pitcher. But, a different pitcher showed up in 2012.
The 25 year-old blew hitters away in his second round of Triple-A, hurling a 1.29 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 3.2 Hits/9, 4.5 BB/9, 14.1 K/9, and 3.14 K/BB. The Tigers took notice, and were rewarded with a 2.63 ERA (3.96 xFIP), 1.20 WHIP, 2.36 K/BB, 161 ERA+, and 1.2 WAR. Aside from improved control (from 5.6 BB/9 in 2011 to 4.6 BB/9 in 2012), Villarreal also saw his average fastball rise (from 94.3 MPH in 2011 to 97.1 MPH in 2012), which probably led to both of his pitches becoming more effective (his fastball was worth 5.7 RAA, and his slider was worth 2.7 RAA).
With a successful Major League season under his belt, and closer-worthy pitches, one could argue that Villarreal is more “ready” for the job than Rondon.