Tigers, Boras not on same page about closers

Tigers, Boras not on same page about closers

Tigers, Boras not on same page about closers
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Winter Meetings are almost always where the Tigers find their match. Seven years ago, they found it with superagent Scott Boras, inking a deal with Kenny Rogers that provided one of the key pieces for Detroit's run to the World Series in 2006.

As Tigers officials and Boras talked around the same time Wednesday afternoon under the same roof at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, they couldn't have sounded much further apart -- not just financially, but philosophically. It wasn't about starting pitching, but closing.

Around the same time as Boras referred to the risks of calling up young players to high-pressure roles, the Tigers reiterated their belief in hard-throwing relief prospect Bruce Rondon and a handful of more experienced non-closing arms in their bullpen. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski confirmed what he had said at the start of the offseason: that it would require the right situation for the Tigers to add a closer down the road.

When Dombrowski talked about Rondon's 6-foot-3, 265-pound frame as an imposing presence, he was seemingly talking about more than his body.

"He is a big presence, kind of an intimidating presence," Dombrowski said.

The Tigers aren't promising Rondon any Major League role, but they're clearly open to giving him the opportunity to win one, including the closer's job. The recent success of young closers, from Aroldis Chapman to Craig Kimbrel, plays a part in Dombrowski's thinking.

Boras, who uses statistics heavily in his presentations to teams, disagrees.

"It's a philosophical cliff in baseball that you can bring Minor League talent to the big leagues and know what you've got," Boras told reporters. "The evidence says that there are many young players in our game that are 20, 21 that can hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs, and they're extraordinary talents. Or win 15 games. But there have never been [such] closers that can come in and get 30 saves. I think you count on one hand the number of closers under the age of 23 that have ever gone to the big leagues and at a young age put together 30 saves, let alone pitch in the postseason and be effective."

Rondon will turn 22 years old on Sunday.

Statistically, it's not that rare, though it isn't an annual occurrence, either. According to research on baseball-reference.com, 10 pitchers have recorded at least 30 saves in their age-23 season or younger since the save became an official statistic in 1969. Half of those seasons have come since 2010.

Whittle that total down to those age 23 or younger in their first full Major League season, and it's fewer than a handful. All three of them, tough, did it in the past few years. Neftali Feliz saved 40 games in 2010 at age 22 for a Rangers team that made it to the World Series. The next season, 23-year-old Kimbrel saved 46 games for Atlanta, while 23-year-old Jordan Walden saved 32 games for the Angels.

Boras has a vested interest in the Tigers' philosophy. His clients include Rafael Soriano, the top free-agent closer. Soriano's list of suitors isn't known, but the Reds, Angels and Yankees have signed closers so far this offseason, from Cincinnati's three-year contract to Jonathan Broxton to New York's one-year extension for Mariano Rivera. The Rangers, meanwhile, signed proven closer Joakim Soria for a setup role as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.

Among last season's postseason teams, the Tigers are the only one currently without a set closer. Whether they sign a proven one, manager Jim Leyland hopes to name one closer, rather than go with a bullpen by committee.

"To be honest with you, from a selfish standpoint, when a manager has a guy and I'm just throwing out maybe a Mariano Rivera or whoever they might be, in our case [Jose] Valverde last year -- No. 1, they're really good at what they do," Leyland said, "and those guys are hard to find.

"Two, from a selfish standpoint, you very rarely ever second-guess. I mean, you bring those guys in, and you're really not answering questions after the game. When you've got to do it by committee, if you have to pick and choose, then you leave yourself open for second-guessing."

If the Tigers don't add a proven closer, Leyland expects to get a feel for whether he has one set option in Spring Training.

"A lot of that has to do with the personality of the pitcher," Leyland said. "Stuff's good enough, but the mental part of that can be very fragile. ...

"I already know the guys that are on our team, but I assume people are going to get to the question about the young kid Rondon, who there's certainly a possibility will get an opportunity. I'll get a pulse for him in Spring Training, what I feel about him, his makeup."

What Leyland wants to know, more than anything, is how his closer responds after a blown save, how quickly he can regroup. That response, he said, can make a big impact on the entire team. He knows quite a bit already with Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel. As difficult as that can be to read in Spring Training, he'll work to get a read on Rondon.

Boras would agree with the impact on a team.

"Last year, there were three or four teams that, if they had a 90 percent save opportunity ratio out of their bullpens, they would have been in the playoffs, and they weren't," Boras said. "So it really is a position, in my mind, that few men can do."

The Tigers strongly believe they have that guy for the long term in Rondon, which is one reason they don't want to invest a lucrative long-term contract on a veteran closer. The struggles Valverde faced down the stretch this past season, a year removed from a perfect 2011, provides another thought.

Boras strongly hinted that the market value for Soriano would be big, potentially record-setting.

"As time spins it out, I think teams have to evaluate," Boras said, "and it's a little easier in this market, because we're now seeing mid-level players make $13 million a year. Certainly, the value of a closer, you'd have to argue, has historically been more valuable than what you would see with mid-level players."

Even with one of the five largest payrolls in the game, it's difficult to see the Tigers giving a record-setting deal to a closer. Whether a shorter-term deal somewhere for less would be a better opportunity remains to be seen. So is the question of whether Rondon is the guy right now.

Boras and the Tigers will break camp from here on Thursday. The closer saga figures to go on.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.