Nathan could close book on Tigers' title quest
Free agent is far and away the best ninth-inning option this Hot Stove season
This Hot Stove season is a good time to shop for a closer. In any case, it is always less stressful to need bullpen help in November, as opposed to September.
The Detroit Tigers, possessed of a terrific rotation and a powerful lineup, were eliminated from the 2013 postseason in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.
That was when Jose Veras gave up a grand slam to Boston's Shane Victorino and a one-run lead turned into a three-run loss. The fact that the Tigers' hopes for reaching the World Series were left in the hands of a journeyman reliever in a late-inning situation underscored the Tigers' dilemma.
As autumn turns inevitably toward winter in the upper Midwest, the Tigers are seeking a closer. In fact, their substitute closer, Joaquin Benoit, pitched commendably for them in that role in the regular season, although he, too, gave up a grand slam to the Red Sox in the postseason. That slam was hit by David Ortiz, making it perhaps more forgivable.
The Tigers did not make a qualifying offer to Benoit, but they would like to retain his services. He has been a highly effective setup man. If the Tigers can agree upon terms with a front-line closer, they could return Benoit to the setup role, thus giving them more late-inning depth.
As we speak, there is no shortage of competent closers on the market. These free-agent firemen can be divided into two categories:
1. Joe Nathan.
2. Everybody else.
Nathan has quietly had one of the best careers in the history of closing. For instance, Mariano Rivera, the man acknowledged to be the greatest closer of all time, converted 89.08 percent of his regular-season save opportunities. Nathan has converted 89.97 percent of his save opportunities. With 341 saves, he's way beyond the small-sample argument.
OK, Nathan is days away from his 39th birthday, but he has dealt successfully with the inevitable reduction in velocity that comes with age. In 2013, his fastball velocity was down, but he was a more versatile pitcher. His command was as outstanding as always. His numbers, in fact, were even better than his career norms. He had a 1.39 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP as he saved 43 games in 46 save opportunities for the Texas Rangers.
Nathan would be more expensive than the other closers on the market, and this could be a concern for the Tigers. Their 2013 player payroll approached $150 million, and it will grow due to the escalation of existing contracts.
This has led to reports of the possibility of trades for mainstays such as Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and first baseman Prince Fielder. It is difficult imagining the Tigers trading a pitcher who has only recently reached the peak of his profession. And it is difficult imagining another club taking on the $168 million remaining on Fielder's contract, unless the Tigers paid a truly substantial portion of the contract. That, of course, would defeat the purpose of trimming the contract.
So perhaps the Tigers could move in a less expensive direction at closer. Free agent Grant Balfour took over the closer's job for Oakland midseason in 2012 and has 62 saves in 67 save opportunities since. He's no kid, either, turning 36 in December. But he's a late bloomer and he was the closer for a division-winning club for two straight seasons. He has pitched under pressure and thrived.
Free agent Brian Wilson re-established himself with the Dodgers this season after Tommy John surgery. Wilson closed for the Giants when they won everything in 2010. In 22 relief appearances for the Dodgers in '13, including the postseason, Wilson gave up one earned run.
Wilson will be 32 next season. He is younger than the other closer candidates, yet he has a much older beard. It would be interesting to see how Wilson's act plays in the Rust Belt. But if you've been outside in Detroit in April, that beard could be seen as valuable insulation.
Fernando Rodney, a former Tigers closer, had one of the best seasons in the history of relief pitching in 2012. But he was substantially less effective in 2013. He will be 37 next year, but the free agent is still a hard thrower.
The Tigers believe that their long-term answer at closer may still be Bruce Rondon, who was out late in the season with elbow inflammation. Rondon will be 23 in December and his stuff is electric-plus on the excitement meter. If Rondon regains his full health and his three-digit velocity, the Tigers can groom him as their long-term closer.
But this is not a club that is playing for some unspecified future. The Tigers are built to go for the baseball summit in 2014. They have options at closer, and it is always comforting to have those. But the best option would be Joe Nathan.