4/24/2013 10:57 A.M. ET
Tigers wise to bring back Valverde as closer
Veteran allows other relievers to fall back into more comfortable roles
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
I've had a warm spot in my heart for Jose Valverde since 2008, when he refused to leave a game after taking a liner off his head while closing for the Astros. Papa Grande lay on the ground for a few moments as medical personnel and others gathered round. Some teammates stayed away from the area for fear of what they'd see.
Valverde eventually got up, dusted himself off and promptly threw a 96-mph fastball. He got the final out of a game against the Phillies and retreated to the clubhouse to apply an ice pack on the side of his face.
To say that he won the respect of his teammates, coaches and manager Cecil Cooper that night would be a huge understatement. But Valverde brushed off the praise, saying he just did what he was paid to do.
Valverde sometimes annoys opponents with his celebrations of strikeouts and displays of emotions on the mound. When the Astros acquired him from the D-backs for the 2008 season, his new teammates were inclined not to like him because they only knew him from his on-the-field behavior.
They discovered that Valverde is a big, happy, demonstrative and occasionally loud baseball player. He shows up at the ballpark with a smile on his face and seems to be one of those people who hasn't had too many bad days.
OK, scratch that. He had a few of them during the 2012 postseason, when he rolled up a 48.60 ERA in his final three appearances. He was so bad that Tigers manager Jim Leyland was forced to remove him from the closer's role. And when the season ended, Tigers president, CEO and general manager Dave Dombrowski told Valverde the club wouldn't re-sign him for '13.
Now we fast forward to 2013, and the Tigers are again turning to Valverde. Their original plan to give hard-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon the closer's job was abandoned after a shaky Spring Training, and none of the veterans has taken hold of the role. As Leyland said during the spring, Detroit has a bunch of quality arms, but closers have a different mindset. They have the ability to deal with failure and to be able to perform with the game on their shoulders.
The Tigers have blown three of their six save chances, and with a team that could have the best rotation and one of the five best offenses, the lack of a closer is a glaring weakness.
Leyland has already said that Valverde will go right back to closing games, thus allowing Joaquin Benoit to return to his eighth-inning role and Phil Coke, Al Alburquerque and others to have the earlier innings. In another interesting move, Rondon has also been summoned to Detroit to work in less-pressurized situations and become comfortable with Major League hitters.
From Leyland's standpoint, it's an easy call. Relievers -- and every other player on a baseball team -- prefer to have their roles clearly defined. In a perfect world, they want to start preparing to enter a game before the bullpen telephone even rings.
There's comfort, not just for the relievers, but for Leyland, for the other players and for fans. Blowing late leads eats away at a team's confidence and impacts other areas. When a bullpen is going badly, a manager will ask more of his starters, and that extra workload can show up in negative ways in the second half of the season and in October.
So having Valverde back is going to feel right for the Tigers. His personality plays well in a clubhouse, and having a settled bullpen situation should be a shot of confidence for a team that knows it's expected to win a World Series.
Some have wondered why Dombrowski would turn back to a 35-year-old veteran who looked like he was at the end of the line during those three tough postseason appearances. Those are legitimate questions, and Dombrowski may be kicking himself for not grabbing Rafael Soriano off the free-agent market. (It's only money, and there's nothing a columnist likes doing better than spending someone else's cash.)
And maybe Valverde just had a bad couple of weeks last October. He finished the regular season strongly, converting 19 of his final 20 save chances and holding opponents to a .227 batting average.
Valverde's velocity has declined, from a career high of 95.8 mph in 2009, according to FanGraphs.com, to 93.4 mph last season. He averaged 95.2 mph in his first season with Detroit. But Valverde threw the ball about the same way in both '11 and '12.
What's interesting is that he appears to be throwing more fastballs, not less, and throwing fewer split-finger fastballs, not more. Pitchers will sometimes use the split-finger as their out pitch after they've begun to lose velocity.
Again, though, Valverde was plenty good in the second half of last season and began the playoffs with a three-out, two-strikeout save against the A's in Game 1 of the Division Series.
Dombrowski, one of the best in the business, would not be summoning Valverde back to the Major Leagues if he didn't think the veteran could succeed, and Leyland would not be giving Valverde his old job back if the reports weren't good.
So for today, the Tigers are a complete team. They've got their ninth-inning guy back, and if Valverde somehow has another productive season in him, one of baseball's best teams may be whole.
With that great rotation, and with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the middle of the lineup, and with a future Hall of Famer filling out the lineup cards, it's impossible not to love the Tigers. Here's to Papa Grande, who is getting a chance to write another kind of ending.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.