The Tigers spent the winter determined not to panic about the ninth inning. With closer Jose Valverde having declined since his stellar 2011 season — to the point that he was displaced in the postseason — they saw no urgency to re-sign him, or to add any of the other available Proven Closers on the market. General manager Dave Dombrowski maintained that stance even when Valverde's anointed successor, 22-year-old rookie flamethrower Bruce Rondon, struggled during spring training and was sent to Triple-A Toledo to start the year.
That left Jim Leyland without a defined closer but with a potential matchup-based solution via lefty Phil Coke and righty Octavio Dotel — "a second-guesser's delight," as the manager termed it. While Coke closed out the Twins on Opening Day, he blew the save and took the loss on Wednesday night, and less than 24-hours later, the team announced that they had re-signed Valverde to a minor league deal, one that includes an opt-out clause if he's not in the majors by May 5. Assuming that they won't overpay for the major league portion of the deal, the parameters of which are apparently still under discussion between Dombrowski and agent Scott Boras, it's a reasonable move — not because the team desperately needs him as in the ninth-inning role but because having another talented, inexpensive reliever is a good thing.
The 35-year-old Valverde has seen his share of highs and lows in 10 seasons with the Diamondbacks, Astros and Tigers. He's led the league in saves once with each of those teams, and earned All-Star honors in both 2010 and 2011 before declining last year. After converting all 49 of his regular-season save opportunities, striking out 8.6 per nine and pitching to a 2.24 ERA in 2011, he blew five out of 40 opportunities last year, whiffed just 6.3 per nine, and finished with a 3.78 ERA.
His postseason was worse. After saving Game 1 of the Division Series against the A's, Valverde blew the save and took the loss in Game 4, allowing three runs while getting just two outs, and in two subsequent appearances 10 days apart — one in the ALCS, one in the World Series, he yielded six more runs (and two homers) while getting just three outs. With Leyland describing Valverde's delivery after his ALCS meltdown as "too slow… The tempo is not good at all," pitching coach Jeff Jones attempted to fix his mechanics. The results didn't improve, though admittedly, the sample size — five hitters, four of whom reached base — was tiny, and he never got a second chance during Detroit's sweep by the Giants.
After interest from the Marlins didn't pan out with a contract agreement, Valverde was slated to pitch for the Dominican Republic team in the World Baseball Classic. He hoped to springboard to a major league job, but was taken off the roster before the tournament began so he could tend to a sick uncle. Via Boras, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported last month that Valverde had lost 18 pounds and was throwing 93-95 mph, in the range of his average 2011-2012 velocity, if not his earlier peak. After a Tigers scout watched one of his bullpen sessions in the Dominican Republic, Dombrowski said, "They have told us his velocity has been up. It was maybe a tick up, just throwing on the side. He was throwing in the low to touching mid-90s and throwing some splits on a much more consistent basis."
Bypassing the name-brand Jonathan Broxton, Rafael Soriano, Brian Wilson and Francisco Rodriguez — the last three of whom were still available as of mid-January, and the latter two of whom remain unsigned — Dombrowski had pinned the organization's hopes on Rondon to take over as Valverde's successor. A 6-foot-2, 265 pound behemoth from Venezuela, Rondon had never pitched higher than A-ball until last year, when he struck out 11.2 per nine in 53 innings split between three levels, though just eight of those innings came in Triple-A; he put himself on the map when he was clocked at 102 mph in last summer's Futures Game. The knock on him besides his lack of major league experience is that he's a one-trick pony, as he struggles to command his slider, though he cut his walk rate from an unsightly 7.6 per nine in 2011 to 4.4 per nine last year.
Despite a clear path to the closer job and some mechanical tweaks that initially appeared to help, Rondon failed to convince the Tiger brass his control woes were behind him as he walked nine in 12 1/3 innings this spring. In sending him down, the GM reiterated his stance: "We like him a lot,… All the times, you can see his arm strength and all that's attached. But we just thought he would benefit a little bit more by some more development time."
Rondon will close at Toledo, where he'll be able to make adjustments without the daily scrutiny of Detroit's decision-makers, and in the meantime both Leyland and Dombrowski have maintained their willingness to go with the dreaded "closer by committee." That cast includes Coke and Dotel — both extremely strong against same-side hitters, but hit hard by those of the opposite hand — as well as setup men Joaquin Benoit and Al Alburquerque. Leyland proclaimed that any of his roster's seven relievers, including lefties Drew Smyly and Darin Downs and righty Brayan Villarreal, could also close, which is technically true if not necessarily the best course of action. Contributing to the perception of the current bullpen's failures is the fact that except for Alburquerque and Dotel, all of the relievers have already given up their first run of the season, with Villareal getting lit for five runs against the Twins on Thursday afternoon on the heels of Coke's failure the night before. Ultimately, both Rondon and Valverde will have to perform simply to earn their spot in that bullpen, let alone the ninth-inning job. If Valverde's mechanics have indeed been fixed, the Tigers may have saved themselves a bundle by not overcommitting to him during the winter. If Rondon can sharpen his command to dominate big league hitters, the team can add another late-inning weapon to their arsenal. So long as Tigers rely upon the present capabilities of both pitchers, and not their past success or future potential to determine their roles, they should be well-served by having so many options at their disposal.