The Detroit Tigers are a very good baseball team, and they play in the American League Central, a division that Jayson Stark just graded out as baseball's worst. While the Royals are attempting to make a run this season, the Tigers have fewer real challengers than any other playoff contender in the sport. And perhaps that cushion is why the Tigers are apparently willing to go into the 2012 season without anything resembling a big league closer.
The front-runner for the job is 22-year-old rookie Bruce Rondon. GM Dave Dombrowski made it clear earlier this week that the job was not going to be handed to Rondon, but >was quoted as saying the Tigers "hope he wins the job in spring training," following that up with "in my opinion, he'll handle it fine." That's quite the vote of confidence for a kid who has never thrown a pitch in the majors.
In some ways, this experiment is a very new-school approach to the closer's role. The statistical community has long advocated for lower-cost bullpen construction, eschewing the notion of a "proven closer" and simply giving the ninth-inning job to a quality reliever without the reputation to demand a big salary. For years, Billy Beane has used pump-and-dump closers as a way to create valuable trade chips and then ship them off for more valuable prospects, dating back to the days of Billy Taylor in the mid-1990s. While Dombrowski is not generally seen as an analytical GM, the idea of creating a closer rather than paying for one is a page right out of the "Moneyball" playbook.