Bobby Parnell's assignment to the disabled list following the revelation that he has sustained a tear to the MCL in his right elbow has left a significant void for the Mets at the back end of the bullpen. It appears that the team will turn to veteran Jose Valverde to fill that role, at least for now.
Valverde has been in the league since 2003, when he was brought up by the Arizona Diamondbacks to fill in for an injured Matt Mantei. After his call-up, he struck out batters at a staggering rate of 12.7 per nine innings over 50 innings. But as is the case with many young strikeout pitchers, he also walked an alarming number of opposing hitters:4.65 per nine.
In 2004 Valverde had similar rate stats, and in 2005, he was given the closer role in place of a struggling Brian Bruney. In his first campaign as a closer, Valverde posted career lows in walk rate and home run rate, while continuing to strike out more than ten batters per nine innings. He began the 2006 season as the dedicated closer, but his ERA quickly ballooned because of a jump in line drive rate—23.6 percent—and a return of the control problems that plagued his first two seasons. He was demoted to Triple-A in June but returned to the team in early September and pitched effectively for the remainder of the season.
In 2007, Valverde evolved into the elite closer that many remember him as. He led the National League with 47 saves and had a 2.66 ERA. For his regular season success he was awarded his first of three All-Star Game appearances. During the postseason, Valverde pitched three innings in the NLDS, recording six strikeouts and only a single walk while giving up no runs. Arizona advanced to the NLCS where they lost in four games to Colorado, including a loss by Valverde who was asked to pitch in extra innings during Game 2. In the 10th, Valverde pitched a perfect 1-2-3 inning, but he ran into trouble in the 11th, giving up a single and three free passes to walk in the winning run.
During the following offseason Valverde was sent to the Astros in exchange for Chad Qualls, Juan Gutierrez, and Chris Burke. Despite the change of scenery Valverde continued to accumulate saves, leading all of baseball with 44 of them in 2008. In 2009, he converted 86% of his save opportunities playing for a weak Astros team, recording 25 saves in 29 attempts.
After 2009, Valverde rejected the Astros' offer for arbitration, instead opting for free agency. The Tigers signed him to a two-year, $14 million deal, with a $9 million team option. He started 2010 off nearly untouchable, recording a 0.94 ERA before the All-Star break. During this time in Detroit he broke the Tigers scoreless innings streak previously set by Todd Jones with 24 consecutive scoreless innings. For his efforts he was rewarded with his second All-Star selection. The second half of his season was hindered by elbow tendinitis, and he only managed to record 26 saves overall.
2011 was one of Valverde's most memorable years. During the regular season he converted a perfect 49 saves in 49 opportunities, and broke the Tigers single-season save record of 42, also previously held by Todd Jones. He won both the Rolaids Relief Man and MLB Delivery Man of the Year Awards, as well as his third All-Star selection, leading the American League in saves and games finished. In the ALDS, Valverde earned saves in Games 3 and 5 against the Yankees on their way to a five-game series win. He also pitched in a non-save situation in Game 2 with a 5-1 lead, giving up two earned runs but finishing out the game. During the ALCS, Valverde earned a save against Texas in Game 3, but blew the hold in a 3-3 tie in the 11th inning, giving up an RBI single to Mike Napoli followed by a three-run home run to Nelson Cruz. The Tigers went on to lose that game, and the series four games to three.
The 2012 season started off with Valverde blowing his first save opportunity, ending his successful conversion streak at 51 saves. Over the course of the season he managed to record 35 saves. However, his strikeout rate dropped precipitously to 6.26 per nine innings. An extremely low 0.39 home-runs-per-nine-innings rate helped offset the decrease in strikeouts, allowing Valverde to convert 35 of a possible 40 save opportunities.
The 2012 postseason proved disastrous for Valverde. After saving Game 1 of the ALDS, he was called upon again in Game 4 to preserve a 3-1 lead against the Oakland Athletics. He promptly gave up a single to Josh Reddick followed by doubles to Josh Donaldson and Seth Smith before recording an out. A two-out single to Coco Crisp ended the game in walk-off fashion. While the Tigers went on to win the series in 5 games, his performance marked the beginning of a sharp decline for Valverde.
In Game 1 of the ALCS, Valverde was handed a four-run lead in the 9th inning. Two-run home runs from Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez chased him from the game, which the Tigers later rallied to win on their way to a sweep of the Yankees. Verlander made one final appearance in the 2012 postseason, pitching in the 7th inning of Game 1 of the World Series against the San Francisco Giants. After giving up four consecutive hits and allowing two runs to score, he was removed from the game and was not used again for the remainder of the series.
In 2013, Valverde signed a minor league deal with the Tigers in an attempt to earn another shot at closing for Detroit. He was brought up to close games again in May of that year, and briefly held the job before going through a stretch of giving up six home runs in eight appearances. During this stretch he allowed 11 runs in just 7⅔ innings, the worst of which came during his final appearance against Baltimore in which he allowed four earned runs to score on just 10 pitches. After this game, he was put through waivers and designated for assignment to Triple-A Toledo. He was then released in early August.
Over this offseason, the Mets signed Valverde to a minor league deal, with incentives for games played if he made the big league club, to add veteran depth to their much maligned bullpen. During spring training, Valverde struck out seven and walked two, while giving up 10 hits and six runs (four earned) in 10⅔ innings. He gave up hits at an alarming rate of 8.82 per nine during the spring, which was significantly higher than his career average of 6.48. Moreover, his spring strikeout rate of 6.21 per nine innings was well below his career average of 9.90. These declines, in conjunction with his disastrous 2013 postseason performance, are somewhat troubling. His walk rate during spring training was only 1.7 per nine innings, though, well below his career norm of 3.74, and he did not give up any home runs.
In his appearance in the season opener, Valverde looked sharp, recording four outs including three strikeouts to set up Bobby Parnell for what ended up being a blown save. It remains to be seen whether the Mets will look for other options outside of the organization or use internal options such as Kyle Farnsworth or Vic Black should Parnell's injury prove to be season-ending and Valverde falters. For now, however, it appears the job is his to lose.