Doing the Best With Jose Valverde

All offseason long, the Detroit Tigers denied interest in re-signing free-agent closer Jose Valverde. Every other team in baseball also effectively denied interest in signing Valverde. The Tigers did next to nothing to address their closer situation, and on Wednesday, Phil Coke blew a save against the Twins. Thursday, the Tigers signed Valverde, albeit to a minor-league contract with an early-May opt out. There have been, I think, two primary responses:

(1) It’s a minor-league contract so it’s utterly risk-free — if Valverde doesn’t earn a big-league job, he won’t be given a big-league job. What’s the harm?

(2) The Tigers won’t be able to help themselves. Valverde isn’t what he was, but it won’t be long before he’s closing again for Detroit, and possibly costing them games. He’s “proven”, he’s familiar, he’s still thought of as a closer despite everything. This is how it starts.

You know where the truth probably is? The truth is probably in between those two things, as it just about always is when you’re dealing with perceived blacks and whites. Blacks and whites tend to be extreme outlooks, and results tend not to be extreme. Anyhow, this is basically just a month-long trial. Dave Dombrowski hardly conveyed that Valverde’s a big-league guarantee. This only got done because Valverde finally dropped his demands. Or Scott Boras finally dropped his demands, whichever. But a lot of people within the Tigers organization like the idea of having an established closer on what’s going to be a contending team, and it was just two years ago with Detroit that Valverde didn’t blow a single save. There’s going to be internal pressure to bring Valverde up, so this isn’t a minor-league contract like just any other minor-league contract. This one comes with other considerations.

Four games. It’s funny how much can be made of four games, especially when they take place in the playoffs. Valverde’s postseason meltdown last October was stunning and historic, and it probably cost him a lot of money. People are going to have trouble shaking that image of Valverde coughing up hits left and right with the stakes at their highest. But then, the postseason before, Valverde allowed six runs and 14 baserunners in six appearances, and less was made of his struggles. Granted, that led right into Valverde’s inconsistent 2012. But with regard to the 2012 playoffs, Valverde pitched in four games and faced 20 batters. During the regular season, he was better in the second half than he was in the first. How meaningful was that October, really?

But Valverde’s performance was down in the regular season, too, if considerably less so. He lost a quarter of his strikeouts and a fifth of his grounders. He had problems against lefties and he allowed more frequent contact than Rick Porcello. He lost the feel for his splitter. Valverde wasn’t a bad reliever. He doesn’t project as a bad reliever. He just hasn’t looked like a closer, and his October further devastated his market.

It’s significant that, for a while, the Tigers made no strong effort to bring Valverde back. And not because they had their sights set on some other proven stopper — they intended to roll with an untested rookie, who’s presently down in the minors because he can’t pitch to lefties, either. The Tigers know the most about Jose Valverde, and they didn’t want him back at anything bigger than this virtually no-cost arrangement. It’s evident that the most powerful people within the organization are down on Valverde’s future, since it would’ve been otherwise easy to justify his return.

Now consider that you’re Scott Boras, trying to sell Valverde to potentially interested front offices. More than ever, teams are backing off the idea of needing a “proven closer”. More than ever, teams are intelligent, so while Valverde would’ve wanted to find a closer job, those haven’t really been available, especially to him. Boras started by looking for some millions of dollars, and only late Wednesday, or early Thursday, did Boras and Valverde express a willingness to take a minor-league deal. That was the key for the Tigers, and it’s of interest that Boras left Dombrowski a message shortly after Coke blew the save. Boras is no idiot when it comes to finding his clients the right homes.

That the demands dropped so far down suggests that no good Valverde market really developed. That would hardly be a surprise. But now look where we are. It would be easy to interpret this as Boras getting desperate, and there would’ve been some element of desperation, I’m sure. But, for one thing, the Tigers are supposed to be good, so they’re not going to want to tolerate any slip-ups. The Tigers don’t have a proven closer on the roster, and their closer prospect has command and platoon problems. Most experiments with mix-and-match closer solutions end up with designated individual closer solutions. Now Valverde has been re-introduced to the organization, and because he’s so familiar, he’s going to have people in his camp. People who remember everything he’s done for the Tigers, people who won’t look at this only objectively. In the big leagues, the Tigers don’t have a closer. In the minors, now, they’ll have their most recent closer, and there will be some degree of pressure to put him back.

Boras got his client a job for cheap, because he couldn’t find his client a job for less cheap. But now the pressure has shifted, from Boras trying to find a way to make Valverde a closer to the Tigers trying to find out if they have a closer in the new old guy. As much as Dombrowski can say that this is simply a no-risk trial, signing Valverde instantly stirs a few organizational emotions and biases. Some people are going to be looking for ways to get Valverde up, which means there’s going to be an extended discussion, provided Valverde doesn’t struggle in Triple-A. For Valverde, the path to closing isn’t clear, but he can have a sense that he’s going in the right direction. If Valverde has true-talent level X, it would be easier for the Tigers to make him a closer than for any other team, because of who he is and because of the present situation.

Scott Boras didn’t find Jose Valverde a closing job, but that would’ve been impossible. Boras found Valverde the potential for a closing job, with a biased organization. There are worse ways this could’ve worked out for Valverde, is all I’m saying. I don’t think anyone would be shocked if Valverde were closing again in a month and a half.

Valverde probably isn’t dreadful. Reports say that he’s lost weight and that his velocity is back up a little bit from where it was down the stretch a year ago. They say he’s throwing his splitter more, that he has more faith in it. The Tigers, now, are the team that’s going to take the closest look. To earn a promotion, Valverde’s going to have to pitch well, but I don’t know how well he’ll actually have to pitch, given the identity of his new employer.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.