Detroit Tigers President Dave Dombrowski and Manager Jim Leyland might be the best decision-making tandem in baseball, as evidenced by their deft handling of a sticky situation involving emotional closer Jose Valverde.
Few teams bench their veteran closer during the postseason, as the Tigers did with Valverde on Sunday in New York in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.
But not only did Dombrowski and Leyland decide to make the bold move, but they also declined to tap dance around the issue and pretend Valverde simply had a couple of bad moments in the glare of the October spotlight.
“I am a little concerned about it because one thing you take pride in as a manager is reading your players,” Leyland said of Valverde. “And I don’t even know if I am right about it. I probably shouldn’t say it, but I will say it anyway, it almost appears to me that it looks like he is kind of waiting for something bad to happen. And I don’t know if I am accurate on that. I may be totally wrong.
“But sometimes when you read a player, you can see that he’s not quite as confident. And he is normally very confident.”
With a chance to close out Oakland in Game 4 of a division series, Valverde gave up four hits and three runs and the Tigers lost. After Valverde’s ninth-inning implosion in the Tigers’ 12-inning win in Game 1 against the Yankees, the club’s brain trust met to discuss the closer’s role.
“We were here until the wee hours of the morning talking about it,” Leyland said.
Valverde, nicknamed “Papa Grande,” is known for his theatrics on the mound. Some love him. Others hate him. Either way, Valverde has converted a major league-best 93.2% (110 of 118) of his save opportunities since joining the Tigers in 2010, so benching him wasn’t as cut and dried as it seemed.
“Jim wanted to talk about it and make sure we were all on the same page, make sure we didn’t leave any stone unturned,” Dombrowski said. “Papa Grande has done a great job for us over the last few years. He scuffled a little bit here over the recent time period, so we just thought, let’s give him a break. Let’s fix something in his delivery and mix and match for now. I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime [Leyland] goes back to him [as closer].”
The operative word is “sometime.”
Will that be in this series? In the World Series? Or perhaps next year?
Setup man Phil Coke threw two scoreless innings to end Game 2, and with ace Justin Verlander pitching Game 3 with a 2-0 series lead, the Tigers might not need a closer to oust the Yankees.
Valverde played the good soldier, even though he said he believes he’ll be back in his old role Tuesday.
“You know me,” he said. “The Tigers are paying me. It doesn’t matter what role I’m in. I want to support my teammates. But my job is closer. I’ve done it for a long time and I think I can do it. If I don’t do my job, one of the other guys will pick me up.”
Some Tigers fans might worry that with such a strong rotation and Miguel Cabrera as the offensive catalyst, only Valverde can mess up their World Series dreams.
But Leyland won’t have any of that. He seemingly launched a preemptive strike before Sunday’s game in case Tigers fans decide to vent on Valverde in the games at Comerica Park.
“I just hope that fans everywhere, but particularly in Detroit, don’t have too short of memories,” he said. “This guy saved 110 games out of 118 opportunities in the last three years; that’s pretty good. [He was] 49 for 49 [in saves] last year, and 35 for 40 this year.
“So never would I be disrespectful to a player. I understand the magnitude of it in the postseason. I understand it’s a normal thing to say, well, you can’t close with him. That’s easy to say. However, don’t forget, the last three outs are very tough to get, and it takes a special cat in a lot of cases to do that.”