The Detroit Tigers made it through the American League playoffs in 2012 without the use of a traditional closer. Their stated plan this Winter is to avoid paying for saves and to head into next season with 21-year-old right hander Bruce Rondon, a man who has never thrown a major league pitch but throws so many minor league pitches in excess of 100 miles per hour, penciled in as their ninth inning man.
Meanwhile, the most impressive closer in the league last season, Rafael Soriano, has opted out of the final year of his contract with the Yankees and is seeking a new deal. His timing, it seems, couldn’t have been worse. With Mariano Rivera nearing a deal to re-claim his job in New York and major market clubs like the Dodgers and Angels already sewing up their bullpen issues, Soriano is likely regretting leaving $14 million on the table in his quest for a multi-year contract.
Enter Scott Boras, Soriano’s agent, and his relationship with Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch. For the better part of a decade, Boras has found a home for some of his toughest free agent cases by picking up the phone and working directly with the Tigers boss. In 2004, it was Pudge Rodriguez who couldn’t find more than two years from any other club, but Mr. Ilitch and the Tigers gave him four years at $10 million per season and even threw in a fifth year option.
It’s a pattern that has repeated itself over and again including last year when Prince Fielder found himself without his desired mega-deal come January. Within a matter of a couple of days, Boras and Ilitch had hammered out a nine-year contract to bring Fielder to Detroit when no one else was offering even five years.
Now, with Boras perhaps sensing that the market for his top relief client is nowhere near what he was hoping, he has turned to Ilitch again. The two spoke on the phone on Monday according to veteran baseball insider Peter Gammons, who noted the conversation during an appearance on MLB Network Tuesday morning.
Soriano is said to be seeking a four-year contract in the neighborhood of $60 million and is without a doubt the top closer available on the market this year. In a climate where more and more teams seem to be turning away from high-priced closing options, however, Soriano will have a lot of trouble coming close to this deal.
Unless, of course, his agent can convince the billionaire in Detroit to open up the checkbook once again.
Tigers President and GM Dave Dombrowski would surely, given his druthers, like to have a relief ace like Soriano at the back end of his bullpen. He understands, however, that his team is already well-stocked with high impact bullpen arms with as many as a half dozen relievers in Detroit capable of closing out a win. Money that could be given to Soriano is better spent on retaining Anibal Sanchez or on adding an outfield bat or on upgrading the shortstop position; all things said to be on Dombrowski’s to-do list.
But when it comes to chasing the elusive World Series crown, Mike Ilitch tends to throw caution, and budgetary constraints, to the wind. It’s what Scott Boras is counting on. The Tigers’ great success with Boras clients certainly makes the idea more palatable to the owner as well.
If Ilitch listens to his baseball people, Boras will have to find a new owner to sidle up and whisper sweet nothings to. But Boras has sweet-talked Ilitch before and each time the Tigers owner has ponied up the cash.
Rafael Soriano has gambled $14 million on Boras being able to do it again.