LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers' conviction in Bruce Rondon as a closer-in-the-making has made the 22-year-old Venezuelan a face for the theory that an effective closer isn't an exclusive club. It's probably a slight on his actual pitching to think that way, but it's more the experience factor.
But the other face in that debate could be the 35-year-old setup man preparing to protect him.
Only Mike Adams has more holds over the last three seasons than Joaquin Benoit, owner of 84 since 2010 and 59 over two seasons in Detroit. His manager, Jim Leyland, has called him as good of a setup man as there is in the league, and tried to lobby for him as an All-Star last year.
"We're blessed with that, there's no question about that," Leyland said last week. I mean, he's been our eighth-inning guy and he's done a terrific job -- a couple bumps once in a while, but everybody has those."
In a year when Jose Valverde and Phil Coke both had their struggles, Benoit arguably was the best reliever the Tigers had in 2012. Between his 30 holds and two saves, he went 32-for-36 in save situations and stranded 15 of 18 runners he inherited. He held opponents to a .186 average with runners in scoring position with more than twice as many strikeouts (24) as hits allowed (11) in those situations.
Benoit has grown to own the eighth inning like a veteran closer owns the ninth. The question, as the Tigers debate the value of a set closer against a committee, is how his eighth-inning work would translate to the ninth.
If Rondon doesn't win the closer job, it's a question the Tigers might have to tackle.
Benoit was essentially Valverde's backup the last two seasons. When Valverde needed a day off after pitching three straight days, or four out of five, Benoit was the first choice and converted his rare chances. Under the theory that any good reliever can be a good closer, Benoit would seemingly fit. Under the idea that the last three outs are different from any other outs in the game, it takes a little projection.
"There have been a lot of guys in baseball that could get outs 22, 23 and 24, but not 25, 26 and 27," Leyland said.
Leyland wasn't talking specifically about Benoit. Rather, he was noting the difference. He has also said there's a difference between the ability to save a game and being a closer.
Benoit, too, notes differences, though he says that it's still pitching.
"I think you have to set your mind on what you're going to do," Benoit said. "If you're going to be the closer, you know that you're going to have those last three outs, and sometimes you're going to have to get four. But I think being a setup guy, seventh, eighth, or throwing the ninth, you're still going to [have to] get three outs, get through the inning."
There's another philosophy Leyland carries that he has noted with Benoit -- the most important out in a game doesn't always happen in the ninth inning. It could be earlier, to a setup man or a starter, with runners on base or with momentum changing. Moving Benoit or one of Detroit's other setup men into the ninth would take away depth that allowed Leyland to mix and match.
The most important factor for a closer, Benoit said, is strike one. That, in some ways, might be different in the ninth. It's a tip Benoit has given to Rondon.
"Strike one, 95 percent of the time, is going to be given to you," Benoit said. "[Against] closers, most of the time, hitters take the first strike. Take advantage of that and then after that, make them hit what you have."
That observation reflects one of Benoit's strengths, his ability to read and react to hitters' tendencies.
"He's as good as we have as far as reading hitters and trying to figure out what pitch they're sitting on," pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "Everybody knows he's got a good fastball and a really good changeup."
Benoit has an ability to trip players up on which pitch to watch. He did that to Nationals All-Star Bryce Harper on Sunday.
It was a Spring Training game, but it was nonetheless impressive. After getting two bad swings from the 20-year-old Harper waving on changeups, Benoit pumped up his fastball to 95 mph. Harper didn't offer at it, but it set him up for the ensuing changeup in the dirt.
"When you have a fastball-changeup combination like he does, if you're able to read a hitter like he's capable of, it leads to success like he's had as a setup guy," catcher Alex Avila said. "He's got two out pitches and he's basically able to pick and choose on what he sees."
It's similar to what has made Fernando Rodney an effective closer with the same pitches.
"I guess I've got good memory," Benoit said. "I remember things that happen and how hitters have done against me. I guess I go from there."
One difference in the other direction for Benoit last year was the number of home runs he allowed, 14 in 71 innings. Six resulted in a lead change. One was a walkoff, a 13th-inning shot from Baltimore's Taylor Teagarden. A seventh- or eighth-inning home run, for all its value, can be overcome. That said, the home run total more than doubled his previous high as a reliever.
Benoit, for his part, says he isn't concerned about the role. He's preparing himself as a setup man for Rondon, and that's what he hopes will happen.
"I'm just trying to get myself ready for the season and not worry about where I'm going to be," Benoit said. "I know I'm the eighth inning guy, so I'm just getting ready for that and let everything else take care of itself. There's not much I can do. Decisions are made by the front office and the manager and the coaching staff, so I guess hopefully we'll get Rondon to be the guy and hopefully we can help him as much as we can to succeed in his first year."
And if the Tigers end up with a bullpen by committee? Benoit said it would be a challenge.
"I think we need to have a closer and we need to have the setup guys set," he said, "because it's going to be really hard on our bullpen if it's do-by-committee. We need to get one person to step up and throw the ninth inning, for the rest of the guys just to know what they're going to do in the game."