So this is really happening? The Detroit Tigers are actually going to do this?
Welcome back to Tiger Town, Jose Valverde. Hey, where have you been?
Oh, that’s right — the Tigers wanted nothing to do with him after last season, especially when he couldn’t get anyone out in the postseason. You’ve probably repressed this memory, so I apologize for bringing it back.
(Actually, the Tigers should probably apologize since they made the decision to bring Valverde back.)
Valverde pitched fewer than three innings in the playoffs, finishing with a 30.37 ERA.
He allowed nine runs and 11 hits (two of them home runs). He did rack up six strikeouts among the eight he recorded. Unfortunately, when opposing batters weren’t swinging and missing, they were hitting Valverde and hitting him hard.
Jim Leyland just couldn’t trust Valverde to get anyone out, so Phil Coke ended up becoming the de facto playoff closer.
That knocked the Tigers’ bullpen setup out of whack, forcing Leyland to use his relievers in roles they weren’t accustomed to during the season. Having to save Coke for the ninth meant he wasn’t available to pitch to left-handed batters when needed in earlier innings.
Was it the only reason the Tigers lost the World Series? Of course not. Unless Valverde could’ve gotten a hit against San Francisco Giants pitching.
But Dave Dombrowski couldn’t wait to get rid of Valverde once the season ended. He probably thanked Valverde for his services even before the season was over.
That let Valverde know that he wouldn’t be getting a new contract from the Tigers and told Scott Boras that he better start getting one of those thick presentation binders ready for his client’s free agency.
Boras had other fish to fry anyway, working Dombrowski hard to sign one of his other free-agent clients, closer Rafael Soriano.
Every other MLB team that might have had interest in a closer or setup man saw the same stuff from Valverde that everyone else watching the playoffs did. Valverde looked finished.
He became a one-pitch pitcher, relying mostly on his fastball with some splitters mixed in. But that fastball (a two-seamer) had less velocity on it than it did in previous seasons, as well.
While Valverde was waiting to be signed by any team, the Tigers decided to move on to Bruce Rondon. As MLB.com’s Jason Beck reminds us, Dombrowski (and presumably, Leyland) all but handed the 22-year-old fireballer the closer job.
“This guy is a special potential closer with the makeup of a closer, and normally you’re not going to thrust that in a young guy’s hands and say automatically, ‘It’s your job.’ But it would not surprise me if he earned that job. With the number of good arms that are out there, there are not many arms like this, and he cherishes that type of role.”
It looked like sound judgment by the Tigers. Over the years, they’ve spent money on free-agent closers like Troy Percival, Todd Jones and Valverde with little return. Go with the kid this time. Not only was he younger and cheaper, but he was probably better than anyone the Tigers could sign.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the 2013 season. Rondon couldn’t win the job in spring training, showing the same control problems that he exhibited last season in the minors.
Suddenly, Leyland (and presumably, Dombrowski) had significant questions as to whether or not a rookie could handle the pressure of being a closer in the major leagues, let alone a closer for a World Series contender.
The decision was made to assign Rondon to Triple-A Toledo and go with the closer-by-committee approach. Who would be the Tigers’ closer? Hey, it could be anybody!
That made many several observers rub their hands together in anticipation. In theory, any competent MLB reliever should be able to close out a game in the ninth inning. The Tigers had their deepest bullpen in years with Coke, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel and Al Alburquerque all capable of getting those three final outs.
Yet Leyland didn’t manage like someone who would pick his closer based on the matchups presented to him in a particular game. He managed more like someone hoping that one of his relievers would eventually seize the job.
Coke was the first one to get that chance, but Leyland apparently didn’t get the memo about how poorly Coke pitched against right-handed hitters. Why not use someone like Dotel or Alburquerque in those situations? Only the skipper knows.
Benoit looked like the next guy to get a shot. But again, for whatever reason, Leyland wasn’t comfortable with him in those situations, despite being given little opportunity to prove himself.
Leyland wanted a closer. And there was one guy in the organization that, in his mind, could fill that role.
Valverde was still out there, waiting to be signed. So the Tigers finally decided to bring him back, albeit to a minor-league deal that presented little risk. Though it appeared to be a desperate move for Detroit, there wasn’t much to lose. If Valverde was terrible, the Tigers would never call him up and could let him go after May 8.
However, the team seemed to like what they were hearing from their staff about Valverde’s performance in Single-A Lakeland. Never mind that, as Yahoo! Sports’ Eric Adelson pointed out, he was pitching in front of 63 people and facing hitters straight out of high school.
But as Valverde’s friend told Adelson, perhaps three straight seasons of nearly 70 innings caught up with Papa Grande and he wore down. Valverde often looked like a pitcher who may have been hiding an injury, but maybe he was just fatigued.
Couldn’t Valverde just tire out again this year, if Leyland used him as he has the past three seasons? One would think so, but maybe Valverde is in better condition to guard against that. The Tigers are obviously hoping so.
From most accounts, Valverde has his velocity back, touching 97 mph on the radar gun. His secondary pitches are also showing good movement. Valverde never featured a changeup or sinker in his previous three seasons in Detroit, but apparently has been working on those pitches.
So this is really happening.
With no one stepping up to take the closer job, Dotel on the DL and Rondon’s suitability for the role still uncertain, the Tigers are going with someone familiar. Dombrowski announced Tuesday night that Valverde would be added to Detroit’s roster for Wednesday’s game versus the Kansas City Royals. Leyland confirmed to reporters that Valverde would get the ball if there’s a save opportunity.
Desperate? Maybe. But the Tigers don’t seem to have any better options. Or at least Leyland isn’t willing to try them.
It’s still early in the season, but the Tigers do have to get their bullpen roles figured out as the schedule moves into May. If they feel Valverde can be the guy — even if recent history suggests that he can’t be — then he should get the ball in the ninth inning.
If Valverde doesn’t work out, it’s still early enough in the year to make another move. Much like second base and left field last season, this is increasingly looking like a need Dombrowski will have to address at the trade deadline.
This is what it’s come to for the Tigers. But did it ever need to get to this point? The only person who can bury those questions at this point is Valverde.