Crain seems good fit for Tigers

And if Sox move him to AL Central rival, it could be win-win for all

White Sox manager Robin Ventura after 7-4 loss to the Twins.

No strong team needs relief pitching more than the Tigers. No reliever is hotter than Jesse Crain.

Don't be shocked if Crain is closing games against the White Sox when the teams meet in Detroit before the All-Star break.

When general manager Rick Hahn decides it's time to cut his losses on the 2013 season, he's going to make his inventory of players available to 29 teams, including the four in the American League Central. He told me so early Tuesday, and then re-iterated those views to reporters covering the Sox in Minneapolis.

Crain is capturing a lot of attention around baseball with a first half that Joe Mauer says is worthy of a spot on the AL All-Star team. He's in the last season of the three-year deal he received after seven years with the Twins, and pitching coaches Don Cooper, Bobby Thigpen and Juan Nieves have helped him become a better pitcher than he was when he arrived.

There's no evidence at this point the tigers are pursuing Crain — and colleague Mark Gonzales reported the Rangers and Dodgers had scouts watching Crain in Houston last weekend — but he's a perfect fit for a bullpen that has Jose Valverde (9-for-12 in save chances, five homers allowed in 181/3 innings) as the closer and could be without Octavio Dotel all season because of a mysteriously sore elbow.

The reflex rumor making the rounds has Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski waiting to see if the Phillies will trade Jonathan Papelbon. But Seattle-based analyst Dave Cameron suggested the other day at Fangraphs.com that the new-and-improved version of Crain makes more sense than Papelbon.

Their stuff has become comparable with the evolution of Crain's secondary pitches, including a curveball that he has been using to help get ahead of left-handed hitters. The one unknown is whether Crain can handle the heat as a closer.

He has exactly four saves in 527 career outings and earlier in his career had a tendency to give up costly home runs in big spots. But he hasn't allowed a homer in his last 44 outings, dating back to Sept. 1, and always has said he wanted the challenge to close games.

Crain was seen as a closer alternative after the White Sox traded Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays but Hector Santiago opened 2012 in that role and Addison Reed stepped in a month later. While Crain would be an asset to any bullpen the way he's pitching, a playoff team looking for a closer would want to see how he handles that role before projecting him into it in October.

That's why a deal to the Tigers, sooner rather than later, makes sense. Manager Jim Leyland could have a month to decide whether he's comfortable with Crain as the closer while Dombrowski weighs other options as the July 31 deadline. Executives with other teams believe the Tigers will add multiple arms, not just a closer.

A lot of teams would rule out helping their division rival. Can you picture the Cubs sending talent to the Cardinals or the Red Sox and Dodgers helping out the Yankees and Giants, respectively? Probably not.

But Hahn is smart to take calls from Dombrowski. The issue is adding badly needed young talent in the high minors, if not on the big league roster. If Crain can fetch outfielder Avisail Garcia, left-hander Drew Smyly, left-hander Casey Crosby, outfielder Tyler Collins or others who make the White Sox better in 2014 and beyond, Hahn shouldn't fear watching Crain wear the old-English D in the World Series.

Actually, he should hope Crain helps the Tigers win the World Series. I'm serious.

Dombrowski, Leyland and owner Mike Ilitch are on a mission to give the Motor City its first baseball championship since 1984. The Tigers lost the Series to the Cardinals in 2006 and Giants last season, and Ilitch's reaction was to keep spending to make it happen.

I vividly remember a conversation with Dombrowski in Lakeland, Fla., in the spring of 2010. We were talking about the balance of the AL Central and I said it always seemed winnable for everyone because there was no behemoth. He said the Tigers' goal was "to become the behemoth.''

That has been done, with the Tigers' adding Victor Martinez in 2011, Prince Fielder in 2012 and spending heavy to keep Anibal Sanchez in 2013. The payroll has grown from $115 million in 2009 to $149 million.

Maybe life for the rest of the AL Central would become easier if the Tigers do win it all. It can't be tougher than it is now.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers

CHICAGO