April 23rd, 2013

Tigers call up Valverde to close again

The Tigers’ bullpen by committee is over. The Grande return of the closer is here.

Six months after the Tigers bid farewell to Jose Valverde, they welcomed him back on Tuesday, signing him to a one-year Major League contract. If they take a lead into the ninth inning Wednesday night, he’ll be welcomed back to the mound to try to close out a win.

Essentially, it’s a return to the bullpen setup they had for most of last season before Valverde’s postseason collapse forced them to make a change.

It’s a scenario that seemed impossible heading into Spring Training, and seemed improbable even after the Tigers signed Valverde to a minor-league contract on April 4. After three Valverde outings for Class A Lakeland over the last four days, however, the Tigers were sold on Valverde’s comeback.

“His stuff has been very good,” team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Tuesday night. “We think he’s ready to come in and close games for us.”

Terms of the contract were not disclosed. Dombrowski and Valverde’s agent, Scott Boras, discussed the framework of a Major League deal when they put together the minor-league contract. Dombrowski said the big-league contract stuck to that framework, which is believed to include incentives.

The Tigers optioned young but mercurial right-hander Brayan Villarreal to Triple-A Toledo to make room for Valverde on the 25-man roster. Detroit still has to open a spot on the 40-man roster for him by game time on Wednesday.

Valverde, who turned 35 on March 24, saved 110 victories for the Tigers over the past three seasons, setting a franchise record with 49 saves in 49 chances in 2011 to win Delivery Man of the Year honors. He put up 35 saves last year, but saw most of his major pitching numbers slide.

Once he blew back-to-back save chances in the postseason — the first in Game 4 of the AL Division Series in Oakland, the second to open the ALCS in New York — the Tigers went to a closer by committee for the rest of the postseason. Valverde didn’t pitch again until a mop-up appearance in Game 1 of the World Series.

Dombrowski told Valverde at the end of the World Series, and the media a few days later, that the Tigers would not re-sign him as a free agent, opting to keep the job open and give hard-throwing prospect Bruce Rondon a chance to win it. Rondon was optioned to Triple-A Toledo at the end of Spring Training, and the Tigers signed Valverde to a minor-league deal a week later once he agreed to no Major League guarantees.

Essentially, it was a tryout, and the Tigers had until May 8 to evaluate. What they saw in four Class A outings and a few extended Spring Training appearances convinced them that his pitches were better than they were last year, both the velocity on his fastball and the use of the splitter that was an out pitch for him for years until he went away from it two years ago.

His fastball reportedly is touching 94-95 mph. His splitter had bite to it, though not necessarily consistency. That was what the Tigers wanted to see, more than the game experience.

“In my mind, it’s more about stuff,” Dombrowski said. “He knows how to close games.”

Or as Leyland put it, “One thing you know about him: He’s done it before, and he’s not afraid.”

The latter something the Tigers didn’t feel they had with their current crew. Detroit went 3-for-6 in save opportunities, though some of those blown saves came before the ninth inning. One save came from four innings of relief by Drew Smyly in an 8-3 home-opener victory. Another save came when the Tigers executed a relay to throw out the tying run at the plate in the 14th inning in Seattle.

The latter was the only save opportunity for Joaquin Benoit, who became Leyland’s preferred option to close two weeks ago. Getting leads to the ninth, meanwhile, was a matter of matchups.

Leyland remained committed to the committee format, but said regularly it was tougher to do than a set bullpen. With Valverde’s return, that set order is apparently restored.

“It reads better than it did before,” Leyland said of his bullpen order. “Will it be better? I don’t know.”

At this point, though, the Tigers felt it was a better option than what they had.

Tigers-Royals rained out

West Coast 020DETROIT — The Tigers had amazingly avoided the early-season postponements other teams have suffered this season despite the miserable Midwestern weather. That run is over.

Tuesday’s series opener between the Tigers and Royals was postponed due to rain. No makeup date was announced.

Though Monday night’s forecast called for a cold front to bring steady rain to Detroit for most of the evening and into Wednesday, the forecast was iffy on when the rain would begin. The hope was that the system would hold off long enough for the game to begin in dry weather, then play through the rain.

Those plans were thwarted when rain began falling on Comerica Park shortly before game time. Though a window of dry weather briefly appeared on the radar southwest of turn, it soon closed. The game was postponed less than 20 minutes later.

Tuesday’s scheduled starters, Max Scherzer and Wade Davis, will start Wednesday’s game instead. While the Tigers pushed everybody back a day in their rotation, the Royals will skip Luis Mendoza, who was originally scheduled to start Wednesday.

That sets up a Thursday afternoon battle of aces between Justin Verlander and James Shields.

The Royals come to town for weekend series in August and September, the earlier one a four-game series. The two teams could schedule a doubleheader during one of those series or try to schedule it on a common off-day. They both have an off-day Aug. 19 after the four-game series, but playing then would require player approval since it would have both teams playing about four weeks between off-days.

All paid tickets for Tuesday’s rainout for will be honored at the makeup game. No ticket exchange is necessary.

Tigers appear close to decision on Valverde

The Tigers appear to be on the verge of a decision on Jose Valverde. It isn’t necessarily the promotion to Triple-A Toledo many have expected.

