April 4, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Jose Valverde with desperate Tigers a union of mutual need

Jose Valverde needed a job. The Tigers need a closer.

Like a corporate merger, this union makes sense, no matter how unlikely it appeared even 72 hours ago.

The closer-less Tigers signed their former relief maestro to a minor-league audition Thursday a day after watching their idyllic bullpen plan blow to pieces in the ninth inning of Wednesday's unnecessary and disturbing loss to the Twins.

Closer by committee. Bullpen by way of mixing and matching. All lovely terms, concepts and applications as the Tigers and their relief-pitching strategies were considered.

And, at least for this 2013 Tigers team as it is currently constructed, all of those notions are fantasy. It's next to impossible for a World Series-caliber team to get to the summit minus a ninth-inning, put-away artist.

The Tigers, after blowing Game 2 of the 2013 regular season, had to be concerned about goals more immediate than making the World Series. They need to win their division. And that basic objective stood to be a tougher target if too many games were lost in the manner of Wednesday's donation.

And so Dave Dombrowski, who had all along believed his rookie, Bruce Rondon, would be the bullpen's new gladiator, had to concede Thursday that a major gamble has gone against him and his team.

Rondon is in Triple A understudying for what could yet become his job in 2013. But in the meantime, Dombrowski, the Tigers president and general manager, had to guard against a trap door springing on manager Jim Leyland's team 48 hours into a new season.

In a jam

Valverde's chances at rescuing the Tigers are likely slim unless he has recovered much of what had been lost a season ago.

A big, right-handed reliever reliant on power pitches deteriorated steadily in 2012. He finally disintegrated during last autumn's playoffs, nearly costing the Tigers a precious shot at the World Series.

The Tigers had seen enough. His fastball was off. His once-essential split-finger pitch was nonexistent. And so the Tigers bade farewell to a 34-year-old pitcher who had paid a nice dividend on an expensive three-year investment.

Doubling the Tigers' disinterest heading into 2013, Valverde's agent, Scott Boras, wanted a healthy check for a pitcher that even the ultimate salesman, Boras, was having a miserable time placing.

But that was before last week.

Two days before the team left for Minnesota, Dombrowski, Leyland and Co. determined Rondon needed more time at Triple A.

Now, though, Leyland was in a jam. As much as people want to believe there is nothing special about the ninth, that any good reliever can finish a game, for most teams it is imperative to have a ninth-inning blowaway artist.

1-for-2 not good enough

The Tigers got away with their all-for-one, one-for-all approach Monday. But the same guy who mowed down the Twins on Monday, Phil Coke, failed on Wednesday.

And it was at that moment Boras came to mind. During a conversation with him a couple of weeks ago, he mentioned that the Tigers would likely have 60 save opportunities in 2013. It was one way of saying that Dombrowski and Leyland better have someone trustworthy to tackle those ninths.

Two games into a new season, the Tigers had already faced two save opportunities and had done no better than halve them.

Thursday morning, Boras and the Tigers agreed to a deal that at least offers Valverde a shot at rescuing a team as he retrieves his career from deep twilight.

It's a marriage of mutual need, and maybe more so, of mutual desperation.

And it's all right to use that word: desperate. The Tigers can't afford to lose many games of the kind they fumbled away Wednesday. For now, they have a back-up plan in place. Valverde? It works for him, as well. He's one less member of America's unemployed.



The Tigers might discover that Jose Valverde is a better solution than closer-by-committee. / John T. Greilick / Detroit News
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