COMMENTARY | While baseball soothsayers will say it's way too early to do so, Detroit Tigers fans can be forgiven for biting nails, gnashing teeth and crossing toes whenever the skipper takes the ball from one of his starters and turns it over to a bullpen in chaos.
Soothsayers be danged, Tigers fans know reason for panic when they see it, and the deplorable state of the pen -- it is directly responsible for four of the team's five losses -- is reason enough. In fairness, the long guys have done their part. Lefties Drew Smyly and Darin Downs have combined for 15 innings and a sub 3.00 ERA. It's the late-inning guys that have caused even the most stoic fans to shift in their seats.
Closer by committee, or more recently, Joaquin Benoit by default, is no way to run a bullpen. Manager Jim Leyland would prefer to have his eighth- and ninth-inning guys etched in stone. When those spots are settled, the roles of the other late-inning relievers become much clearer.
Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski know all too well that games won and lost early in the season count just as much as those won and lost in the heat of a pennant race. Neither are known to stand pat when a situation cries for change. Trades this early in the season are unheard of. Any alteration in the makeup of the bullpen will be made from within. Fortunately, for Tigers fans, the braintrust has already begun hedging its bets.
Jose Valverde, also known as Papa Grande, is no stranger to Tigers fans. Valverde had 35 saves for the Tigers in 2012 after converting all of his 49 save opportunities during the pennant-dashed 2011 season. But when Valverde imploded in the 2012 postseason, allowing nine earned runs in 2 2/3 innings, Leyland benched him. It seemed at the time that his fate in Detroit was sealed.
The Tigers allowed the free agent to ply his wares during the offseason, and no other team bit. According to his agent, Scott Boras, the not-as-grande-papa lost 18 pounds in the offseason and has been throwing his fastball from 93 to 95 mph during bullpen sessions. He's also rumored to be mixing in the splitter that he abandoned during his ill-fated 2012 season.
Perhaps more desperate than impressed, Dombrowski signed Papa to a minor-league contract. It contains one important stipulation: If Valverde is not on the major-league roster by May 8, he can void the contract. Hopefully, for Tigers fans, bullpen drama will be a thing of the past by that time.
Early results, while promising, are far from conclusive. In extended spring training outings against high-school-aged kids, Valverde pitched well. He will soon be on his way to AAA Toledo to see how his stuff stacks up against "almost major-league" hitting. If the pieces fall into place, the team will soon be a step closer to having the closer it so desperately needs.
If not, Bruce Rondon, ordained by Dombrowski as Valverde's heir apparent heading into spring training despite the fact that he had never pitched in a big-league game, is quietly working to control his amazing stuff at Toledo.
The author is a lifelong Detroiter and Tigers follower.
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