DETROIT -- The fact that Rafael Soriano's agent, Scott Boras, drew a big-market team in on the bidding for a multi-year contract wasn't much of a surprise. The fact that the team wasn't the Tigers, though, surprised plenty.
While Soriano's two-year, $28 million deal with the Nationals made headlines around baseball Tuesday afternoon, the Tigers were mostly quiet observers. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, however, was finally open to talking about the extent of their interest in the top closer on this winter's free-agent market.
To hear him explain, it wasn't much interest.
"We never made him an offer," Dombrowski told MLB.com in an email Tuesday. "Also, our conversations were exploratory, like any other free-agent player."
Actually, it isn't anything different than what Dombrowski has been hinting all offseason. As far back as November, Dombrowski has been talking about giving top pitching prospect Bruce Rondon a chance to compete for the role with veterans Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel.
As it turns out, it wasn't merely a negotiating stance. And with Soriano now off the market, it's very close to final. The free-agent market for proven closers is down to former Giants All-Star Brian Wilson, who's coming off Tommy John surgery, and little else. The trade market is questionable, though it could include former Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey in Boston, or perhaps 2011 All-Star Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, who split closing duties in Washington last season.
This was the time of year three winters ago when the Tigers finally made their move for a closer and signed Jose Valverde. If the Tigers make a move now, and that's a big if, it would most likely be for a guy to compete.
Soriano's signing doesn't change their plans at all.
All along, it was apparent that Boras' best chance at drawing the Tigers into the bidding for Soriano was to engage owner Mike Ilitch, the same way Boras reportedly enticed the Tigers on outfielder Johnny Damon three years ago. Many expected that to happen.
Boras also tried to engage the Tigers on Soriano in the media, suggesting at last month's Winter Meetings that they shouldn't trust their ninth-inning leads to a rookie closer.
"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 at the time. "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's never been 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."
Dombrowski's response all along has been that recent trends have shown young closers can do the job, from Craig Kimbrel in Atlanta to Neftali Feliz in Texas to Bailey to Aroldis Chapman in Cincinnati. Rondon, Dombrowski said, is a special prospect.
"The one thing that I keep saying, because I think it's important: You've got to get some young blood with your club," Dombrowski said last month. "Now, when I say that, you don't want to put young blood in [there] that you don't think can help you. But you want to put talented young blood into your club. And unless you give them an opportunity, you'll never get guys up there.
"People forget in 2006, we had a couple guys by the names of [Justin] Verlander and [Joel] Zumaya that played pretty important roles, and [Curtis] Granderson came in, too. Well, they did all right. This guy's that type of talent."
That talent was on display at last summer's All-Star Futures Game in Kansas City, where Rondon lit up the Kauffman Stadium radar gun with a 102-mph fastball. Add in an improving breaking ball and more consistent control than in years past, and Rondon put together the kind of season the Tigers hoped to see from him.
The big Venezuelan recorded 29 saves at three different Minor League levels, allowing 32 hits over 53 innings with 26 walks and 66 strikeouts. He followed it up with nine saves in 18 outings for Magallanes in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he allowed eight runs on 16 hits over 16 1/3 innings with six walks and 19 strikeouts.
Much of Rondon's damage came in two disastrous outings three weeks apart. He gave up five runs on five hits over two-thirds of an innings on Nov. 24, and two runs on four hits with only one out on Dec. 14.
Rondon turned 22 years old last month.
In response to Boras' comments at the time, Dombrowski said at the Winter Meetings, "He's entitled to his opinion, as everybody else is, but it's one of those things where we like our situation. That's what it comes down to. I can't really say much more that I haven't said about the Rondon thing to you guys. We feel comfortable with that, and with the other arms we have in our bullpen."
Coke became the Tigers' de facto closer for the final two rounds of the postseason last October once Valverde faltered in back-to-back outings. His success in the role for that brief stint during the ALCS raised the question in some minds whether he could handle it on a regular basis. The 30-year-old brings an abundance of energy to his relief outings, a trait that could lend itself to the ninth inning.
The Tigers' preference would be to leave Coke in a lefty setup role unless they need him to close. Same goes for right-handed setup man Benoit, who has two saves in each of the past two seasons as a fill-in for Valverde. Statistically, the even-keeled 35-year-old has the resume for it, but as manager Jim Leyland says, there's a different feel to the ninth.
Dotel has more closing experience than anyone on the staff, racking up 109 saves over a 14-year Major League career that includes three seasons with more than 20 saves. At age 39, however, Dotel would most likely be a fallback option.
None of the veteran options are really ideal. If Rondon struggles, however, at least one should prove capable. Those decisions will make for an interesting Spring Training almost as soon as workouts begin Feb. 12 in Lakeland, Fla.