So… did you figure that you had seen the last of Jose Valverde? Don’t be so sure.
For those of you who haven’t been keeping up with the Big Potato’s odyssey, after finding little or no interest from other clubs he did ultimately accept his assignment to Toledo. As far as public proclamations go, Dombrowski and Leyland are hoping that he can fix his sinker and contribute later in the season. They didn’t actually give up on him, nor should they. He started his 2013 in the majors looking sharp, his DFA was the result of a brief stretch of extreme hittability. He is currently closing games for the Toledo Mud Hens.
Numbers-wise, it’s so far so good for Valverde – who threw his first pitch for the Hens on the 4th of July. He has made 3 one-inning appearances without allowing a run, with 2 saves and 3 strikeouts to his credit. The question becomes, what would it take to get Valverde back in Detroit and what value if any might he provide. I would have to say that at this point Valverde’s situation is no different from any other reliever serving time in the purgatory of the International League. He will need to put up good numbers to keep himself at the front of the line to get the call when a spot opens up in Detroit. He is not – I presume – going to get a shot at closing, so long as Joaquin Benoit stays sharp and stays healthy. He may not get the first shot at the job even if Benoit goes down, depending on how Rondon is throwing the ball. But he may get a chance to come up and fill a middle inning role like the one Octavio Dotel successfully occupied last season.
The parallels to Dotel go fairly deep. Dotel was also once a very good closer and he has also gone through stretches of extreme hittability. After losing his last full-time closing gig in the middle of 2010, Dotel has been reborn as an extremely effective right-on-right situational reliever. The same could happen, and should happen, with Valverde (assuming he gets his mechanics straight) if it weren’t for the stubborn insistence that it takes something special to be a closer (from guys like Leyland) and that being a closer makes you special (from guys like Valverde and his agent). Valverde’s splits have grown significantly from when he was in his prime, such that (like Phil Coke) he is now only an effective reliever against same-handed batters. This season, in Detroit, he allowed a .642 OPS against right-handers but a .912 OPS against lefties. Last season (during the regular season) it was .515 and .754, during his perfect 2011 .432 and .687. During his first season in Detroit, when his stuff was most like his old stuff, it was .565 and .610. For the sake of comparison, Dotel allowed a .523 OPS to righties last year and a .772 OPS to lefties. Those are big splits, but if you manage the bullpen correctly a reliever with big splits can still make a big contribution. We’re not getting Dotel back this season, I don’t think – but we could get a “Dotel” back. Used in that way, I’d figure Valverde could look pretty good – and help to form that bridge to Benoit IF he can show that whatever mechanical flaw etc… led to all those jacks in June is fixed.
There is going to be some interplay as well between reports on Valverde’s progress in Toledo and the Tigers positioning in the trade market. On the one hand, if the Tigers pull the trigger on a deal to get someone like Steve Cishek of the Marlins or John Axford of the Brewers it’s going to be a lot harder for Valverde to earn a promotion. On the other hand, if Papa Grande is earning rave reviews Dombrowski might figure he’d rather bring him back up than part with prospects – particularly if the asking prices seem high. At this point it would seem to me that the Tigers biggest bullpen need might be a replacement for Phil Coke, in which case Dombrowski might be haggling over Mike Gonzalez (for example). If the odds of a contribution from Valverde look better than 50/50 that might help to facilitate a trade for a piece to bolster the left side of the ‘pen.