Henning: 9 options for Tigers' closer woes

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Everyone wants a new bullpen closer.

So, no doubt, does a certain front office from Detroit, not to mention a Tigers manager named Brad Ausmus who is rather weary of bullpen issues, particularly when fans think the skipper is losing late-inning games.

Tigers reliever Justin Wilson has a 1.32 ERA in 13.2 innings this season, working mostly as the team’s setup man.

The Tigers are huddling and trying to conjure options heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Diamondbacks at Arizona.

Their choices are hamstrung by glitches galore, beginning with a particularly gnarly fact: They don’t have any appealing replacements or tradeoffs.

Their options, as today’s realities can be assessed, are:

Justin Wilson, LH set-up man

He by far is the team’s best bullpen arm. He torches batters with a high-90s fastball. He has the kind of wipeout pitches teams ideally unleash in the ninth.

The hang-ups are these:

Wilson is wonderfully comfortable pitching eighth innings. That’s not a big deal to fans. It’s a very big deal to relievers whose psyches and habits are important to the relief-pitching puzzle.

Projecting him as the Tigers’ ninth-inning miracle man confronts another reality unique to Wilson.

You must be careful about over-use. When he is exploited, his lightning repertoire tends to diminish. And that’s when an otherwise unhittable reliever can get torched.

Closers must be regular ninth-inning firemen if they are to carry the banner here. That is, if it’s a one-man assignment, as tends to be the case in baseball.

The other peril in making Justin Wilson your successor to K-Rod: He won’t be around for eighth innings. And that might make ninth-inning save situations academic.

Alex Wilson, RH reliever

Tigers reliever Alex Wilson has three career saves.

He has three career saves, including one this season.

Alex Wilson can be handed ninth-inning scenarios and perhaps survive.

Perhaps.

He’s not a heavy strikeout pitcher, per se, which is what’s ideally preferred in those final-inning circumstances where tight leads call for shutdown stints. And, as with the other half of the Wilson tandem, it’s not clear how psychology and role-playing might influence Alex.

But he could become part of a mixed-use answer here, for sure. And the Tigers might well be pondering just that as they prepare for war against the Diamondbacks and then the Angels on a West road trip that at Oakland became for them a Freddy Krueger movie.

For now, Alex Wilson ranks as an option, remembering that extracting a reliable reliever from earlier innings means you must replace him in those same innings.

And that’s where the Tigers have had issues for much of the past 10 years.

Shane Greene, RH reliever

Oh, he has the stuff. Closer stuff. Searing fastball that can hit 97. Wicked secondary pitches.

But be careful, very careful, with Greene.

He can be erratic. Sunday, against the A’s, he might have turned a corner, pitching two steady innings in which his arsenal was pure Greene. The A’s scarcely touched him.

There is no way — none — the Tigers would endanger his delicate timeline by throwing him into a ninth-inning furnace.

Not now.

As he progresses, perhaps, the Tigers might indeed have their man in Greene. That’s how good his arm, and his repertoire, can be.

But not yet. The sane strategy is to nurture him, to be judicious in how a one-time starter is deployed.

If he crosses the threshold and becomes The Monster he can be, sure, there’s your man.

But not yet.

Tigers reliever Shane Greene pitched two scoreless innings Sunday against the Athletics, and owns a 1.46 ERA over 12.1 innings this season.

Blaine Hardy, LH reliever

What a fine pitcher. Truly, Hardy has become a Tigers lifesaver. He always seems to do the job. He rarely gets into deep trouble. He throws strikes. He doesn’t make fans furious, which is a real tribute to any Detroit reliever.

But if you’re thinking closer here, uh-uh.

That’s not Hardy.

He isn’t that brand of pitcher. Nor is he the breed of cat known as a situational lefty, not by any means. He, in fact, can pitch multiple innings.

But if you ever made the case for keeping a left-handed reliever right where he is at the moment — think Jamie Walker on the 2006 Tigers team — this is where you want Hardy.

This man isn’t a closer. Rather, he is today about as valuable as any pitcher in the Tigers bullpen. That’s because you can count on him in those late-inning situations where his craft is uniquely serviceable.

Just don’t put him in charge of ninth innings.

Joe Jimenez, RH reliever

Tigers prospect Joe Jimenez has pitched in five games this season for Detroit, and is generally considered the franchise’s closer of the future.

Jimenez has the arm, absolutely.

There’s simply this one problem.

He currently pitches at Triple-A Toledo. And there’s a reason for that.

He is 22 years old and needs further incubation. Primarily, he needs work on his slider. Because if he doesn’t have a second pitch to offset his fastball that can run 97 or so mph, big-league hitters rip into that heater the way famished diners attack a New York strip at Ruth’s Chris.

