Thursday, April 4, 2013

Not a true "closer by committee"

Joaquin Benoit leaves the mound in the
ninth inning Wednesday.
The Detroit Tigers had opportunities during the offseason to add a "proven closer" to their roster. They chose not to.

When prospect Bruce Rondon failed to establish himself during spring training, general manager Dave Dombrowski was fairly emphatic — the Tigers would eschew the now standard bullpen approach of designating a "closer" whose role would be to pitch the ninth inning in save situations.
They would use the so-called "committee" approach, mixing their right-handed power arms (Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Al Alberquerque) with lefty Phil Coke and looking to exploit matchups.

So Dombrowski said. But he's not the guy in the dugout making the in-game decisions. Jim Leyland is. And while Leyland successfully manipulated just this kind of bullpen 20-some years ago in Pittsburgh, he's been a designated-closer guy since.

And his handling of the bullpen in the first two games this season says Coke is his closer.

The Twins used the same lineup in the first two games of the season, and it is reasonable to believe it will be the default lineup for the year. For opposition managers looking to exploit matchups, it's basically two parts — use a lefty for the 2-through-5 slots (Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham, Justin Morneau and Ryan Doumit), use a righty for the 6-through-1 (Trevor Plouffe, Chris Parmelee, Brian Dozier, Pedro Florimon, Aaron Hicks). One could go lefty through Plouffe-Parmelee as well.

In the opener, Benoit got the bottom of the order in the eighth — Dozier, Eduardo Escobar (in for Florimon) and Hicks, and Coke dealt with the lefty-heavy middle of the lineup in the ninth.The matchups worked.

On Wednesday, the matchups went the other way, but Leyland used Benoit in the eighth against the middle of the lineup. He successfully navigated that inning, but walked Plouffe to open the ninth — and in came Coke to face Parmelee, a one-batter matchup advantage.

He got Parmelee, but that was the last out the Tigers got. Dozier singled, Escobar doubled, and the Twins had an unlikely 3-2 win.

If Leyland were truly going for matchups with his bullpen, Coke should have gotten the eighth and a right-hander the ninth. But he appears to really want have Coke lay claim to the ninth inning.

The bullpen is the most obvious question on what appears to be a very loaded Detroit squad. Coke may have the emotional makeup managers like to see in a closer, but he's always struggled against right-handed hitters. We'll see how stubborn Leyland is about this as time goes on — and how much pressure builds on Dombrowski to provide an easy out for the manager.

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