Jim Leyland tried the soft approach. He tried to gently discuss how uncomfortable he was with the Tigers’ decision to go cheap and unproven with their closer when they’d invested a massive amount of money in this current group while in the final year of his contract. In public, he was agreeable and conciliatory when the Tigers let Jose Valverde walk and didn’t bring in a legitimate, proven closer via trade or free agency. He was willing to move forward with the Bruce Rondon experiment and, when the rookie faltered in spring training, stated his intention to use a bullpen-by-committee and do the best they could.
All it took, though, was one blown save from Phil Coke in the second game of the season for the Tigers to acquiesce to their manager’s clear wishes and bring back Valverde on a minor league contract. He’ll go to Lakeland and “get in shape” (whatever that means for the prominently bellied Valverde) and, before long, will be back with the Tigers and given the opportunity to regain the job he lost with a series of terrible performances including a horrific gack in game 1 of the ALCS against the Yankees that could easily have cost the Tigers the series.
Leyland is jittery and constantly fretful, but he trusts his veterans more than he’ll trust any rookie or unproven commodity. He might very well have thrown a patented Leyland tantrum after yesterday’s loss and gone as far as he possibly could in demanding that the Tigers bring back Valverde. As bad as Valverde was at times last season, he was nearly perfect in 2011 and Leyland knows that any issues his erstwhile closer might have won’t be related to a mental issue. There are pitchers on the Tigers’ staff who can conceivably close. Coke can do it if given the opportunity over the long term. Octavio Dotel is 39, but has closed and as long as he’s healthy would get the job done. But using Coke, Valverde, Joaquin Benoit or establishing someone unproven such as Al Alburquerque or Rondon in the ninth inning would reduce the Tigers’ depth in the earlier innings and make the manager and everyone around him nervous.
If there’s a man in baseball whose personality permeates his clubhouse while he’s not doing or saying anything at all—just his aura is enough—it’s Leyland. He’s passive aggressive and made clear that he didn’t want a rookie closer and that he did want Valverde back. Now he’s getting what he wants and if Valverde has his velocity and looks adequate in extended spring training, he’ll be closing for the Tigers again within a month because that’s what the manager wanted from the beginning and he let everyone know it through multiple methods of expression.