Craig Custance, an NHL writer for ESPN, tweeted Monday afternoon that Valverde was on his flight Tuesday afternoon from Tampa to Detroit.  Valverde struck out the side in a scoreless inning for Class A Lakeland Monday night. A source close to Valverde indicated the report on his travels was accurate.

Custance then double-checked with Valverde on his way off the plane.

Normally, a player reporting to Toledo would fly into Detroit Metro Airport. It’s the closest major airport, less than an hour away from Fifth Third Field. However, the Mud Hens are on the road for the next week and a half, and began a four-game series Tuesday in Durham, N.C.

The Tigers, meanwhile, are at home through next Wednesday. Though it’s entirely possible the team would check on Valverde before promoting him to Toledo, Valverde isn’t a pitcher dealing with a health issue.

Though Valverde has been expected to get some time at Toledo before the Tigers made a decision whether to sign him, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said last week that Valverde wouldn’t necessarily need time at Triple-A Toledo before the Tigers made a decision on him.

Valverde pitched three times in four days for Class A Lakeland, including back-to-back outings Friday and Saturday. He tossed three scoreless innings, allowing a hit and two walks while striking out four.

On Tuesday, Dombrowski referred questions on Valverde to a team spokesperson, who said the team has no move to announce at this time.

If the Tigers opt to add Valverde, they would have to sign him to a Major League contract and add him to the 40-man roster to make room.

The Tigers just made a bullpen move on Tuesday, recalling Bruce Rondon from Triple-A Toledo to take the place of Octavio Dotel, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list. However, manager Jim Leyland said Tuesday that Rondon — who was a closer candidate in Spring Training — will not close games starting out.

So far, the decision process on Valverde so far has been independent of any immediate decisions in Detroit.

Tuesday’s lineups: Tigers at Royals

The Tigers have hit four home runs in 19 1/3 innings off Wade Davis over the last two seasons, including three homers in two starts in 2011 when he was in the Rays rotation. However, Davis comes to town on a roll with the Royals, having shut down the Twins and Braves in his last two starts, both Royals shutout wins. Those 12 shutout innings have seen him allow just two extra-base hits, both doubles, while striking out 13.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF (1-for-8, walk, 2 K’s off Wade Davis)
  2. Torii Hunter, RF (3-for-7, 2 K’s off Davis)
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B (2-for-10, 2 HR, walk, 2 K’s off Davis)
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B (0-for-1 off Davis)
  5. Victor Martinez, DH (1-for-9, 2 walks, K off Davis)
  6. Andy Dirks, LF (1-for-4 off Davis)
  7. Jhonny Peralta, SS (2-for-11, walk, K off Davis)
  8. Alex Avila, C (2-for-7, 2 HR, 2 walks, K off Davis)
  9. Omar Infante, 2B (0-for-4 off Davis)

P: Max Scherzer

Dotel placed on DL, Rondon promoted

The Tigers’ closer of the future didn’t need long to become the relief help of the present. Bruce Rondon, whose triple-digit fastball made him a candidate to head up the bullpen out of Spring Training, earned his first call to the big leagues Tuesday to replace injured Octavio Dotel.

The Tigers placed Dotel on the 15-day disabled list with right elbow inflammation. They recalled Rondon from Triple-A Toledo, where his season-opening stint as Mud Hens closer produced the dominant right-hander who skyrocketed up the Tigers farm system last year.

It’s not immediately clear how Rondon’s arrival will affect the Tigers’ closer situation. Manager Jim Leyland has said for the past two weeks that he doesn’t have a set closer, but that he’d like to use Joaquin Benoit in the ninth inning if he can.

As the Mud Hens closer, Rondon has settled into a rhythm and shown the command that seemed to come and go in Spring Training. His 7 2/3 shutout innings include five hits allowed, two walks and nine strikeouts. He’s 3-for-4 in save opportunities, the exception coming when he couldn’t shut down a bases-loaded jam April 15.

Even so, he struck out four batters over 1 2/3 innings in that outing, and didn’t allow a walk. He hasn’t walked a batter in his last four appearances, covering 4 2/3 innings.

That control likely played a major role in the Tigers’ decision to promote him now rather than let him continue his Triple-A education. He joins a Tigers bullpen that could use his help after relievers have covered 20 1/3 innings over Detroit’s last five games, including a 13-inning loss Sunday against the Angels.

Dotel was unavailable Sunday, which helped put the Tigers in the precarious position of having just left-handers left as the game rolled into extra innings.

Dotel said after that game that the elbow inflammation that sidelined him the previous weekend hadn’t gone away.

“It’s still there,” Dotel said. I’m just trying to get through that, but it’s still there and hopefully we just found out a way to get it out.”

Dotel suggested at the time that they would see how his elbow felt on Tuesday.

The 39-year-old has pitched just 4 2/3 innings over six outings so far this year, but his average fastball velocity is down about three miles per hour from last year according to fangraphs.com. That said, the Tigers have been bringing him along slowly since spring because of his limited work in Spring Training and during the World Baseball Classic.

Dotel has pitched Friday against the Angels, so the DL move was made retroactive to last Saturday. He’ll be eligible to come off the DL on May 5, the last day of a four-game series in Houston. If Rondon is overpowering big-league hitters when Dotel is ready to return, the Tigers will have a decision to make whether Rondon is ready to stick in the Majors.

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