Valerde was released from the Mets in May last year, after putting up a 5.66 ERA in 21 games. He did not work in baseball again last year.
So why would the Padres, trying to put together a championship-caliber team, sign the aging Dominican, who is clearly past his prime?
On the surface, this signing stinks. Valerde appeared washed up when thrust into the Mets’ closer role on the second day of the season last year, after Bobby Parnell was lost for the season with a torn UCL. He lost the closer’s role by the end of April, and after taking the loss in a late-May game to the Pirates, he was released. Final line for the season, 21 games, 1-1 record, 2 saves, 2 blown saves, 5.66 ERA, 23 Ks, 10 walks.
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And that was after putting up a 5.59 ERA in 2013.
At 36, that spells washed up.
So, no, it doesn’t appear that signing Valverde is going to put the Padres over the top this year; he is not likely to be the missing piece they have been looking for.
But Valverde has a quality that makes me like this signing.
He has talent. A.J. Preller likes guys with talent. Kemp. Upton. Myers. Norris. Middlebrooks. Kelley. Maurer. All of these guys are talented, gifted with speed or power or the ability to read pitches well or or throw blazing fastballs. Valverde has enough talent to be a good big-league closer for many years, to lead the league in saves three times, to go 49-for-49 in save opportunities for a playoff team.
Why is talent important?
The Padres organization has been filled with position players with average talent for a long time. They’ve had guys who made it to the majors because they were scrappy, because they had one or two average skills and the Padres hoped they could develop, or, more often than not, simply because they were the best players in the organization at their position. There’s a reason Bud Black is a platoon manager. He hasn’t had guys talented enough to hit from both sides of the plate. And there’s a difference between average-talent guys and high-talent guys.
High-talent guys are used to success. They have a winner’s mentality. Make no mistake, all guys who make the major leagues have had their share of failures, and have fought through them. But big-talent guys expect to succeed. They expect bad streaks to stop. They expect to win.
Talent brings with it a winning mindset.
Contrast that with the Padres of the last several years. Chase Headley. Will Venable. Nick Hundley. This has been a team of average-talent players. Average-talent players doubt themselves through hitless streaks. They press to try to get things going. They know that they do not have the natural advantage of the high-talent players. Because hard work has gotten them as far as it has, they are more likely to view bad stretches as failures on their part. And in a game where playing relaxed is so important, that mentality works against them.
And when an entire team is going through that, you can end up with with a pretty bad situation in the clubhouse. And a lot of losing on the field.
In organizations used to losing, players like Valverde, Kemp, and Upton bring a different mindset, a winning mindset, to the clubhouse. They become clubhouse leaders. They help bring about an organizational change in attitude.
Valverde will be a cheap signing. Last year, he signed with the Mets for a million bucks. Maybe he gets that again this year from the Padres, maybe less. It’s a low-risk, potentially high-reward signing. Like Josh Johnson. And Valverde may not even make the major league roster. The Padres’ bullpen was pretty successful last year, and they have already added the big, talented arms of Shawn Kelley and Brandon Maurer this offseason. Valverde may start off in Triple-A, working to regain the success he has experienced over the last decade and a half.
But whether he ends up in San Diego or El Paso, his talent, and the winning mentality that comes with it, will help turn around an organization that has accepted losing for far too long.