Despite racking up 110 saves and 180 strikeouts for the Tigers in the past three seasons, Jose Valverde has not joined any of the 30 MLB teams for Spring Training this year (though agent Scott Boras has made it clear that "several teams are interested"). When made aware of this last week, Jim Leyland offered high praise of Valverde.
"I’m shocked," Leyland said. "Totally shocked. Broken-hearted. Can’t believe it. This guy was absolutely fantastic, absolutely fantastic for us. One of the best teammates I’ve ever managed. He did as good a job … for three years in a row, he had the most saves and the best percentage. I can’t believe it."
Leyland stopped short of saying that he wanted Valverde back on the roster, but hinted that this might have more to do with the Tigers fanbase than the organization's attitude toward the mercurial reliever.
"I think the Tigers just felt that it was time," Leyland said. "It was pretty rough on him that last period here in Detroit. It got a little rough on the kid. I understood the magnitude of what was going on and everything. But if you noticed, I was one who supported him through thick and thin, through all of that. I had to do what I had to do. I wasn’t very comfortable doing it, but I did what I had to do."
The lack of a move to shore up the back of the bullpen this offseason is very telling that the Tigers are comfortable with the in-house options to fill Valverde's role. Despite Leyland's best attempts to say otherwise, the closer job belongs to Bruce Rondon. Everyone else will fill similar roles to those they performed in 2012. These moves look great on paper, but what if Rondon falters when trying to replicate Valverde's success?
I can't help but think that the best player to fill Valverde's shoes could be the same guy that left them vacant to begin with. Other than a rough stretch to end last season*, Papa Grande had another good year in Detroit in 2012. His 3.78 ERA was the highest mark he has had since 2006, but he still tallied 35 saves in 40 opportunities. His strikeout rate dropped to a career low 6.26 punch-outs per nine innings, but he lowered his walk rate by almost a full batter per nine innings compared to 2011.
*Valverde was rotten in the playoffs, but many people forget that he saved three straight games at the end of September without allowing a single run. The final game of that stretch clinched the division for the Tigers.
Boras will likely hold out for at least a guaranteed contract, so I don't think that extending a non-roster invitation to Valverde would get him to Lakeland. However, Valverde would still come at a fraction of the $9 million he made last season, and it isn't unreasonable to think that a deal could be had for under $1 million.
The best part about this move is that there is virtually no risk involved for the Tigers. If he doesn't make the team, they can designate him for assignment (which he will likely decline) or release him outright. Other than the sunk cost of his contract -- which is a drop in the bucket for this team's payroll -- the Tigers aren't losing anything if Valverde doesn't impress during the spring.
The upside, however, is that Valverde would provide more competition for the closer job. If Valverde is the great clubhouse presence that Leyland says he is, I don't see a downside in letting him mentor Rondon for a month, if not the entire season. And if Valverde returns to form and wins the closer job, the Tigers have a proven veteran pitching in the 9th inning, something that the majority of the fanbase has coveted since the moment he became a free agent.