Well, this was unlikely. Jose Valverde, who became so contagious during the playoffs in October that no other member of the Detroit Tigers wanted to even sit near him in the bullpen or the dugout lest they catch something that would ruin their careers, was back in a game for the Detroit Tigers Wednesday night.
Valverde set down the Kansas City Royals 1-2-3 in the ninth inning of a Tiger victory. Good for him.
I’m happy for Valverde. The Tigers not only gave up on him temporarily in October, which was understandable the way he was throwing, but that they gave up on him for good rather than try to work with him to fix what went wrong seemed iffy strategy. For all its glamor professional sports can also be cruel.
As recently as 2011, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Dominican was just about the best reliever in the game with his virtually untouchable 49-save season. Then, before you know it, he was a leper.
Not a single team in Major League baseball even sneezed in Valverde’s direction during the off-season. No one said hello, never mind offered him a contract. Even that old softie Jim Leyland, the Tigers’ manager, was astonished–and a bit saddened–by what was happening to his ex-pitcher.
But Tiger management anointed inexperienced Bruce Rondon as the closer of the future and even though he had a rocky spring training he was the go-to man at the start of the season. I never actually thought this was Leyland’s idea, that it was more like him playing with the cards he was dealt.
It didn’t take long for it to become obvious the Rondon commitment was a mistake. Rondon was sent to the minors. Meanwhile, the Tigers signed Valverde to a minor-league deal. It only took about three weeks for the Tigers to realize that they had no closer at all on the big-league club. Phil Coke, the set-up man, was handling the job by default, getting battered and losing games as the closer, so that was no solution.
Teams that plan to win pennants, which the Tigers certainly do, must have a reliable closer. History has shown us that you can’t get away with a hole in the lineup in that position come October. A few days ago, admitting a certain kind of defeat, the Tigers brought up both Valverde and Rondon from the minors and sent them to the bullpen together.
The general feeling after October was that Valverde, who was a free agent, would never grace the mound for Detroit again.While he had a body of good, and sometimes great, work on his resume for the Tigers, it was felt that had all been squandered by his playoff meltdown. I thought that was a hasty judgment, but if the Tigers lost faith and believed that their fans would rip Valverde apart, then so be it.
Even if you think that was the right course, Detroit’s major mistake was not adequately replacing Valverde. The American League representative in the World Series needed to trade for or buy a well-regarded closer on the open market for them to be taken seriously in this year’s pennant race. They didn’t do that and hence the April mess they found themselves in.
There would be tremendous irony if Valverde regains his form and becomes a top closer again, helping Detroit to another pennant. Now that he has another chance it’s up to Valverde. He’s gone from dead man walking in this business to potential savior. Yes, baseball, like the world at large, works in mysterious ways.