It wasn't exactly a match of destiny, not in late January, but Valverde's deal with Detroit ended up being a pretty good fit of the most prominent closer on the market with the last team looking for one. It was good enough for the Tigers to change direction on what had been an offseason of "adjustments" and invest two years and $14 million, with a $9 million club option for 2012, not to mention their first-round pick in this year's Draft.
"I think it was a situation where people were aware we were the one club out there that really had a closer need," Dombrowski said on a Tuesday morning conference call. "We knew that he wanted to close, which is understandable. He's one of the premier guys.
"One of the things that we wrestled about was giving up our No. 1 draft pick. But we felt we're giving it up to sign one of the premier closers in the game."
The Tigers signed the National League saves leader from two of the past three seasons, but saves totals just begin to describe why Valverde, who turns 32 in March, is so valuable.
Valverde's 116 saves over the past three years tie him for fourth in the Majors in that span with Jonathan Papelbon, trailing just Francisco Rodriguez, Joe Nathan and Francisco Cordero. The right-hander had 25 saves and 45 games finished last year, but his supporting numbers were basically as strong as usual. He scattered 40 hits over 54 innings, struck out 56 and allowed just five home runs as part of a 2.33 ERA.
His save totals last year suffered in part with the Astros' slow start, but he went 19-for-19 in saves from July forward. In the process, he held opponents to a .206 batting average and .580 OPS while posting a 1.67 ERA.
Ironically, the Tigers were responsible for Valverde's last blown save. Brandon Inge's ninth-inning homer off him June 28 at Minute Maid Park sent Detroit to a 4-3 victory.
Valverde has averaged better than a strikeout an inning in all seven of his Major League seasons, while allowing fewer than a hit per inning in all but one of those years.
Of Valverde's 25 saves last year, seven of them occurred in perfect 1-2-3 innings. Ten others came in four batters or less. That kind of efficiency prompted the Tigers to make the level of commitment that previously seemed to be out of their reach this offseason. Dombrowski confirmed they offered Brandon Lyon a two-year contract before he signed for three years with Houston, while they did not offer a multiyear deal to Fernando Rodney.
"In that situation, we feel more comfortable the end of the game giving the ball to Jose," Dombrowski said. "We just felt more comfortable with Jose being more established."
Valverde, for his part, apparently feels comfortable with Detroit.
"I'm so excited right now," he said. "All the time when I play in the Minor Leagues and in the Dominican, I always wanted to play for the Tigers. What I see all the time, the Tigers always compete. When I go to the mound, save my game, that's what I want to see, all my guys happy and wanting to compete all the time."
Ironically, a few good words from Rodney helped Valverde feel more comfortable with his destination.
"Me and Fernando Rodney have been friends for a long time," Valverde said. "I talked with Fernando [about] the energy and the fans in Detroit. He called me and said there's good energy over there. When I signed, he called and he said, 'You'll be happy over there.'"
Valverde has never pitched in the American League. He spent his first five seasons with the Diamondbacks before he was traded to Houston after the 2007 season. But much like the idea of pitching in a cold-weather home park for the first time in his career, he doesn't expect it to be an adjustment.
"Different hitters, different players, I don't care. It's the same baseball," Valverde said. "American League, National League, it's the same baseball."
The move bolsters a Tigers bullpen that has stockpiled young talent over the past few years, led by Joel Zumaya and Ryan Perry, but lacked a proven option for the ninth inning after losing Rodney and Lyon to free agency. Zumaya, Perry, Bobby Seay and others will now set up for one of the most vaunted closers the Tigers have had in several years. Lefty specialist Phil Coke, who came over from the Yankees in the Curtis Granderson trade, will stretch out as a starter and compete for the final rotation spot.
By signing a Type A free agent, the Tigers will give up their first-round pick in this summer's First-Year Player Draft, the 19th overall selection, to the Astros. It will be the first time since 1991, after the Tigers signed Rob Deer, that Detroit has given up its first-rounder. However, the Tigers have two compensation picks coming at the end of the first round for losing Rodney and Lyon.
In essence, Detroit swapped Lyon for Valverde with Houston, with the Astros getting the first-rounder and the Tigers getting a sandwich pick.