Valverde reclaims Tigers’ closer role

DETROIT – Jose Valverde will return to his role as closer for the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday.

The Tigers signed him Tuesday to a one-year contract after the 35-year-old right-hander made a favorable impression on team scouts in two weekend outings in Lakeland, Fla.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland said Valverde will get the ball with a lead in the ninth until further notice.

“He’s done it before, and he’s not afraid,” Leyland said. “Those are two things we know.”

What isn’t known is whether Valverde will be the closer who was perfect in 49 save opportunities for the Tigers in 2011, the guy with a 30.38 ERA in the 2012 postseason or somebody in between.

But he’s lost 15 pounds, his splitter is splitting again and his velocity is up well beyond last year’s to a peak of 97 mph, according to Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski.

“He’s throwing the ball better than he did for us last year,” said Dombrowski, “… and we think he has the ability to come in and be our closer.

“Looking at his stuff, he didn’t need to go to (Triple-A) Toledo. He can help us now and help Jim set up the bullpen.”

So it’s back to the future for the Tigers and Valverde, who had 110 saves over the last three years before imploding so badly last fall that Dombrowski informed him immediately after the World Series that he would not be re-signed.

What’s changed since then is that the Tigers still don’t have an established closer three weeks into the season, and future closer Bruce Rondon was called up Tuesday strictly to ease into a major league role.

Re-enter Valverde, coming out of the bullpen with his theatrical act laced in superstition: spitting in three different directions while coming out the door … prancing across the outfield while slapping his thighs with his glove … turning toward center field upon reaching the mound … spitting out his gum.

And going to work.

It was the failure of his split-fingered fastball that led to his demise, and so I asked Dombrowski if his splitter was back to its 2011 break.

“He’s thrown it (for strikes), whereas last year he did not,” Dombrowski said. “But I cannot say if it’s the 2011 splitter, per se.”

Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila and Hall of Famer Al Kaline, now a special assistant to Dombrowski, were among several scouts who saw Valverde throw on Friday and Saturday in Lakeland. Dombrowski on Saturday talked to Valverde, who said he wanted one more outing in Florida on Monday.

Valverde then deemed himself ready for a return to the majors.

In total, he allowed no runs on one hit in three innings, struck out four and walked two for the Lakeland Flying Tigers.

Dombrowski said Valverde threw between 93 and 96 mph on a “pretty consistent basis” and was “surprised” by his ability to throw harder than he did in 2012.

“He’s throwing the ball extremely well,” said Dombrowski, who added that he believed Valverde would “bounce back well” from his disastorous October.

Brayan Villarreal, who had a 20.77 ERA with eight hits and eight walks in 4 1/3 innings, was sent to Toledo to make room for Valverde. A player will be taken off the 40-man roster on Wednesday to allow Valverde’s addition there, as well.

Earlier in the day, reliever Octavio Dotel was placed on the 15-day disabled list with an inflamed right elbow. Rondon took his place with The Tigers.

Now, 18 games into the season, Leyland has a revamped bullpen.

Phil Coke and Al Alburquerque will precede setup man Joaquin Benoit with hopes of getting the game to Valverde in the ninth. Rondon, Drew Smyly and Darin Downs will be used wherever Leyland needs them.  Coke, Downs and Smyly are left-handers.

“We’re thrilled to have him (Valverde) back,” Leyland said. “… I mean, he’s got a track record that’s pretty good, and the track record speaks for itself.”

RAINOUT ROTATION UPDATE: Tuesday night’s game with the Kansas City Royals was postponed because of rain with no makeup date scheduled.

Detroit will pitch Max Scherzer on Wednesday and Justin Verlander on Thursday. Kansas City will go with Wade Davis and James Shields in that order.