June 19, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Jose Valverde (46) pitches in the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Comerica Park. Baltimore won 13-3. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Valverde's Road

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.

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  • John Parent

    This assumes that Leyland would use Valverde as a situational right hander and he just doesn’t use his relievers that way nearly as often as he should. Looking at 2012, Dotel worked 58 innings in 57 games: he was used for full innings at a time and while he faced almost twice as many RHB than Lefties, it’s not as if Leyland wasn’t allowing him to face a LHB even though his splits were well known before he got to Detroit.

    By and large, Leyland likes “defined roles” in the bullpen and, to him, that means this guy pitches the ninth, this guy the eighth, and this guy the seventh. If he has to veer away from that, he gets uncomfortable.

    If and when (and I do think it’s when) Valverde comes back, he’ll see plenty of action versus lefties and probably in high-leverage situations. I just don’t have confidence that Leyland can resist using certain guys in the wrong situations. It’s better just to remove the temptation altogether.

    • Hoyt Holmes

      You’re spot on, John. I agree with everything you say about Leyland. The old man just can’t resist using relievers in predictable, formulaic fashion. Damn the facts! He’s going to use his guys the way he wants and he has a loooooong memory for the good stuff and a short memory for the obviously bad. Loyalty is his biggest flaw.

      • chrisHannum

        Most of the time, Leyland’s loyalty pays off. It’s just that when a guy breaks out of a slump, you don’t credit the manager for not benching him a week before. It’s a high-variance sport.

        • Hoyt Holmes

          I’d disagree about his loyalty. See his stubborn insistence at playing Brandon Inge, Ryan Raburn, Don Kelly, and Papa Grande, even after anyone could tell those guys are or were not effective major league players any longer. He’s also doing the same with Santiago, who makes a good play every 3-4 months, but who can’t hit, has no terrible range, and seems to try to bunt for a hit twice a game. The Tigers bench has been a serious problem for 3-4 years. The way DD and JL construct their 25-man roster is puzzling. Plenty of firepower in the starting lineup, but duds on the bench for the most part.

          • rings13

            Santiago almost never plays and is only playing now because of Infante’s injury. It’s not even close to the Inge/Raburn/C-Mo tactics that Leyland has used in the past.

          • chrisHannum

            I won’t argue with you there, Hoyt. All I’m trying to say is that he gets the blame for playing guys like Inge and Raburn when they seem to have just lost it, but he doesn’t get credit for not pulling the plug on guys who turn it around (like Magglio in ’09 for an extreme example, with his .978 OPS in the second half).

      • rings13

        Good point, Hoyt…Smyly has been the most effective reliever this year and just happens to be the guy without a “defined role.” I understand that the MANAGER likes to have roles to make decisions easier, but I’ve not seen any evidence that it actually causes guys to somehow pitch better (aside from the obvious starter/reliever arm conditioning).

    • chrisHannum

      You do have a point – I’d certainly argue that Valverde should be and have been a situational righty in ’12 and ’13 – but he hasn’t been. While Dotel didn’t get used for an out here and an out there, he did get put in games in situations where he’d be likely to face multiple righties in the process of getting his 3 outs. That “role” is part of Leyland’s repertoire, but there isn’t any reason to assume that he would stick Valverde in it no matter how suitable it would seem for him.

  • rings13

    Nice post and well said.
    My only quibble is with the statement, “He started his 2013 in the majors looking sharp…” Truthfully, he was very hittable from the beginning, aside from two dominant outings against the Astros.
    If you review his BABIP over his first dozen outings, you’ll find he was the recipient of extreme good fortune (bottoming out at .083) as many line drive swings were finding leather. Perceptions only changed when those balls were no longer turned into outs or left the ballpark.