Tigers sign righty to big league contract, immediately anoint him closer
DETROIT -- 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 Tuesday, signing him to a one-year Major League contract. If they take a lead into the ninth inning Wednesday night, he'll try to close out a win.
Essentially, it's a return to the bullpen setup they had for most of last year before Valverde's postseason collapse forced them to make a change.
It's a scenario that seemed impossible entering Spring Training, and seemed improbable even after the Tigers signed Valverde to a minor-league contract on April 4. After Valverde pitched three times for Class A Lakeland the past four days, however, the Tigers were sold on his 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 earlier this month. Dombrowski said the big league contract stuck to that framework, which is believed to include incentives.
The Tigers optioned 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 first pitch on Wednesday.
Valverde, who turned 35 on March 24, saved 110 games for the Tigers 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 recorded 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 American League Division Series in Oakland, the second to open the AL Championsip Series 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 their former closer. What they saw in three Class A outings and a few extended Spring Training appearances convinced them that Valverde's 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 until he went away from it two years ago.
His fastball is reportedly 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 is something the Tigers didn't feel they had with their current crew. Detroit went 3-for-6 in save opportunities to start the year, 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 restored.
"It reads better than it did before," Leyland said. "Will it be better? I don't know."
At this point, though, the Tigers felt it was a better option than what they had.