A few weeks later, Tigers adding old new closer to bullpen

Al Bello

Sparky Anderson once said of Torey Lovullo, "I'll die before Lovullo comes out of the lineup."

Lovullo came out of the lineup a few weeks later. Fortunately, Sparky would live to see flying cars and the World Series-winning Chicago White Sox.

Anderson was simply wrong about Torey Lovullo; later, he would be just as wrong about Chris Pittaro. And it wasn't nearly enough to keep him from getting elected to the Hall of Fame.

I suspect there's very little that Jim Leyland can do at this point to keep himself out of the Hall of Fame; granted, there are some things he might do -- or that his players might do -- to help himself get into the Hall of Fame.

I bring this up because the Tigers have signed Jose Valverde to a major-league contract, are adding him to their 25-man roster ... and Leyland has already announced that he's giving up on Joaquin Benoit and turning to Valverde to protect ninth-inning leads:

It's a scenario that seemed impossible entering Spring Training, and seemed improbable even after the Tigers signed Valverde to a minor-league contract on April 4. After Valverde pitched three times for Class A Lakeland the past four days, however, the Tigers were sold on his comeback.

"His stuff has been very good," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Tuesday night. "We think he's ready to come in and close games for us."

--snip--

Essentially, it was a tryout, and the Tigers had until May 8 to evaluate their former closer. What they saw in three Class A outings and a few extended Spring Training appearances convinced them that Valverde's pitches were better than they were last year, both the velocity on his fastball and the use of the splitter that was an out pitch for him until he went away from it two years ago.

His fastball is reportedly touching 94-95 mph. His splitter had bite to it, though not necessarily consistency. That was what the Tigers wanted to see, more than the game experience.

"In my mind, it's more about stuff," Dombrowski said. "He knows how to close games."

Or as Leyland put it, "One thing you know about him: He's done it before and he's not afraid."

The latter is something the Tigers didn't feel they had with their current crew...

I do think it's worth mentioning that Valverde will be the Tigers' fourth closer of 2013.

In spring training, Bruce Rondon was supposed to win the job. He didn't.

On Opening Day, Phil Coke was the closer. That lasted a few days.

Joaquin Benoit took over as closer, but through no fault of his own has just one save; he's converted his only opportunity, and has allowed two runs in nine innings this month. Last season, Benoit pitched better than Valverde.

Benoit has pitched well this spring, and so has Alberto Alburquerque. But it's abundantly clear that management, for whatever reasons, simply doesn't trust Benoit or Alburquerque. Maybe they don't know how to close games? Maybe they're afraid?

I was watching the Red Sox and Athletics Tuesday night, and the A's TV crew got to talking about Valverde ...

Glen Kuiper: He's on his way to Detroit. He'll be there tomorrow. And Jim Leyland said: "He's gonna be my closer."

Ray Fosse: And he should be. I mean, he's a veteran closer, and Jim Leyland -- and who knows what happened with Valverde, maybe he wanted to be a free agent and didn't get a contract, and they ended up re-signing him in Triple-A -- and Jim Leyland said he will be in Detroit, soon. And Jim Leyland knows that Valverde can have his problems, as he did in Game 4 of the Division Series. But he's a veteran, he knows how to pitch, he's pitched in some big games.

Kuiper: What are you gonna do, you gonna bring him back, he's gonna pitch the seventh inning? That's what he does, he's the closer. If he's not any good at it, then they'll ... probably let him go.

Fosse: And he's got his same antics, he'll do the same thing, and he'll finish the games, and he'll be the veteran closer that they probably are looking for.

The closing job ... It takes a special pitcher to pitch in that role. It's not as easy as some might think. But when you're a veteran, you know how to pitch as a closer. That in itself can be huge.

And there you have it: the continuing deification of the Proven Closer. Right or wrong, for better or worse.

It's likely that none of this will matter. It's likely that Valverde will pitch decently, or won't pitch decently but management doesn't let him blow too many leads before shifting to Plan E or F. Either way, it's likely that none of this will matter because the Tigers are likely to win the American League Central going away. Once they get Rick Porcello out of the rotation, they'll be good there from Nos. 1 through 5. They do have some good relief pitchers. And they've got the best lineup in the division.

Still, at the very least these next few weeks or months should be interesting, because the Tigers are doing something that essentially every analyst and -- if you believe Valverde's difficulty in finding work until a few weeks ago -- essentially every other major-league franchise thinks they shouldn't do.

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