COMMENTARY | Closer Jose Valverde returned to Comerica Park on Wednesday evening as he locked up his first save for the Detroit Tigers in 2013. This came on the heels of signing a major-league contract with the team after a successful showing at Class A Lakeland, combined with the Tigers' struggles in the bullpen thus far.
Valverde's return has been met with indifference, as Tigers fans remember the tale of two Papa Grandes: the regular-season star and the postseason blunder.
The eccentric closer was lights out while wearing the Old English D in 2011, his second season with the Tigers. He went 49-49 in save opportunities and helped lead the team to their first ever American League Central title.
However, all the good memories of success soured quickly once the 35-year-old right-hander started to struggle with the 2012 postseason on the line. He was demoted as the team's closer during the playoffs, and rightfully so. Valverde finished the postseason with nine earned runs in 2 2/3 innings pitched and successfully became the victim of blame amongst fans.
Leave all the memories of Valverde's 2012 struggles in the past, because they are irrelevant during his comeback as a successful major-league closer. It's 2013, and the Tigers desperately need help in their bullpen, specifically at closer. Valverde fits like a missing puzzle piece.
The Tigers' bullpen has been atrocious this season and can be compared to a horror story in the making. Tigers relievers have combined for a 4.86 ERA in 66 2/3 innings pitched this season, the highest earned run average in the American League and the fourth highest in the MLB.
Not only has the bullpen struggled, but the Tigers also failed in their trial of using a closer-by-committee system. The bullpen has combined for three saves in six save opportunities, and none of their previous options at closer have separated themselves to own the role solely.
Bruce Rondon, the widely popular choice for the Tigers' future at closer, isn't ready for that task in the big leagues, even after earning a promotion to Detroit of his own Tuesday. The 22-year-old fireballer struggled with his 100 mph heat in his major-league debut Thursday. He was credited with the blown save after allowing three hits and one run in one inning pitched, all coming in a pivotal eighth inning that saw the Tigers' 3-2 lead over the Royals evaporate.
The Tigers were also unsuccessful in finding an option at closer via trade this offseason, leading to the inevitable return to Detroit for Valverde once he signed in April. Options like San Diego's Huston Street were pricey, while free agent Brian Wilson was sidelined during his recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2012.
At this point in an improved American League Central, Valverde was the Tigers' best option at closer, even after all his antics and struggles. He's been in this position before and knows how to get the job done, proving his keep time and time again. From 2010 to 2012, Valverde saved 26, 49 and 35 games with an ERA of 3.00, 2.24 and 3.78, respectively, in those years.
He also had two All-Star game appearances with the Tigers and to do that as a closer, you have to be the cream of the crop, which Valverde was. Simply put, the statistics speak for themselves, and the Tigers couldn't find that kind of production from within or the open market, igniting Valverde's return to Detroit.
This time, Valverde is on a mission for redemption. His new windup and increased velocity will pay huge dividends for both himself and the team as the closer returns to prominence in Detroit.
Ricky Lindsay has followed the Detroit Tigers and Major League Baseball with a close eye from Metro Detroit for several years. He's a sportswriter for his college newspaper, The Michigan Journal, and broadcasts games for the Michigan Lightning, a semi-professional football team.
You can find him on Twitter @RLindz35.
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