April 24, 2013 at 4:47 pm

John Niyo

Tigers' bullpen fix: Everything old is new again

Bruce Rondon, second from left, joins the Tigers as Brayan Villarreal, right, is sent down. (Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News)

Detroit -- The first one, you're dying to see. The second one, some of you probably can't bear to watch again.

But we all saw this coming, didn't we? Even if we didn't see it happening quite like this?

The Tigers closer of the future, Bruce Rondon, arrived in Detroit on Tuesday. So did the closer he was supposed to replace: Jose Valverde.

And in the absence of actual baseball Tuesday night, as rain delayed the start of the Tigers' nine-game home stand at Comerica Park, both those moves — first a promotion, then a resurrection — certainly provided an interesting day-night doubleheader.

"The timing of this thing just happened this way," manager Jim Leyland insisted, not long after the game against Kansas City was called. "It just worked out."

I'll say. And for Leyland, it probably worked out the way he'd hoped, having made it clear for most of the offseason that his prepackaged World Series contender wasn't really complete without an established ninth-inning reliever.

"You always like to have a closer," he said again Tuesday night, sounding cautiously optimistic that the Tigers had found one in Valverde, even if it meant raiding the recycling bin. "I don't think I ever tried to hide that fact."

Feelings clear

Nor has he tried to hide his affection for Valverde, both for his infectious personality — "He's a great teammate; one of the best that I've ever been around," Leyland said — as well as his rather effective performance out of the bullpen his first two years in Detroit.

And just to be clear, Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers general manager, was a fan of the old Valverde, too. Still, the decision not to bring him back after last year's drop-off, capped by a precipitous fall in the postseason, wasn't all that difficult.

"We love Papa Grande as a person, and what he's done for our organization," Dombrowski said. "But it was a matter of getting the job done."

He wasn't, obviously. But after the Tigers stood pat in free agency, no one else on the roster has proven they reliably can in his absence.

Rondon, the hard-throwing 22-year-old who was touted a bit too boldly by Dombrowski as the heir apparent this offseason, couldn't — or didn't, at least — make the Opening Day roster out of spring training. And while Leyland's quick to say "the bullpen was doing pretty good" after a shaky start this season, he also readily admits, "We didn't have a closer, per se."

Instead, the Tigers had a committee of setup men auditioning to be one. And as the de facto winner of that contest, Joaquin Benoit, explained to me Tuesday afternoon, "It's not easy to get used to what we're doing right now."

The plan, with or without Valverde, was to try to ease Rondon into that mix as another veteran, Octavio Dotel, headed to the disabled list because of a nagging elbow injury. In his Lakeland audition this spring, Rondon struggled first with his mechanics and then with his control — and probably also with the expectations foisted upon him.

But he appears to have settled into a groove in Toledo, where he didn't allow a run in seven appearances this month, allowing five hits — all singles — and two walks while striking out nine in 7.2 innings of work. The reports on his outings were excellent, said Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones, and the plan according to Leyland is "to break him in and get his feet wet in the big leagues a little bit" in a sixth- or seventh-inning role.

Meanwhile, the plan for Valverde is quite the opposite. If there's a save opportunity tonight against the Royals, Leyland says he'll turn to a pitcher neither he nor Dombrowski has seen throw this spring. Granted, it sounds as if they're about the only ones in the Tigers organization who didn't the past couple weeks.

"It wasn't just one person that saw him, or the catcher at Lakeland," Leyland said. "He's throwing the ball well."

But how or why? That was the question I asked Dombrowski Tuesday night, and he answered quite bluntly, "I cannot answer that question. And. I mean, I've asked that same question myself."

Back to velocity, splitter

Valverde, determined to prove he wasn't finished after last year's postseason collapse, has lost 15 pounds, give or take a meal, which probably helps. A longer break this past winter couldn't hurt, either, especially for an arm that made 146 appearances in 2011-12 — too many for a closer — and also turned 35 last month.

But beyond that, it's a bit of a mystery how Valverde managed to find the velocity he'd steadily lost the past few years and the split-finger fastball he'd all but abandoned by the end of last season.

"He has a splitter that he's throwing," Dombrowski said, when asked if it resembled the one he boasted when signed in Detroit the first time around. "I can't tell you if it's like 2011. But he's throwing it. It's not like last year, when he didn't throw it. He is throwing it. And he is throwing it for strikes."

Now, I know what some of you are thinking here: Three weeks into the season, the Tigers are throwing up a white flag here. (Adding a flamethrower and a gas can, what could go wrong?) But better now than in August, I suppose. If Valverde flops, and Rondon thrives, there might be no choice but to give the rookie a shot many — including Dombrowski, perhaps — felt he deserved. And preferably before the trade deadline, when the Tigers GM can try to find another veteran solution, if necessary.

"We'll see how this plays out," Leyland said of Valverde's return.

But, he added, "It'll be nice to write his name on the lineup card, I can tell you that.… It reads better than it did before. Is it gonna be better? We'll see."

Cover your eyes, if you must.



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