MINNEAPOLIS — The Detroit Tigers have made no promises to Jose Valverde. The right-hander they call Papa Grande, who led the American League with 49 saves just two years ago, must prove he can still pitch well enough to warrant a spot in the back of their bullpen.
But the Tigers, who don't have a set closer after letting the three-time All-Star become a free agent, took a step today toward bringing Valverde back by agreeing to terms on a minor-league contract.
After sending top prospect Bruce Rondon to Triple-A Rochester near the end of spring training, the Tigers decided to use a closer committee. Phil Coke picked up the save in the season opener Monday but blew a ninth-inning lead in Wednesday's loss to the Twins.
“From my position, you don't leave any stone unturned,” general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “You do whatever you can to make your club better. We do not have a dominant closer, and most clubs that have a chance to win have a closer. It doesn't mean that you can't win by mixing and matching, either. But right now we're in a situation where we're mixing and matching. And if the situation ends up being better with Papa Grande, with Rondon, with whomever ... we're open-minded.”
Valverde will report to Detroit's spring training facility in Lakeland, Fla., to throw to some minor-league hitters before being assigned to Triple-A Toledo. Dombrowski said there's no timetable or certainty for the 35-year-old Valverde to join the Tigers.
“You know we're not in a spot where we're looking to prolong this. It's a situation where either he can pitch to come back and help us here, or we probably would end that relationship at that time,” Dombrowski said. “But this guy has done so much for us, you don't mind helping him. But it's also a mutual situation.”
Beside the left-hander Coke, right-handers Octavio Dotel and Joaquin Benoit also have plenty of late-inning experience. Right-handers Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal are also hard-throwing options for crucial outs at the end of games.
After converting all 49 of his save opportunities with a 2.24 ERA in 2011, Valverde was 35 for 40 with a 3.78 ERA last year. His velocity was down, and he gave up a pair of two-run homers to the Yankees in the ninth inning of the AL championship series opener. Given a 10-day break and stripped of the closer role, Valverde was hit hard again in his only World Series appearance. In four postseason games, he allowed 11 hits, nine runs and two homers while recording only eight outs.
Dombrowski said he'd talked to Valverde's agent, Scott Boras, about 10 times over the last few months. Until now, Valverde wasn't receptive to signing a minor-league contract without guaranteed money or a guaranteed spot. After a Tigers scout in the Dominican Republic watched Valverde throw a bullpen session last week, Dombrowski said he was satisfied the veteran was worth considering again. The general manager said Valverde has lost 15 pounds from last year's weight.
“We love Papa Grande. He's been fantastic for this organization. He's been fantastic as a person,” Dombrowski said. “We saw a little fall-off last year, and it wasn't just during the postseason. So we had come to the conclusion that we were going to really move on from that scenario. We told that to Scott. But it has nothing to do with Papa Grande as a person or what he did as an organization. I'm also saying, ‘Hey, we're open minded that if he's throwing better and can be our guy, great. That's it. We're open to that.’”