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Published: Friday, 11/2/2012

Never too soon to think 2013 Tigers

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

The fall of Jose Valverde seemed abrupt and startling. But was it?

The Detroit Tigers’ closer blew a save on Opening Day, ending a streak of 51 straight dating to late in the 2010 season. It followed a perfect 49 for 49 in save opportunities in 2011.

Papa Grande’s 3.78 ERA was his highest in six seasons and his strikeouts-per-nine-innings, 6.3, was a career low. When he imploded in the postseason it was blamed on mechanics. But there was plenty of speculation that his 34-year-old right arm suddenly lacked the old juice.

Regardless, his confidence took a big hit and, for a closer, that’s as important as anything. Leaving one day behind and focusing on the next is imperative, but at the end Valverde seemed to project and expect bad mojo.

Still, he had saves in 35 of 40 chances during the regular season, including 15 straight from mid-July to mid-September. His ERA came down at the end of the summer. And, then …

Just like that, Valverde is gone. The Tigers announced they will allow him to pursue free agency and will not be among the bidders. No one seemed the least bit surprised despite his 110 saves over three seasons in Detroit. No one, save manager Jim Leyland, appeared to even lament his departure.

“I’ve never respected a player more,” Leyland said. “It broke my heart the way it ended.”

Yes, it ended badly for a player who earned $9 million this past season. Where Papa Grande goes from here, and where the Tigers go from here, will be developments worth watching.

Comments made by president-general manager Dave Dombrowski fostered the notion the Tigers might give Bruce Rondon every chance to win the job.

Bruce Rondon? Think a healthy Joel Zumaya, circa his rookie year of 2006, when that 100-mph fastball was a routine day at the office. Zumaya struck out 97 in 83 innings that season. Rondon struck out 66 in 53 innings this past summer.

Rondon was on the A-AA-AAA express in 2012, starting at Lakeland, stopping in Erie, and finishing in Toledo. Along the way he was 2-1 with a 1.53 ERA and 29 saves. Opposing batters hit .172.

He has the live arm. But will he be ready? He made only nine appearances with the Mud Hens so to speculate his being on the mound in the ninth inning at Comerica Park on Opening Day, 2013 might be optimistic.

No Valverde. And the DH won’t be Delmon Young. With Victor Martinez expected back after being lost to knee surgery for the season, there’s no need for two one-dimensional players in the same slot.

Leyland will return for an eighth season, which is a no-brainer. He’s one of the best in the business and, despite an impending 68th birthday, insists he still has the passion and energy for the job. In a game designed for second-guessing, he gets more than his fair share. Tiger fans should consider themselves lucky.

Jhonny Peralta will be back, which I found to be a mild surprise. His high fielding percentage belied some range issues at shortstop and his batting average plunged 60 full points this season and was capped by a 1-for-15 World Series.

The Tigers are already the early-line Vegas favorites for 2013. Understandably, that is buoyed by Justin Verlander and a stud pitching rotation, as well as the offensive punch of Miguel Cabrera-Prince Fielder, and Austin Jackson at the front of the lineup.

Of no small impact, though, due to the fall of Jose Valverde, is just who will be at the back of the bullpen.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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