Lyon, Tigers agree to one-year deal
Righty becomes front-runner for closer's job in Detroit bullpen
DETROIT -- Fans came to TigerFest on Saturday morning prepared to ask team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski what he was going to do about the bullpen. Dombrowski arrived with an answer.
By signing free-agent reliever Brandon Lyon to a one-year, $4.25 million contract, the Tigers addressed the one remaining void that they had targeted at season's end but had been lingering all offseason. They filled it with someone who reminds some of former Tigers closer Todd Jones -- not an overpowering pitcher, but someone whose ability to mix pitches and work the strike zone has quietly made him one of the game's better late-inning relievers.
It isn't the kind of signing that makes ripples around the league. At Comerica Park, however, it drew a healthy applause from a crowd that had been wondering what the Tigers were doing for their relief corps.
"He's an established big league pitcher -- quality makeup," Dombrowski told fans and a radio audience. "He's got good stuff. He's got an average to above-average fastball with some movement. He's got an outstanding breaking ball. He's aggressive. He goes after people. He's a proven big league pitcher."
Along those same lines, the Tigers signed former Major League pitcher Scott Williamson to a Minor League contract with an invitation to Spring Training. He'll join Juan Rincon as non-roster invitees trying to regain some of their old form and crack a Tigers bullpen that has opportunities for the taking.
It's the opportunity that apparently won over Lyon when he weighed the Tigers against other teams. At least one club, Dombrowski said, offered him a two-year deal for more money. Detroit, however, offered a chance to regain a closer role that he had been seeking all along as the market on relievers slowly unfolded this winter.
Lyon won't have the closer's job going into Spring Training, but he's the favorite candidate to take it when the Tigers break camp.
For little more than half the season last year, Lyon was one of the more effective closers in the National League after filling the opening left by Jose Valverde in Arizona. He converted 15 straight save opportunities on his way to 19 saves over the first half of last season and put together a 25-inning scoreless streak over 24 appearances from April 9 to June 12. Combined with his solid 2007 season as Valverde's setup man, Lyon had emerged as a late-inning reliever of choice.
A five-run ninth inning to blow a three-run lead on July 20 against the Dodgers stunted that growth, starting Lyon on a second-half slide that led the D-backs to install Chad Qualls as closer in the season's final month.
Lyon finished with an 8.46 ERA and .381 opponents' batting average after the All-Star break, comparing to 2.43 and .243 beforehand. The Tigers relied on their scouting reports to determine what to make of that.
"I think stats can be misleading," Dombrowski said, "especially when you talk about a guy in the bullpen. We saw a lot of him, because we have a lot of scouts that live in Arizona. His stuff was still good. He was used a lot, and I think it caught up with him at times. I don't look at him as a dominant-type closer, but our people all felt he could pitch at the back end of the 'pen."
Lyon entered the offseason drawing interest as a hybrid reliever, someone who could close a game or set up for a closer. Like quite a few free agents, though, Lyon lingered on the market after the top relievers went their ways in December. With Lyon one of a few closing options left heading out of the holidays, the Tigers made their decision.
"We knew we couldn't go after the real big-salary guys," manager Jim Leyland said, "but we had all those guys on a list. And this guy was actually the next on our list after some of those guys were gone. Dave's done a great job. He stayed after it and got it."
Dombrowski completed the deal without a long-term commitment or a guarantee that Lyon will close. Barring a Spring Training collapse, however, he's expected to take the job over Fernando Rodney, who spent the final two months of last season closing once Jones was injured.
Rodney has the power and the offspeed arsenal that few, including Lyon, can match. Lyon, however, has the consistency that Rodney hasn't yet been able to find.
"I'm just going to lay low on that," Leyland said when asked whether Lyon has the job. "He certainly gets an opportunity. We'll look and see how this all plays out come Spring Training, but I'm really excited about it.
"I know he's excited about it. I know he had chances to go other places. He chose us."
Talks on Lyon picked up after the holidays, leaving him choosing among the Tigers, Twins and Cardinals heading into the week. Minnesota sought him as a potential setup man for closer Joe Nathan. St. Louis has been looking at closing candidates but has also looked at internal options to fill the role.
At least one team offered Lyon a multiyear contract, Dombrowski said, and one team approached Lyon with last-minute interest after he had committed to Detroit. Lyon didn't waver from his commitment, flying to Detroit for a physical on Friday before returning to Utah.
"He thinks he's going to win the job," Dombrowski said of Lyon. "That's what he thinks is going to happen, and that's why he wanted to come here on a one-year basis."
The Tigers took a shot at Williamson after scout Bruce Tanner watched the right-hander in a throwing session and came away impressed. The 32-year-old Williamson, who broke into the Majors as a hard-throwing setup man in Cincinnati a decade ago, pitched just 19 1/3 innings last season. All of it came in two stints at the Triple-A level after the Giants released him early in Spring Training, and both Triple-A stints ended with a release.
Pitching indoors off a portable mound with gym shoes on, Williamson fired fastballs at 90-92 mph in his audition, Dombrowski said.
"He's throwing harder than that," Dombrowski said. "He's been a guy that's been an established big league pitcher in the past, but he hasn't been healthy in a long time. We thought it's worth a gamble."
He's the second such pitcher the Tigers signed this week. Rincon, a former Twins setup man, agreed to a Minor League deal with a Spring Training invitation on Tuesday after showing signs of regaining his old form to scouts who watched him pitching this winter in the Venezuelan League.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.