It’s great being a Tiger fan. We have an owner who is unafraid to open his checkbook and pursue almost any free agent, extend any star player, and some not so starry, all in the quest for a World Series ring.
As any Tiger fan knows, it wasn’t always that way. The 2003 Tigers, in Dave Dombrowski’s first full season at the helm, were the picture of futility, and they had a payroll commensurate with their record.
Fast forward to 2006, when the upstart Tigers made a run all the way to the World Series, led by a couple of free agent signings in Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez. They also had resigned former Tiger Todd Jones as their closer. After that season, they signed him to a two year extension as a free agent.
In fact, even when the Tigers weren’t signing free agents at all- zero free agents were signed to multiyear contracts for three consecutive winters after the 2006 season- they signed free agent closers. From Percival, to Urbina, then Jones twice, then Brandon Lyon who lost the job to Fernando Rodney and never got it back, to Jose Valverde, the Tigers always had a free agent closer on the mound. Until this season.
Dave Dombrowski has always made the closer position a priority. He never went insane, giving out contracts for $ 10 million, 12 million and more for a closer. Placido Polanco was not given an offer of arbitration the same winter that Rodney and Lyon were offered arbitration. That same winter, Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson were traded when the club faced a skyrocketing payroll, and then they had the money to sign Valverde.
One can’t argue with the results. Valverde converted all but eight save opportunities in three full seasons. 93.2 percent was his conversion rate.
Tiger fans are understandably leery of bringing Valverde back, even on a minor league contract. When we last saw El Papa Grande, he was not qualified to be on the mound. He was basically throwing batting practice to opposing hitters. His velocity was down, his splitter had split on him some time early in the season, and he gave up nine runs on eleven hits in just 2 2/3 innings in the playoffs. He couldn’t be trusted.
In fact, what upset Tiger fans was that many felt Jim Leyland could not be trusted to keep Valverde out of the game. He was never taken off the roster, and Leyland refused to throw his prized closer under the bus when talking to the media. After those miserable 2 2/3 innings, though, Leyland did what he had to do and pulled Valverde from the role. He had one relatively meaningless outing when he got shelled, erasing any doubt about being able to come back during the playoffs, and that was it for him as a Tiger.
The demise of Valverde was a season long process. Although he wound up with an ERA of 3.78 and a WHIP of 1.25, he converted 35 of 40 save chances for an 87.5 percent rate. He gave up just three home runs all season, but he was clearly losing it down the stretch in September, when he gave up eight runs in 13 innings. By the time the playoffs began, he was an accident waiting to happen. And it did.
Valverde was so clearly out of sync, that he went from being one of the top closers in the game at the start of the season, to being unwanted as a free agent by any team, at any price, when the Tigers said they would not bring him back. He was supposed to pitch for his native Dominican Republic in the WBC, but bowed out due to a "personal issue". Speculation was he wasn’t ready to pitch.
For the first time since Dave Dombrowski took over the reins in Detroit, the club has an unsettled closer situation entering the season. They put their eggs in the basket of rookie Bruce Rondon who has never thrown a pitch in the major leagues, and he didn’t make the team.
Tiger fans have been very fortunate to not have the revolving door that almost every club has every few seasons in the closer role. One third or more of all MLB teams will see a change in closers during a given season. It’s very unsettling for fans.
At the core of the angst with Tiger fans lies a mistrust in management. Jim Leyland is nothing if not loyal to his players. He sticks with them when they’re struggling far longer than the team’s fanatics care to tolerate. But eventually, they have to perform or they’re gone. We’ve sat through Brennan Boesch, Delmon Young, Jason Grilli, Dan Schlereth, and Don Kelly.
We also watched Ordonez hit two homers in half a season, his career seemingly over, and then hit .400 to help the fading Tigers tie for the division because Leyland stuck with him, having no real alternatives. That performance allowed an $ 18 million option to vest, resulting in the aforementioned payroll issues after the 2009 season. Now, many Tiger fans don’t trust Leyland to stop using Phil Coke against right handed hitters, and certainly wouldn’t trust him again with Valverde.
Dave Dombrowski is nothing if he’s not thorough. He is aware of every free agent, every player on the waiver wire, and every guy on the trade block at any given moment, and he’s not afraid to pull the trigger when the team needs to make a move. He's kept in touch with Valverde, too, and it seems that the Tigers are pretty much El Papa's only option now.
He could have given up $ 30 million and another first round draft pick to sign Rafael Soriano, but he passed. He could have signed Brian Wilson, who is still looking for work. He could have traded Rick Porcello for Carlos Marmol and paid him 9.5 million, who has already been lit up and is on the verge of losing his closer’s job in Chicago.
Dombrowski also could have purchased some relatively cheap insurance, in the form of a Joel Peralta, but he didn’t. So, it is what it is. The Tigers have a closet full of relief pitchers, each with their own reason to be suspicious that they can be "the closer."
The truth is that the Tigers need an effective bullpen, not just an effective closer. In 2012, their bullpen numbers were actually worse than the league average. 12th in WHIP, 10th in ERA, but in the higher leverage situations, they were very average with a 71 percent save percentage. Much of that is due to the fact that Valverde, having checked his A game at the door before the season, managed to get through five months before losing it completely.
This was an area that needed to do better this season, but they relied on players within the organization to make them better. Dombrowski saw the weaknesses at DH and in right field, and in the 5th and 6th spots in the lineup, and he saw that those problems were addressed. But the one area where he has focused on most often, and made a priority when looking at free agents, he stood pat.
The Tigers should know fairly soon whether Jose Valverde can regain his form and become something similar to the pitcher that he was for three seasons as the Tigers’ closer. Either he has his velocity and his splitter, or he doesn’t. We have to trust management to let him go if he doesn’t have it.
But Tiger fans can rest assured that this issue will be addressed. We may have to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous closers, just like every other fan base outside the Bronx has to do every few seasons, but we’ll get a solution. Maybe the solution is already in the bullpen. Maybe there’s a player on the trade block. Or maybe Valverde will make a comeback. It’s worth a try. They have nothing to lose. But they will find a closer, and it will be sooner, rather than later.