When Jose Valverde inked a two-year contract with the Tigers back in January of 2010, little did he know that the $9 million club option that was included for the 2012 season would cost him millions more.
Had he reached free agency last offseason (the Tigers picked up his club option), Valverde would've brought these credentials to the negotiating table: 32 years old, 242 career saves, 191 saves and a 90-percent save percentage from 2007-11, 49-for-49 in save opportunities in 2011, three-time All Star, two top-six finishes in Cy Young voting, career 3.02 ERA, career 3.8 BB/9, career 10.4 K/9, career 0.9 HR/9.
More importantly, there were no obvious red flags that showed Valverde was on the decline, as was the case of fellow 30-something closers Heath Bell and Francisco Cordero, who had each experienced a drop in strikeout rate. Top free-agent closer Jonathan Papelbon, only 16 months younger than Valverde, received a four-year, $50 million deal from the Phillies, while Bell, 14 months older than Valverde, signed a three-year, $27 million dollar deal with the Marlins.
It could have very well been Valverde, however, who ended up with the big-money deal during the Marlins' offseason spending spree. Or maybe the Tigers, knowing that they were ready to make a run at the World Series, would've paid up to keep their closer in the fold for at least another two or three seasons.
As it stands, "Papa Grande" is still available on the free-agent market with a diminished value after a so-so 2012 season that included a career-low 6.3 K/9 and ended with a disastrous performance in the playoffs. Valverde is now a soon-to-be 35-year-old hoping for another chance to prove that he can still be effective in the late innings.
Ironically, the team that would've likely paid top dollar for him a year ago might be the best fit for him in 2013, but at a much lower salary. Enrique Rojas of ESPNDeportes.com is reporting that the two sides are close to a one-year deal. The Marlins, who traded Bell along with most of their best players this offseason, are in rebuilding mode and could use an experienced veteran like Valverde as insurance for Steve Cishek, who enters his first full season as the team's closer. The team also has a group of unproven setup men, including Mike Dunn, Ryan Webb and possibly rookie A.J. Ramos.
With the team expected to get their teeth kicked in on a daily basis and almost zero chance to compete in the NL East, Valverde won't be able to make a huge impact in Miami. What he can do is pitch well enough as a setup man/occasional closer where a contending team might give up a halfway decent prospect to acquire him in July.
Hey, maybe the Tigers will be looking for a closer if that Bruce Rondon experiment doesn't work out. OK, maybe that's a bad idea given Valverde's October meltdown. But injuries do occur. Relievers are extremely unpredictable. A relief corps that looks fairly reliable now could be in shambles two or three months into the season.
All it would take is a few solid months—something similar to what he did in the second half of the 2012 regular season (3.44 ERA, 34 IP, 30 H, 8 BB, 23 K)—for Valverde to attract trade interest and potentially be pitching out of a contending team's bullpen with the game on the line once again.
And despite the fact that his value has taken a huge hit after last season, Valverde still proved to be one of the best in the game at keeping the ball in the park. His 3.3-percent home run/fly ball rate in 2012 was fifth among relievers with at least 48 innings pitched.
And Valverde is no ground ball pitcher, as you can probably tell by his 34-percent ground ball rate. Hitters usually elevate the ball against him. Valverde in spacious Marlins Park could be a tough matchup for hitters as long as the outfield is able to cover some ground. An outfield of Giancarlo Stanton, Justin Ruggiano and likely late-inning defensive replacement Gorkys Hernandez should cover sufficient ground in order to make Valverde look good. In addition, Valverde's velocity was still good in 2012 (average 93.4 MPH fastball) and he continued to dominate against right-handed hitters (.515 OPS vs right-handed hitters in 2012).
I'm not saying the Marlins will get the 2011 version of "Papa Grande." I am saying that you shouldn't be surprised if he has a very good three-month stint in Miami before moving up several spots in the standings when he's traded to a contender in July.