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Tigers looking for Zumaya replacement

Tigers looking for Zumaya replacement

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DETROIT -- Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski barely had a chance to celebrate his trade for shortstop Edgar Renteria, who filled the biggest need on Detroit's offseason list. Suddenly, Dombrowski needs a new list.

From a baseball standpoint, the news that Joel Zumaya will miss at least the first half of next season following reconstructive shoulder surgery hit the Tigers hard. It not only sidelines one of baseball's best setup men, it also removes the safety valve Detroit had at the closer's job going into this offseason.

A week ago, the Tigers could wait for free-agent closer Todd Jones because they had Zumaya. If Jones signed elsewhere, they would move Zumaya to closer next year and add a setup man or middle reliever.

That option's now gone. The Tigers need a closer, and if it's not Jones, they'll have to sign or trade for someone else.

"It puts us in a position," Dombrowski said, "where if we don't sign Todd back, I think we have to be aggressive in trying to find somebody who can pitch the back end of a game."

Jones called Zumaya's "awful news" in response to an email Thursday evening. However, he said that he has no read yet on his own situation.

The Tigers have exclusive rights to talk contract terms and signings with Jones through Nov. 12, but Jones is expected to listen to other clubs. If the Braves decide to pursue, it's expected he would sign there to be closer to his Alabama home. If not, the Tigers are seen as the favorites to sign him.

With Zumaya out, though, that tango could become more interesting. The Braves have their own impressive young reliever, Rafael Soriano, whom they could install as closer while trying to sign a setup man.

Until now, there was no guarantee that Jones would close all season if he re-signed with the Tigers, who indicated they could work in Zumaya as closer as the season continued. That's no longer a factor. Jones would be the unquestioned closer all next year, and possibly into 2009.

The only current Tigers reliever with any sort of Major League closing experience is Fernando Rodney, who held the role for a month and a half when Jones began the 2006 season on the disabled list.

"As much as we like Fernando," Dombrowski said, "we don't see him as our closer."

That holds, even if Jones doesn't come back. The Tigers haven't yet had time to consider all their options then, but as Dombrowski put it, "We'd have to get somebody to pitch at the end of the game."

Fortunately for the Tigers, the free-agent market has plenty of pitchers who know how to do that, even if they've had varying degrees of success doing it.

The list starts with the man regarded by many as the best closer of all time. Mariano Rivera hits the market with 443 career saves to his credit, but the Yankees are expected to make a major push to retain him. Even with the closing position now wide open, it's uncertain whether the Tigers would approach that kind of contract territory for that position.

Beyond Rivera, the options are wide-ranging. Former Tiger Francisco Cordero is a free agent at age 32. He racked up 44 saves in 2007. Eric Gagne was a dominant closer in Texas before struggling in a setup role in Boston.

Detroit showed interest in Octavio Dotel as a setup man around the trade deadline last July before the Braves acquired him to be their closer, but injury ended his season soon after, leaving the Braves with an option to decide. Indians closer Joe Borowski led the American League with 45 saves, but posted a 5.07 ERA in the process. Cleveland has a $4 million option on him that is expected to be picked up.

The Rockies must decide whether to sign ex-closer Brian Fuentes to a contract extension or trade him before he's eligible for free agency in a year. The 32-year-old sidearming left-hander lost his closing job after a midseason injury allowed Manny Corpas to take over, but indications in October suggested Colorado would hold onto him.

"If anything, the bullpen spot in free agency is one of the strongest spots out there," Dombrowski said.

Even if the Tigers do bring back Jones, Dombrowski left open the possibility that the Tigers could sign someone to take over Zumaya's old setup spot.

"The depth of our bullpen if we sign Todd back," Dombrowski said, "you've got Rodney and you've got [Zach] Miner and you've got [Jason] Grilli, and they all have another year of experience. I think you're in a spot where you're OK, but I would also say that I think once we get through this, we'd also be open-minded to exploring the possibility of [signing] another guy out there."

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

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