No easy answers at closer for Tigers

No easy answers at closer for Tigers

DETROIT -- Around this point last year, the Tigers didn't know who their closer was. Considering their collection of young relievers, they could have several answers at this point a year from now.

Filling the ninth inning for now, however, is the question facing the Tigers as they close out the offseason.

Once again, Detroit heads out of the holiday season as one of the few teams without a declared closer, continuing its post-Todd Jones habit of waiting out the market. They made one of the last major signings of last offseason to fix that, adding Brandon Lyon, but it turned out that their eventual closer was on their roster all along.

One year and 37 Fernando Rodney saves later, both of the Tigers' late-inning arms from 2009 are gone as free agents. And team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski isn't ruling out the possibility that Detroit again has its closer already -- whoever it is.

"It really hasn't done much," Dombrowski said this week when asked how recent signings on the relief market have affected the Tigers' stance. "We're content with what we have now, the guys we have out there."

That doesn't mean the Tigers won't look to do something. However, it's becoming clear that the club isn't going to move on a reliever simply to fill the role unless they believe the fit is right. Dombrowski said they were not actively involved in talks with Matt Capps before the former Pirates closer signed with the Nationals last month, and other deals have gone down without much buzz out of Detroit.

Though Detroit seems like one of the few logical destinations left for free agent Jose Valverde, that doesn't mean it's happening. Valverde racked up a league-best total of 91 saves over 2007-08 combined before dropping to 25 saves in 28 opportunities last year with the Astros. At age 30 and with his secondary numbers still strong -- Valverde is still averaging better than a strikeout an inning and a strong ratio of strikeouts to walks -- he seemingly remains a reliever in his prime.

The biggest obstacle with Valverde might not be the contract, but the Draft pick. He's a Type A free agent, meaning the Tigers would have to give up their first-round pick this summer to sign him. For a team focused on developing talent, that's a heavy price; Detroit's recent willingness to pay over slot when drafting premium talent doesn't make it easier.

Fellow free agent Kevin Gregg has 84 saves over the past three seasons with the Marlins and Cubs. However, he lost his closing job last summer amid a slump that raised his ERA to 4.72 thanks in part to 13 home runs allowed over 68 2/3 innings, including nine homers in 32 innings away from Wrigley Field. Another free agent, Octavio Dotel, hasn't closed since 2007, but his strong numbers the past two years give little reason to suggest he couldn't.

At this point, much like last year, nothing is believed to be close. With a handful of frontline relievers left and the Tigers one of the few still looking, it could well develop into another waiting game, unless Detroit eventually decides to do nothing.

"At this point, we're still open-minded," Dombrowski said. "If something happens [that] we feel can help us, we'll do that."

Rodney and Lyon will earn $26 million combined thanks to a three-year contract for Lyon from the Astros and a two-year deal for Rodney from the Angels. While the Tigers had hoped to keep at least one of them -- Lyon seemed more likely -- they weren't going to do it on those terms.

Salary was one matter, of course, but the length of the deals was another concern. Detroit has signed just three relievers to multiyear contracts since Dombrowski took over general manager duties in 2002; Troy Percival and Todd Jones signed two-year deals as free agents, and Rodney agreed to one three years ago in avoiding arbitration.

More important than history, however, is the Tigers' future, and the very real possibility that Detroit could already have all the late-inning arms it needs for 2011 and beyond. With a 2008 Draft that focused heavily on power relievers, beginning with first-round pick Ryan Perry and continuing with Cody Satterwhite and Robbie Weinhardt, the Tigers set themselves up to promote from within if they could develop the raw arms they drafted.

Other than Perry, they're not quite there yet, but they're close. Dombrowski said in his end-of-season remarks that the Tigers could have 10 relievers coming up through their system in the next few years. That total might not pan out, but even half that total has the potential to fill Detroit's bullpen for years, eliminating a lot of offseason hassle. That was before the club acquired Daniel Schlereth in last month's Edwin Jackson trade, adding a potentially dominant talent who has closed in college and the Minors. Schlereth and former University of Arizona teammate Perry arguably have the talent to close now, if not the polish.

How quickly they develop could help a lot. But for now, the developing health of their most experienced reliever means more. If the Tigers have a reliever on their staff ready to emerge from Spring Training as the closer, Joel Zumaya might have the best chance to do it.

"The real key for us," Dombrowski said this week, "is the Zumaya situation."

Dombrowski indicated much the same after last month's Winter Meetings. The fact that he's saying the same thing now suggests Zumaya's situation continues to improve.

The past few years, Zumaya has been the example of the projected closer that doesn't pan out. He seemed destined for the role after his 2006 rookie season, when he earned honors as MLB.com's Setup Man of the Year, but injuries have limited him to 78 appearances the past three seasons. He pitched in 29 games last year before a bone fragment in his right shoulder forced him to undergo season-ending surgery in August.

Zumaya has rehabbed from that procedure, the Tigers say, and is now working out to get ready for Spring Training. Through all the injuries, Zumaya's triple-digit fastball has somehow endured, and the Tigers hope for much the same now. He's still just 25 years old.

If Zumaya's healthy, he's the answer in Detroit's late innings. Whether that's at closer is part of the Tigers' larger question.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.