The best scenario for Jimenez, and for the Tigers, is that his slider acquires some gyration that gives him a more lethal 1-2 punch. At that point, he could be just the answer for a late-innings slot if one of the current place-holders is summoned to work more often in the ninth.

But that’s a ways off.

Bruce Rondon, RH reliever

He should by now have been the Tigers’ ninth-inning guy, blowing that 100-mph fastball and vicious slider past blurry-eyed hitters who would not have enjoyed prospects of batting against him in the ninth. Or, for that matter, in any other inning.

But as with Jimenez, these days you won’t find Rondon in the Tigers clubhouse. You’ll see him in a Mud Hens uniform, at Toledo, where he is attempting to reacquaint himself with lower-calorie food and a higher-octane fastball, probably in that order.

Rondon arrived at spring camp this year and might have needed grain scales at weigh-in. He was 300-pounds plus, which itself wasn’t a disqualifier.

It was his lower-throttle fastball that made observers, rather than hitters, nervous. His blowaway pitch was, relatively speaking, a middling heater.

For now, Rondon needs to drop a couple of notches in his belt and reacquire a few more kilometers-per-hour with that fastball.

Arcenio Leon, RH reliever

If you’re looking for a wild card, Leon’s about as wild as bullpen cards come. In this Tigers context, anyway.

They signed him last autumn as a 30-year-old, minor-league free agent who had spent years in the Astros system, in the Mexican League, etc.

They liked his arm. And during spring camp, it became obvious why. Leon was generally outstanding.

He nearly made the team. Now working at Toledo, he has been all but instant death for hitters, rolling up shimmering numbers: 0.69 ERA in 13 games, 0.54 WHIP, six hits in 13 innings.

But, of course, there is a reason he is 30 and hasn’t yet pitched in the big leagues. He hasn’t convinced his bosses, at any stop, that he can knock off big-league hitters. Note, also, that in those 13 innings, against Triple-A hitters, Leon has but seven strikeouts.

It doesn’t mean he won’t find himself soon in the Tigers’ bullpen back-end. He likely will.

But ideas he could close are, well, not being held by rational people at Comerica Park.

Possible trades

As much as fans dream about making deals for a ninth-inning savior, not much is likely to surface there.

It’s the usual sticky wicket that figures to tie General Manager Al Avila’s hands.

Teams aren’t inclined to trade certified closers, or even fearsome back-end arms that could be channeled into closers. And that’s because those people tend to be viewed by any team, even by a non-contender, as essential tools. At least in early May.

Compounding headaches there is the Tigers’ organizational story.

They really have no trade pieces to offer. This is a team with too few farm-system treasures, in part because of (a) bad drafting, (b) too many draft picks being forfeited on past free-agent signings), and (c) trades that wiped out various folks (Corey Knebel, to name one) who by now might have been helpful.

Trades aren’t likely to make a big difference. That’s because making a big trade would be required. And with baseball’s marketplace being a poor match for the Tigers’ roster realities, any huge transaction that might help Detroit isn’t likely on May 8 to be more than fantasy.

Tigers pitcher Francisco Rodriguez

Bullpen by committee

Now you’re talking.

This, really, is the Tigers’ lone option. Today, anyway.

It’s not remotely close to perfect, because truly happy solutions aren’t, at the moment, feasible.

But it can get the Tigers closer to a trustworthy ninth-inning script than currently can be secured from K-Rod.

You could use the Wilsons in interchangeable roles, hoping to keep one of them from having his arm disintegrate from over-use.

You might, on occasion, be able to sneak Greene in there — ah, cancel that thought. The Tigers must be overly gently in pushing him along the bullpen conveyor belt.

You might even be able to give K-Rod an occasional — very occasional — shot at showing, one way or another, if he is capable of squeezing a few more saves from that 35-year-old body and 16-season big-league career.

That’s because, for as certain as fans are certain that he’s finished and done and must be exiled to an island where the Tigers will be safe from his horrific ways, he, in fact, might have a quarter-tank of fuel remaining.

That’s why he was allowed to pitch during the weekend. He remains one-seventh of a bullpen in which all arms are needed. Regularly. And the only way to know with absolute certainty if he was capable of resuming his 2016 ways was to hand him the ball.

Not that those invitations are unlimited. They are not. It is likely K-Rod’s leash was shortened to a nub after Sunday’s conflagration.

The Tigers, almost assuredly, will be treating ninth innings differently after back-to-back bonfires at Oakland Coliseum all but erased K-Rod’s traditional niche, and put the Tigers’ brass into a bind they’ll not easily begin to resolve.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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