DETROIT -- Bruce Rondon has received support and advice from Jose Valverde for the past couple years, but it has always been from a distance. Now that Valverde is back in the closer's role, Rondon won't likely be closing anytime soon, but he should be learning.
It's helpful to learn side by side, Rondon said through a translator.
Valverde began mentoring Rondon when he was in Minor League camp a couple years ago. Valverde would visit during Spring Trainings on occasion and provide food for some of the younger players in camp. The mentoring continued into the minor leagues.
"I've been talking to Rondon for the last few years. He's a nice kid," Valverde said. "He has a good arm. I'm so excited because now we're at the same level, me and Rondon. I think Rondon, [Octavio] Dotel, [Joaquin] Benoit, and other guys, we support [each other] a lot."
It isn't a situation Rondon envisioned back in Spring Training, when he was trying to win the closer's job and Valverde was still a free agent. But then, Rondon didn't envision getting called up to the big leagues this soon after the Tigers optioned him to Triple-A Toledo at the end of camp.
When he was sent down, Rondon said, he was told it was to get him ready for this. That's what he did, settling down his command and picking up his focus.
Valverde focused on present day in Detroit
DETROIT -- Jose Valverde on Wednesday stepped into the ballpark he called his office for three years, put on the same Tigers jersey he has worn since 2010 and headed towards the same bullpen where his eccentricities have become keenly familiar.
His return was a triumphant one, as he fired a 1-2-3 ninth inning for the save in the Tigers' 7-5 win over the Royals.
To Valverde, though, his return to Detroit is a bit of a new start. When asked if he was injured down the stretch last season, Valverde made it clear that he isn't interested in reliving the past.
"That's what everybody thinks, that something bothered me last year. No," Valverde said. "It's in the past. Good thing, bad thing, last year's over. I have to do what I have to do here this year."
So, too, is his Minor League stint in Florida to get him ready.
"I did my Spring Training over there," Valverde said. "I have to do it better here."
Valverde admittedly wasn't sure he would get up to the Majors this quickly. The original plan, he said, was for him to get a week or two at Triple-A Toledo to work his way in. The way he looked and felt after back-to-back outings at Class A Lakeland, though, all Valverde felt he needed was one more outing there and he would be ready to go.
A day later, Valverde was on a flight to Detroit, where he signed a one-year deal with $2 million guaranteed and up to $3 million possible in incentives.
It came six months after Valverde seemingly said farewell to Comerica Park for the last time after the World Series. The Tigers told him at that point they did not plan on re-signing him.
"I was never thinking anything bad," Valverde said. "I know there's a lot of teams out there I could be signing [for], but I'm here for the Tigers again. I've been working in the Dominican, working in Lakeland [Fla.] and doing everything."
Pitching-wise, Valverde is giving every impression he is better than last year. His fastball, he said, is hitting 96-97 mph, a tick up from scouting reports. He's throwing his splitter with regularity now, as well as a sinker.
"I have split-finger, both sides, for left-handers and right-handers. And I have my sinker," Valverde said. "Everything's working."
After throwing fastballs with more than four out of every five pitches in 2012, Valverde believes he now has a full arsenal to throw at hitters. Moreover, he knows he has to do it. The splitter, he indicated, was the big thing missing from his game last year.
"I've been closing for almost 10 years in the big leagues," Valverde said, "and I know exactly what I have to do. I have to be able to throw strikes and throw my sinker and my split, everything."
Maybe to emphasize the difference, Valverde has changed his look. Instead of the fiery orange beard he adopted last year, he has gone halfway with his chin hair. The right side is bleach blond, the left side dark and untouched.
"It's something different," Valverde said. "Everybody see me last year, I had a blond [pony tail] behind my head. It's not something big, something crazy. It's something different."
Benoit likes set up in Tigers' bullpen
DETROIT -- Joaquin Benoit said it in Spring Training, and he said it again when the season opened: A bullpen by committee is very difficult to maintain, because it leaves a lot of uncertainty for relievers and how and when to prepare.
The restoration of certainty in the Tigers' bullpen roles meant the removal of Joaquin Benoit from the closer's job. Still, he wasn't complaining about the return of Jose Valverde.
"It makes it easy on me," Benoit said, "and hopefully it makes it easy on everybody else."
With bullpen by committee, a leadoff man on base usually meant two or more relievers in an inning. With role-based relief, Benoit said, it's easier.
Benoit's time as the preferred closer lasted about two weeks, but he only got one save out of it, having finished the 14-inning win in Seattle last Wednesday, when Justin Smoak was thrown out at home plate. In that sense, it isn't much of an adjustment for him at all.
"There was one game to close," he said. "Even when Papa lost two weeks [last year], there wasn't a save opportunity those two weeks."
Manager Jim Leyland gave every indication that with a closer set now, the previous roles will be restored. Thus, Benoit should be back in the eighth-inning setup role he has manned since 2011 and handled twice in the season-opening series at Minnesota for matchups before being slotted more towards the ninth.
With Phil Coke and Darin Downs slotting into more traditional left-handed roles in occasion, and Bruce Rondon and Drew Smyly available for middle relief, Benoit likes the mix.
"When you have a bullpen like that, you can smile," Leyland said.
Below designated to free up roster spot
DETROIT -- Though the Tigers sent down Brayan Villarreal on Tuesday night to open a 25-man roster spot for Jose Valverde, they still had to find room on the 40-man roster. Whether or not one believes that Duane Below deserved to be dropped, he's somebody the Tigers had to believe stands a reasonable chance of sneaking through waivers.
Thus, Below was the one designated for assignment. The Tigers have 10 days to either trade Below, release him, or outright his contract to Triple-A Toledo. For an outright to happen, he'll have to clear waivers unclaimed.
The 27-year-old Below has bounced back from a miserable Spring Training to put up four quality starts in as many chances at Toledo. His 1-2 record belies his 2.10 ERA and 15 hits allowed over 25 2/3 innings. He has walked four and struck out 15.
An outright assignment wouldn't rule out a return to Detroit for Below. The Tigers would simply have to purchase his contract and open up a 40-man roster spot to do it.
Dombrowski doesn't see universal DH soon
DETROIT -- The potential for the designated hitter becoming universal in both leagues has become a hot topic the past couple weeks as writers and officials debate the sustainability of constant Interleague Play with different rules for different leagues. Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, however, doesn't see a change coming anytime soon.
Dombrowski took the question during a session with members of the Detroit Economic Club. The Tigers had their annual luncheon with the group on Wednesday.
"I don't think we're very close at this point," Dombrowski said. "The National League clubs still are not in support of it in whole."
At that point, Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez let out an audible groan from the audience.
"Sorry, Victor," Dombrowski said with a smile.
By the time Martinez's son, Victor Jose, is old enough for the big leagues, Dombrowski joked, they might have it.
"But I don't think we're close at this point," Dombrowski said. "But as we play more of these type of Interleague games and play the number that we do, I wouldn't be surprised if it gets brought up more and more."
Tigers players, manager Jim Leyland and his coaching staff joined Dombrowski and Chris Ilitch, president of Ilitch Holdings, for the annual gathering.