Tigers could turn to an unlikely Yankee to solve their closer problem

Phil Hughes has struggled to the point that the New York Yankees would trade him for a modest return.

Phil Hughes has struggled to the point that the New York Yankees would trade him for a modest return.

The Tigers’ decision to cut ties with Jose Valverde, who has been given the “designated for assignment” brush-off, is the first step toward the resolution of Detroit’s longstanding need for a closer. Valverde clearly was working with a diminished repertoire and showing few signs of ever regaining his pre-2012 form. The chances of him regaining his former excellence in the Motor City might not have been higher than five per cent. Those would have been bad odds for a team with serious World Series aspirations.

So what should the Tigers do next in trying to resolve the back end of their bullpen? Phil Coke doesn’t have the stuff to be a closer, Joaquin Benoit lacks the experience and the durability, and Drew Smyly is more valuable long-term as a starter. Assuming that the Tigers don’t turn to top relief prospect Bruce Rondon, they must clearly look outside of the organization in trying to find the new John Hiller, the next Willie Hernandez, or the second coming of Mike Henneman.

Rumors have already begun that the Tigers will pursue Jonathan Papelbon, currently wasting away for the past-their-prime Phillies. Papelbon’s arsenal of pitches and history make him one of the game’s best closers; he also has experience pitching in the postseason for the Red Sox. On the surface, Papelbon sounds like a dream come true for manager Jim Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski.

If we dig deeper into this rumored acquisition, the addition of Papelbon becomes problematic. First, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. insists that Papelbon is not available. Amaro believes the geriatric Phillies are capable of contending, if not this year then next year. Under ordinary circumstances, I’d be tempted to call this nothing more than diplomatic public relations by the general manager, but Amaro is just stubborn enough to believe that the Phillies will soon resume their role as contenders and foolish enough to hold onto Papelbon at all costs.

If Amaro does change his mind and make Papelbon available, he is likely to want a substantial return for his high-priced closer. Based upon what I’ve read and heard, I could see Amaro asking for either Smyly or Rick Porcello, along with a top minor league prospect in a deal for Papelbon. The Tigers would probably prefer not to deal either of those starting pitchers, forcing them to give up two top prospects for Papelbon. Would you give up two upper-tier prospects for a closer, which just might be the most fluid and unpredictable position in the big leagues? I wouldn’t. I’d rather hold onto the prospects, along with Smyly and Porcello.

Here’s a better solution for Dombrowski: make a play for struggling Yankee right-hander Phil Hughes. It would be a case of buying low for a pitcher who is ill-suited to starting, but primed to be highly effective as a late-inning reliever.

Hughes was once considered a top pitching prospect, but has turned into a disappointment in pinstripes. Even though he has better-than-average stuff, he doesn’t know how to mix his pitches, doesn’t have a feel for how to attack hitters, and struggles with putting away hitters once he reaches two strikes. These are all major concerns for a starting pitcher in the American League.

By pitching out of the bullpen, Hughes would no longer need to mix his pitches against an opposing lineup facing him four times a game. His fastball velocity would likely rise a tick (from his usual 92-93 miles per hour to 94-95) and he would become less reliant on his secondary pitches. Rather than worrying about having to pace himself for six or seven innings, he could aggressively attack hitters with his fastball and slider, far and away his two best pitches. Simply put, he would have to think less and rely more on power pitching.

There is already evidence that Hughes can prosper in the bullpen. Just four years ago, the Yankees placed Hughes in the bullpen at midseason and kept him there through October, including the World Series. Hughes responded with some of the best pitching of his career. He emerged as a huge factor during the second half of the 2009 regular season, forging an ERA of 1.40 in 44 games as a reliever. He did not pitch as well in the postseason, but he gave the Yankees scoreless relief in the second and third games of the World Series, both victories for the Yankees.

Hughes’ current struggles have lowered his trade value to the point that he becomes a potential steal for the Tigers. Unlike the Phillies with Papelbon, the Yankees are in no position to ask for one or two top prospects in return for Hughes. They’re more likely to settle for a package of a hitter and a B-level prospect, perhaps a combination along the lines of Andy Dirks and minor league outfielder Daniel Fields.

Other factors loom in favor of the acquisition of Hughes. Although he is a free agent at season’s end, he is still only 26, making him a reasonable candidate for a long-term contract. (The Tigers could certainly switch him back to the rotation in 2014.) He is also a fly ball pitcher, one who has become vulnerable to the home run ball, particularly at hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. His style of pitching is made to order for the vast confines of Comerica Park, where there’s no such thing as a cheap home run. Hughes could thrive quite nicely pitching half of his games in Detroit.

At one time, Phil Hughes was known as “Phil Franchise,” a label for a highly touted young pitcher whom the Yankees refused to surrender in a deal that would have netted Johan Santana. Those days of being a pitching phenom are long gone. Hughes will never be a No. 1, or No. 2, or even a No. 3 starter. But he is the kind of pitcher who could be the answer to the Tigers’ season-long void at the end of the bullpen, and someone who could make the difference between an early playoff exit and a return trip to the World Series.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is a museum teacher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A resident of Cooperstown, he is the author of seven books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and Ted Williams.