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.