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Detroit Tigers Seek Closer: Is Jose Valverde Their Man?

The 2012 Tigers Closer Remains Unsigned

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Game Over: The Detroit Tigers Need to End Round Two of the Jose Valverde Experiment
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Jose Valverde.

COMMENTARY l Bruce Rondon, penciled in as the Detroit Tigers' closer when spring training began, has struggled in four Florida appearances.

He's allowed five walks and five hits in three and a fraction innings, and he sports a 7.56 ERA. He'll miss his next scheduled turn and will instead throw in the bullpen, working on mechanics. Meanwhile, manager Jim Leyland, with opening day four weeks away, has no idea whom his closer will be.

If Rondon does right himself, conventional baseball wisdom still dictates that the Tigers go with a closer by committee and not allow a rookie carry the entire load. Leyland, however, is reluctant to move any of the candidates -- eighth-inning man Joaquin Benoit, situational lefty Phil Coke, and middle relievers Octavio Dotel, Brayan Villareal, and Al Alburquerque -- from their accustomed roles. A bullpen works best when each man knows exactly what he'll be doing each time he comes to the ballpark.

Former San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson has been suggested should the Tigers decide to import a veteran. So has last year's closer, Jose Valverde.

Valverde has been forgotten since the Tigers non-tendered him last October.

Last season, fans used to taking roller-coaster rides with closers Fernando Rodney and Todd Jones got out the prayer candles when Valverde entered the game. A typical inning: leadoff walk, seeing-eye single, hit batter, a rocket hit right at someone, another rocket that split the outfielders.

In one spectacularly blown save last September at Progressive Field, Valverde allowed a leadoff double, a one-out triple, two intentional walks, and a walkoff single. A 6-5 Tigers lead became a 7-6 Cleveland Indians victory.

Valverde lost leads of 3-1 in the American League Division Series to the Oakland Athletics, and 4-0 to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series in a game the Tigers eventually won. His only World Series appearance was a disaster: one-third of an inning, four hits, two runs.

It's thought that Valverde hurt his arm midseason and pitched with the injury, taking the ball knowing he didn't have his best stuff. He became a one-pitch pitcher, relying on his splitter that batters knew was coming.

Way more times than not, though, he succeeded. In 2012, he saved 35 games, posting an ERA of 3.76 and allowing 59 hits in 69 innings.

Valverde was on the Dominican Republic team that will play in this year's World Baseball Classic, but he won't pitch. He still doesn't have a major-league job. The Tigers say they aren't interested.

Should Rondon not be the answer, and should Jose Valverde remain unsigned, the intriguing possibility of Papa Grande back in a Tigers uniform becomes more real.

The sensible fan might laugh. The sentimental one, remembering his 42 saves in that many chances in 2011, would love to see if he still has the magic.

Susan Silverman attends the University of Michigan, and has contributed original research to Baseball Almanac.com and Retrosheet.

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