The Detroit Tigers made a smart move during the offseason by not overspending on a "proven" closer, but instead letting their in-house options sort themselves out during spring training.
However, following a lackluster spring from flame-throwing Bruce Rondon and no real standout candidates, at least to Jim Leyland's liking, the Tigers opted to go back to the same player they let walk away at the end of last year, whom they shelved during the run to the World Series because he was so bad in the playoffs, Jose Valverde.
Valverde inked a minor league deal with the Tigers on April 4 that included an opt-out clause if he wasn't in the big leagues before May 5. Sure enough, he was called up to serve as the team's closer on April 24.
It was a puzzling move, considering the way things ended for Valverde and the Tigers the previous season. He was clearly losing whatever gas he had left in his 34-year-old tank during the regular season, posting a career-low strikeout rate (6.3/9 IP) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.78).
Valverde's ERA also ballooned from 2.24 in 2011 to 3.78 in 2012. He had the worst xFIP—Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, which calculates everything a pitcher has direct control over (walks, home runs, strikeouts) and normalizes the home run rate to a league average—of his career (5.01).
Then the postseason happened, in which Valverde blew a save in Game 4 of the American League Division Series against Oakland by giving up four hits and three runs while recording just two outs. He tried to close out Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against New York, entering the ninth inning with a 4-0 lead before giving up four runs in 0.2 innings pitched.
Leyland took Valverde out of the closer's role for the rest of the playoffs and inserted Phil Coke, who has been a left-handed specialist for most of his career, into the position. In fact, Valverde would only pitch one more game in the postseason, Game 1 of the World Series against San Francisco when it was already a 6-1 lead for the Giants.
Valverde proceeded to give up two runs on four hits in just 0.1 innings of work before getting pulled.
So for the Tigers to not only bring Valverde back, but put him in potentially high-leverage situations spoke to just how desperate they felt they were in the back of the bullpen.
Sure enough, the experiment has gone just as you would have expected.
Valverde currently sports an ERA of 4.15 in 17.1 innings. He has also allowed five home runs among the 13 hits he has given up.
On Wednesday afternoon in Kansas City, following a masterful outing by Justin Verlander, who gave up three hits and two walks in seven scoreless innings, Drew Smyly and Valverde attempted to close the game out for the Tigers.
Smyly gave up one run to start the ninth inning, then Valverde was brought in to record two outs. He gave up a game-tying home run to Lorenzo Cain, and the Royals wound up winning in the 10th on a base hit from Eric Hosmer.
The headline on the Detroit News website after the game said it all: "What A Disaster."
It was the third blown save in 12 chances for Valverde. For a team that has big aspirations this season, especially coming off a year when it won an American League pennant, the Tigers have made some bad decisions when it comes to their bullpen.
The biggest of them all is that they brought back Valverde after it was clear last season that he had nothing left to offer. There is nothing wrong with that, as closers—and relievers, in general—tend to have a shorter shelf life and be more volatile than any other position in baseball. (Mariano Rivera is the obvious exception to that rule.)
It is time for the Tigers, if they don't cut bait with Valverde entirely, to plug someone else into those late-inning, high-leverage spots.
The team does have options. For instance, Joaquin Benoit, whose three-year deal signed in November 2010 was widely panned, has turned into one of the most consistent relief pitchers in the American League. He is a fly-ball pitcher and gives up a lot of home runs—14 in 71 innings last season—but has had an ERA under 3.00 in two of the last three years, including 2013 (1.93).
Benoit is also a much better strikeout pitcher than Valverde at this stage of their careers. He currently has 33 in 28 innings pitched against just nine walks and 20 hits allowed.
Smyly, who pitched today and gave up one run, has been asked to pitch more than one inning with some frequency this year. He has appeared in just 22 games, yet he's thrown 38.1 innings with a very good 39-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio and one home run allowed.
Even Rondon, who is currently in Triple-A right now and probably has no business in high-leverage spots as of this moment, is more likely to miss bats than Valverde.
Contrary to popular opinion, finding a closer isn't as hard as it seems. You don't have to give Brandon League a three-year contract with the hopes that he will save games, despite tremendous amounts of evidence suggesting he isn't really very good.
We see it happen every year—a closer implodes or gets hurt, someone unexpected steps up and has success. Just look at Edward Mujica in St. Louis. He doesn't fit the profile of a traditional closer, rarely topping 91-92 mph, but he is commanding everything right now, which has allowed him to go 18-for-18 in save opportunities thus far.
The Tigers took a flyer on a pitcher they had a history with, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. It didn't work. Now it is on Leyland to admit that things aren't working out, scour his own bullpen, where we have seen a lot of talented pitchers step up, and find someone else to do the job.
Otherwise there is going to be another situation like what the Tigers had last year, when Valverde is on the mound in the playoffs and implodes in a winner-take-all spot.