So, it seems to be happening, the situation every Tigers fan dreaded. Let’s start at the beginning.
After an incredible playoff implosion (I noted to my wife during the playoffs last year that I’d never actually watched someone’s career go up in flames, and it was kind of saddening) last year, the Tigers didn’t re-sign tarnished closer Jose Valverde. No one else did, either. The Tigers went into the 2013 season without a set closer, but with a relatively reliable bullpen of arms. Manager Jim Leyland had used a closer-by-committee in the past when he was in Pittsburgh, so I figured he’d simply play matchups this year, something the Tigers’ bullpen seemed suited to do, with Benoit and Coke as the obvious RHP and LHP closers, respectively. They could move Al Alburquerque into a set-up role with someone like Drew Smyly and use Octavio Dotel as needed. It’s not a weak bullpen. Rookie Bruce Rondon, the heir apparent to close, had control issues in the spring and had to wait.
Instead, the Tigers struggled in the 9th, and with no clear option, they signed Valverde to a minor league contract. To be fair, this was reasonable. A minimum salary contract for a guy who was a couple years removed from an excellent season was reasonable. It’s low-risk if it fails. What’s more frightening, to me, is that Leyland seems to need the security blanket of a “proven closer.” Valverde entered the picture in early May and struggled immediately; I won’t post stats for this one, but the short of it was that his peripheral stats (fastball velocity, walk rates, etc) were awful and his luck stats (HR-to-flyball, some favorable umps, etc) were sky-high. Anyone watching a Tigers game when he enters can also see – this is a guy who’s confidence is lost. He’s not 2011 Valverde, in command on the mound; he’s holding his breath like every fan is, hoping nothing goes wrong.
Over the past week, Valverde blew a save. It happens. What hurt was that he almost blew the one the day before, also. In fact, if not for a terrible called third strike by the umpire in the 6/11 game, a call which Billy Butler got himself thrown out over, I think Valverde has two blown saves in two days. The Tigers do not have a good record in close games, but they’re a team that wins big often enough to weather that. But they won’t go far without a shutdown closer, someone who has some confidence.
The rumor mill buzzes that the Tigers need to make a trade; maybe. Milwaukee might part with a guy like Francisco Rodriguez or Arizona might part with Heath Bell, but the question is always what they’d want in return. The Tigers’ biggest area of wealth is an excess of outfielders; in fact, it wouldn’t hurt to try to move a guy like Andy Dirks or Avisail Garcia if it means getting Nick Castellanos in left field this year, since he’s raking in Triple-A. But more likely, the Tigers should mine their wealth of bullpen arms and endure the struggles of a younger, new closer than endure the struggles of a one-year retread of Valverde. The honest truth is that both Al Alburquerque and Bruce Rondon have closer-type stuff, if they can command their pitches better; but I’d rather watch them learn on the fly than watch Valverde have similar issues. More interesting would be putting a guy like Drew Smyly into the role; he’s a strikeout pitcher with a starter’s arsenal of pitches. In fact, Drew Smyly should be a starter – but with no rotation spot to put him in and him not stretched out to spot start if necessary, his talents are wasted in long relief; he has a potent skill set and may be the perfect in-house candidate to hold down the closer role this year.
Ultimately, the Tigers are the best team in a weak division and can weather blown saves here and there. But the reality is starting to set in – Valverde’s a shell of himself, much as we saw last year in the playoffs. The longer they stick with him, the more harm they inflict on themselves. It says a lot about a team that they can endure some self-inflicted losses, but as the season grows shorter and summer heats up, they’re going to have to nail down some stability in that role, start making sure they don’t let wins slip away, and find the guy who’ll be able to get the job done in September and October – because that guy is not Jose Valverde anymore.