April 24, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Lynn Henning

Valverde gamble could pay dividends

Jose Valverde returns to the Tigers with increased velocity on his fastball and the baffling split-finger back in his repertoire. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)

Detroit -- What must be understood about Jose Valverde's sudden return to Detroit is that the list of those floored begins with the Tigers front office.

Privately, the Tigers expected little from their old and beleaguered bullpen closer when they signed him three weeks ago. What they had seen during winter bullpen sessions in the Dominican Republic was unremarkable. And they figured it would remain that way as Valverde pushed himself into game shape ahead of the past week's audition at Single A Lakeland.

It's noteworthy that other teams aching for bullpen help joined the Tigers in saying they could do better. A long, forlorn offseason was Valverde's penance for disintegrating in October's playoffs.

Spring training arrived. Still, Valverde sat, waiting for a call, stymied by his 2012 downward spiral and by agent Scott Boras' contract wishes.

But when the Tigers looked at an unsettled bullpen three weeks ago, and when Boras made concessions on a minor-league contract that would protect all parties, the Tigers bit, for common-sense reasons.

They were still minus a closer, their back-end bullpen was at risk, and they were in a no-lose investment with Valverde's minor-league deal.

And so the two sides hooked up. It looked like a desperation move. Like an 11th-hour prom option.

And then Valverde began pitching in games Friday, Saturday and Monday.

Surprising success

Scouts who don't work for the Tigers were stunned. Valverde was throwing excellent fastballs at 93 mph, more often at 94, and sometimes 95. There was velocity. There was location. There was movement — the kind of veering flight path that can miss a big league bat.

Valverde walloped the Tigers internal scouting party: Al Avila, Al Kaline, Murray Cook, Mike Maroth. They had expected the minimum from a man who two months ago turned 36. They instead saw a pitcher whose stuff, separate from the Single A batters he was working against, had the sass and sizzle essential for closing a game.

No, the split-finger pitch he is obliged to carry with his fastball wasn't on display with any regularity during Valverde's three-game cameo at Marchant Stadium. One scout saw him throw two during Monday's three-strikeout act that stamped his ticket to Comerica Park.

But the fastball, if he throws it as he did over the weekend, looked much like the fastball he delivered during his 49-save season of 2011.

Now, the Tigers can afford to experiment. And they just might prosper.

Their dream scenario unfurls something like this:

Bruce Rondon, the heat-hurling reliever who earlier Tuesday was called from Triple A Toledo, begins his Detroit apprenticeship today minus any concern for the word "closer." That should keep pressure from becoming a factor in Rondon's stints as was bound to have been the case had Valverde not been summoned.

This, in turn, should offer manager Jim Leyland more flexibility. He has, for the time being, Valverde filling the closer's void. And he can be selective in how he uses the 22-year-old Rondon.

It will formalize a plan the Tigers had hoped to use during spring camp, when they would break in Rondon gently as he gained confidence and sharpened his repertoire. And soon, they imagined, it would deliver him to the ninth inning, where his power package would be a blowtorch against enemy teams' thoughts of a last-gasp rally.

Valverde's role in all of this is a bit fanciful. If the blueprint unfolds ideally, Valverde could do for the Tigers exactly what Boras saw when baseball's best agent was shopping Valverde in March.

Boras, properly, saw Valverde as a mentor, as a bridge between Rondon's greenhorn games in Leyland's bullpen and his final arrival as Detroit's messiah: The New Closer.

Amazingly, it could go this way. Or, of course, it could all blow up.

The Tigers aren't by any means sure Rondon is ready. Even for sixth- or seventh-inning shifts. But they saw no downside to making him their pick Tuesday to replace Octavio Dotel, who was moved to the disabled list with a sore elbow.

Dream scenario

Valverde? If he has his old fire back, the Tigers could find themselves — in their bluest of blue-sky visions — with, in fact, a reliable closer and with Rondon right where Boras saw him a month ago.

One advisory for those who see all of this unfurling as neatly as the above tale: The only thing more unpredictable than baseball in April is pitching in April. The Tigers figure they have time to sort fact from fiction. Rondon and Valverde will reveal soon enough how valid, or how crazy, were all the notions.



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