DETROIT — From Class A to closer: Jose Valverde is returning to the Tigers.
Detroit agreed to a one-year contract with Valverde today, announcing the move after a game against the Kansas City Royals was rained out. Valverde was the Tigers' closer the last three years, but the team was prepared to let him leave as a free agent after he faltered during the 2012 postseason.
He never signed elsewhere, and Detroit brought him back on a minor league deal. The 35-year-old right-hander pitched three scoreless innings for Class-A Lakeland, and now the man they call "Papa Grande" is being called all the way back up to the majors.
"We were not expecting him to throw this well, this quickly," general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "He's consistently at 95 (mph), and he's hit 97. He's throwing the splitter and he's got the break on it that he had a couple years ago."
Manager Jim Leyland said Valverde will be the closer for Wednesday's game against the Royals.
"He would. I don't want to get carried away and say that he's going to be closing three days in a row and throwing 97 (mph) on the third day," Leyland said. "We'll see how things like that go, but that's how we are going to be using him."
It was a busy day of moves for the Tigers, who put reliever Octavio Dotel on the 15-day disabled list and recalled 22-year-old right-hander Bruce Rondon from Triple-A Toledo. Rondon was a candidate to become Detroit's closer in spring training, when it appeared the club had moved on from Valverde.
But Rondon didn't make the team, and the Tigers entered the season with no set closer. Detroit relievers are 1-4 with a 4.52 ERA.
Rondon had three saves over 7 2-3 scoreless innings with Toledo and now has his chance at the big league level.
"I'm going to get him out there and pitch him," Leyland said. "I don't want to paint myself in a corner because I don't know exactly how it will work out. I'd like to break him in a little bit easier, maybe the sixth inning or seventh inning, to start with."
Detroit optioned right-hander Brayan Villarreal to Triple-A Toledo, and the Tigers expect to make another move to clear space for Valverde on the 40-man roster.
Valverde converted all 49 of his save chances in 2011, but he was shakier last year, finishing with a 3.78 ERA and then blowing ninth-inning leads in the playoffs against Oakland and the New York Yankees.
"We love Papa Grande as a person and as a player — everyone in this organization does. He had other opportunities, but he wanted to come back here and help the Tigers," Dombrowski said. "He's definitely in better shape. He's lost 15 pounds, but we didn't think that was a problem last year, so I don't know if that's the difference. We just know he's throwing the ball extremely well."
There was no makeup date announced for today's game. The Tigers are pushing starter Max Scherzer back to Wednesday, and Kansas City is doing the same with Wade Davis. James Shields will make his normal start Thursday for the Royals, and Justin Verlander will pitch that day for Detroit after originally being slated for Wednesday.