I don't mind if MLB wants to go with a "30 new closers in 30 days" gimmick for this season, I just wish they'd promote it a little better. Mercy.
Jose Valverde stepped into the ring of fire Tuesday afternoon in Chicago, in what was supposed to be a routine "get work" appearance with a four-run lead. Papa Grande retired the first two batters, then Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski followed with hits. Valverde went to a 3-1 count on the ensuing batter, Alex Rios, before the proceedings stopped and the Tigers removed him from the game.
A half hour later, the news came down: Valverde is dealing with lower back tightness. "Just have to keep our fingers crossed on Jose," Tigers manager Jim Leyland told MLB.com. "I think it's all right."
Detroit has used Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel as Valverde's gatekeepers this year; Benoit usually gets the eighth inning while Dotel works in the seventh. Benoit pitched a scoreless eighth in Tuesday's game, and it was Dotel who inherited the chippy save chance that Valverde created. Dotel finished off Rios's walk, allowed a hit, then recorded one out. Ballgame. Good work if you can get it.
A day-to-day injury like this might not sound like much, but we have to consider the body type with Valverde. He's 6-foot-4 and generously listed at 254 pounds, and he's never really been in Olympic shape. He's only topped 67 innings twice in his relief career (though he did sail past that number last year). If you drafted Valverde back in March, you knew what you were getting into. (I felt confident Valverde was headed for a possible injury this year, I just thought it would happen through elaborate celebration. Looks like I lost that prop.)
Leyland is a manager who likes simplicity with his roster and lineup. He's not one of those Tony LaRussa types who wants moving parts all over his ballclub. If Leyland wrote a daily chess puzzle, the solution would be "mate in one." LaRussa's puzzle would be a five-day series that ultimately served as a testament to LaRussa's genius. Leyland has never been a manager with an ego or a complicated plan.
What I'm bandying about is this: if the Tigers do need to replace Valverde for an extended period of time (and no one's saying that yet), I'd expect one pitcher to get the bulk of the closing work. Leyland generally wants defined roles, so long as his players can handle it. He's the guy who stuck with Todd Jones through thick and thin for so many years. He's good to his closers.
Because Benoit already had claim to the eighth inning, I'd make him my first speculation play here. Dotel actually has much better stats this year and considerably more closing experience over the years (he's also four years older than Benoit), if that matters to you. But the one time Dotel was asked to secure a save in a traditional manner this year, it turned into a mess: he couldn't throw a strike in Seattle. Maybe that means something to the Tigers, maybe it doesn't.
Some might point to Benoit's five blown saves from 2011, but throw that stat in the shredder. All of them came in appearances before the ninth inning; as we've discussed in the past, these are misleading outcomes. A non-closing reliever will often be given a chance to blow a save but no real chance to complete that same save. So any blown opportunity before the ninth inning has to be treated differently, or perhaps not considered at all.
Onto the next bullpen on fire. Let's be careful out there.
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