Tigers fans were nervous at the thought of pinning their hopes on Fernando Rodney to be the successor to Todd Jones as closer, and so was Detroit management.
Unable to land a high-profile closer in the wake of the end of Jones' career, Detroit made a move Saturday by signing free agent right-hander Brandon Lyon to a one-year deal most likely laced with incentives.
Rodney was highly inconsistent in a trial as the closer in August and September, so the Tigers were on the search for alternatives all winter. An unwillingness to bid on the high profile closers led to bringing in Lyon to compete with Rodney for the role of ninth-inning pitcher. The other will work in the setup role.
"Brandon Lyon is a proven reliever at the major league level," GM Dave Dombrowski said. "Brandon will compete for the closer's role this spring and we expect him to play a significant role on our pitching staff in the late innings."
Rodney will "be a big asset, in my opinion," manager Jim Leyland said. "What his role will be, I don't know yet. But he'll be a very valuable piece of our team. I'll leave it at that because I don't know how it plays out."
Detroit is flush with late inning pitchers in the minors, but four of them came out of last June's draft and they're not ready yet. One or two of the entire group might make the team for work in the middle innings.
"Sometimes you go after high-profile guys," Dombrowski said, "and sometimes you try to get not-so-high-profile guys."
Detroit recently signed RHP Juan Rincon to a minor league deal and invited him to train with the Tigers, and Saturday they added another vet, RHP Scott Williamson, on similar terms.
It's a gamble, but a risk the Tigers are forced to take given the state of the economy.
--RHP Brandon Lyon, 29, signed a one-year deal with the Tigers to compete with RHP Fernando Rodney to work the eighth and ninth innings for Detroit. The free agent worked 61 games for Arizona last season and saved 19 games in the first half of the season before stumbling. He wound up saving 26 with a 3-5 record and 4.70 ERA. He walked just 13 batters and struck out 44 in 59 1/3 innings. In seven seasons for Toronto, Boston and Arizona he has a 21-29 record with a 4.46 ERA and 51 saves.
--RHP Scott Williamson signed a minor league contract and was invited to spring training with the Tigers. Williamson, 33 next month, was only able to get a minor league deal because of a recent history of arm problems. He last pitched in the majors with Baltimore in 2007. He was limited to 18 Triple-A games with two organizations last season. The nine-year major league veteran is 28-28 with a 3.36 ERA and 55 saves for his career.
--RHP Eddie Bonine was designated for assignment as Detroit created a roster spot for free agent RHP Brandon Lyon. Bonine, 27, was brought up by Detroit twice last season and went 2-1 with a 5.40 ERA. He was 12-4 with a 4.15 ERA in 17 starts for Triple-A Toledo.
--RHP Justin Verlander submitted a salary request of $4.15 million if his contract status goes to arbitration next month. Detroit countered with an offer of $3.2 million. Verlander dropped from 18 to 11 victories last season, when he made $1.13 million. "It's definitely disappointing, but I wouldn't say humbling," Verlander said of last season. "I've always believed in my ability. That's just the way I'm built. What I went through was frustrating, but I don't think I got too frustrated. I gave it everything I had, my heart and soul, but I could have done a lot better." Verlander thought he pitched better than his 11-17 record, noting he had a solid stretch in the middle of the season. "If I knew what I'd had done wrong and that would fix it, baseball would be an easy game, But it's not. It's a game of adjustments, and I think I'm making those adjustments," he said.
--C Gerald Laird avoided arbitration with the Jan. 20 announcement he had signed for a raise of more than $1.5 million. Laird, acquired from Texas in a winter deal to be Detroit's regular catcher, hit .276 with six home runs and 41 runs batted in over 95 games. He made $1.6 million with the Rangers but reportedly will get paid $2.8 million by the Tigers. He has thrown out 36.6 percent of runners attempting to steal since the start of the 2003 season, second-best among American League catchers.
--LHP Bobby Seay nearly doubled his salary, reportedly agreeing to a $1.3 million contract to avoid going to arbitration. Seay finished 1-2 with a 4.47 ERA in 60 games last season, when he was paid $735,000, and set career highs with 60 appearances, 56 1/3 innings and 58 strikeouts. He has pitched for Detroit the last three seasons, going 4-2 with a 3.89 ERA.
--RHP Joel Zumaya, coming off two injury-shortened seasons, avoided arbitration by agreeing to a contract reportedly calling for a raise to $735,000. Zumaya has been throwing lightly since late December after his 2008 season was first shortened and then halted because of right shoulder problems. He underwent surgery in November 2007, came back in midseason but was put out of action by the tearing of scar tissue in August. He pitched in 21 games, going 0-2 with a 3.47 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings. Zumaya has gone 8-8 with a 2.76 ERA in three years with the Tigers. He was paid $420,000 a year ago.
--RHP Edwin Jackson avoided arbitration when he agreed on a one-year deal for an estimated $2.2 million. Jackson was paid $412,700 by Tampa Bay and won 14 games before being traded to Detroit between seasons. Jackson had a 4.42 ERA in 32 games, all but one of them starts. He was used out of the bullpen by the Rays in postseason play.
--RHP Juan Rincon signed a minor league contract and invited to participate in major league spring training. "He's been a solid major league pitcher most of his career," GM Dave Dombrowski said. "Plus, (new pitching coach) Rick Knapp knows him and likes him." "I think this guy's primed for a turnaround year," Knapp said. "I think this is a great fit for us. I look forward to having Juan return to the way he was." Rincon posted an ERA less than 3.00 for Minnesota in the 2004-06 seasons. He served a 10-day suspension in 2005 for testing positive under Major League Baseball's drug policy for an illegal performance-enhancing substance. Rincon, who turns 30 next month, has slipped the last two seasons and rejected a minor league assignment last year. He became a free agent and ended the year with Cleveland. Rincon went 3-3 with a 5.86 ERA with Minnesota and Cleveland. He was among the players announced for the provisional roster of the Venezuelan team for the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
--1B/3B Jeff Larish has a chance to make the Detroit roster this spring, according to manager Jim Leyland. "He's one of the candidates that possibly will be fighting for the 25th spot on the team," Leyland said. "That is a fact." Larish would be battling incumbent UT Ryan Raburn, but the rookie's advantage is he's a left-handed hitter with power, something the Tigers need. Larish, a first baseman, was surprised to get some looks at third base when called up to Detroit last summer and spent time during the Arizona Fall League season relearning skills he had not paid attention to since he was a freshman at Arizona State. "I got a lot of quality work in," said Larish, who got married right after the AFL season ended. "Each game I played over there, I got a better idea of the angles and jumps."
BY THE NUMBERS: 3 -- Pitchers competing for the lone open spot in the Detroit rotation entering spring training. LHPs Nate Robertson, Dontrelle Willis and RHP Zach Miner will battle for the vacancy following the confirmation by manager Jim Leyland during Detroit's press caravan that four right-handers are penciled in to be starters -- Justin Verlander, Armando Galarraga, Jeremy Bonderman and Edwin Jackson.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You don't just come in and tear it up every night, every day of every year. Like I've said all along, if Justin takes advantage of it, and learns from it, and makes any kind of adjustment, there's nothing wrong with that. A lot of players struggle. But it's the players who figure out why they struggled that get better. He spoiled us those first two years. But I think he'll be an excellent pitcher for us." -- Manager Jim Leyland on RHP Justin Verlander