Detroit Tigers: Fake Pearls, Saves and Jose Valverde

Dave HamptonCorrespondent IJanuary 15, 2010

The signing of closer Jose Valverde by the Detroit Tigers Thursday afternoon is the current talk of the town, as well as the subject of much grumbling and scrutiny. So, The Hammer Toss is here with in-depth analysis of the signing and what it means for the 2010 Tigers. 


Length of contract and expense

Valverde is now scheduled to make $14 million over the next two years. His contract also includes a club option for a third year at a base salary of $9 million.

Tiger fans will and are undoubtedly grumbling about how the budget space given over to signing Valverde could have been used to resign Placido Polanco. 

While these critics are in no way wrong, it has to be said that letting Polanco walk made a tremendous amount of baseball sense. While his career numbers speak for themselves, it cannot be escaped that Polanco is 35 years old and looking at his career prime in the rear view mirror. 

An article that I read very succinctly makes this point for me. We thank Polanco for his years of dedication in Detroit and wish him luck in Philadelphia.

The main point here is that Valverde's contract is really only a bind for the 2010 season but was dictated by necessity. The Tigers had a gaping hole in the bullpen and lack of a shutdown arm, but no longer.

Instead of complaining about Valverde and his contract, I will direct everyone's attention to Magglio Ordonez, Dontrelle Willis, Carlos Guillen, and Nate Robertson. Truthfully speaking, the Tigers will actually get something out of Valverde, which is probably more than can be said of Willis. 

Valverde might be expensive, whereas Willis has proven to be costly, if you understand the distinction I am making. 

After 2010 his contract amount becomes much easier on the budget. It might be said that a salary expense, such as Polanco, was sacrificed for 2010 in preparation to build a better team for 2011 and beyond. 


Saves are fake pearls

In private, this has been one of my favorite arguments to make for the past two-plus years, but one I am just now introducing to the B/R community.

The nature of how closers are used makes me scratch my head. By their very nature, the closer is supposed to be the best pitcher in the bullpen, the most shutdown reliever.

Anymore, though, closers are merely sent into games to "collect saves" or when they have had too much downtime due to blowout wins or losses. 

It is almost comical to see how saves have evolved over time, and the psychological effects they have on managers and general managers. 

Without spending $7 million or more for a closer, a baseball team is still going to win most of the games it leads after eight innings. However, the quantification of a close game into a "save opportunity" has led to it being over-valued in the salary department.

Also consider this; in the current economic climate, $7 million can buy a team a pitcher who has a track record of a .500 win percentage and nearly 200 innings pitched every year. 

The salary return on a more expensive closer, such as Francisco Rodriguez ($11.5MM) or Francisco Cordero ($12MM) could net a team an upper tier starting pitcher or a hitter the quality of Michael Young of the Texas Rangers

Realistically, there are many game situations that are more critical than the save situation in the ninth inning. Consider a tie game in the seventh or eighth inning or a one run game, in either direction, in the seventh or eighth inning. 

These critical game situations are extremely worthy of seeing a closer come out of the bullpen. After all, he is supposed to be the best pitcher in the bullpen. However, the closer entering is a somewhat rare event in these situations because he is being held back to possibly collect a save later in the game.

What I am trying to say is that the quantification of the save into a counting stat has lead to its value being grossly overinflated. General managers and others have been falling prey to this for years now. 

Consider, Rodriguez would not have had 62 saves in 2008 for the Angels had his teammates not done eight innings worth of work to leave him in that position. In the same light it can be said that, had they scored more runs, he would have had less save opportunities. 

However, his large contract from the Mets directly follows from the enormous counting stats he put up, despite what little value they actually hold. The same can be said of the contract just lavished upon Valverde. 


The urgency of 2010 for the Tigers

This is the segment where I undo some of the previous work by pointing out that the dynamics of the 2010 Tigers are different. The American League Central is still a weak division, and the Tigers but a marginal team in that circus. 

To remain competitive in 2010 the Tigers can ill afford to lose games in which they hold the lead toward the end.

This is where Valverde's value increases because he is such a dominant stopper. He would doubtless be able to hold down more close game situations than any of the previous in-house candidates, such as Ryan Perry or Joel Zumaya. 

Conversely, if the Tigers fall on their collective faces in the first half of the season, he could be trade bait in July.


Draft compensation

Most of the detractors of the Valverde signing will cite that his status as a Type A free agent, meaning the Tigers now cede their first round draft pick (19th overall) to the Houston Astros

While this does add to his cost, it is impossible to determine how much.

I would responsibly point out that prospects are just that, prospects. There is the prospect of future big-league talent and greatness, but more first round picks flop than those who do not. 

At the same time it is impossible to deny the success of teams that scout and draft well, building good teams internally. Such has been the staple of the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels for years. 


2010 outlook

For me, the jury is still out on the idea of Valverde as a Tiger. While he has the potential to greatly contribute to some wins, I think the only way the Tigers get contributions from him approaching his $7 million income is if he makes 80 appearances and pitches at least that many innings. 

As in all great offseason additions and speculations, only time will tell.


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