Valverde arrives in spring training

February 16, 2008 2:53:29 PM PST
Jose Valverde was all smiles when he arrived at Houston Astros spring training on Saturday, one day after losing his salary arbitration case with the team. The 28-year-old closer asked for $6.2 million and will get $4.7 million this season, still more than doubling his salary from last year with Arizona, when he led the majors with 47 saves.

He set aside any bitterness when he donned his Astros uniform for the first time.

"I was supposed to get this money, you know what I mean?" Valverde said. "But this is over. We're ready."

Valverde was traded to Houston in mid-December for infielder Chris Burke and pitchers Juan Gutierrez and Chad Qualls. The Astros needed a closer after trading inconsistent Brad Lidge to Philadelphia in November.

Valverde wasn't happy with the trade when it happened, but he made friends fast in his new clubhouse on Saturday morning, gravitating toward the other Spanish-speaking pitchers.

"Right now, I see all my guys and it's like my first day to play baseball," he said. "There's nice guys over here, and I'm happy to be here."

He sat down with manager Cecil Cooper before his initial practice and made a good first impression on the field -- even after hurling one of his first warm-up pitches over a 10-foot fence behind the bullpen. Valverde threw for about 15 minutes, with Cooper and pitching coach Dewey Robinson watching him closely.

"He was very successful last year and we anticipate him being the same this year," Cooper said. "He'll get the ball in those situations. He's the man and I am very confident he will take the ball and do it."

Finishing games has been a major issue for the Astros since the end of the 2005 season. Lidge saved 42 games that season, but he'll always be remembered for giving up Albert Pujols' three-run homer in Game 5 of the NLCS. Lidge blew six saves in 2006 and had eight of the Astros' 25 blown saves last season.

Astros ace Roy Oswalt was often victimized by the bullpen's inability to finish last year and he's optimistic that Valverde will cure the problem.

"We needed the type of guy who could come in and shut the door in the ninth inning," Oswalt said. "It's heartbreaking to lose games in the ninth when you've been winning them for the first eight. Hopefully, he'll come in and do the job for us."

Valverde, an imposing presence at 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, is known for showing volatile, fist-pumping emotion on the mound and Cooper said his excitable nature will be a welcome addition to the mild-mannered Astros clubhouse.

"I have no problem with that, none whatsoever," Cooper said. "You can't go out and be just ho-hum. You have to get excited when you do things like that. I want him to be able to do that. I don't want him cutting back. I want him to be himself."

The even-keeled Oswalt doesn't mind a fiery teammate, as long as he knows when to shut it off.

"You have to pick your spots," Oswalt said. "I like it after a game, when he saves a game. Overall, it's going to be a great add to us."

Valverde said he's often misunderstood because people assume his on-field demeanor matches his personality off it.

"Somebody said, I don't know who it is, he said, 'My attitude is no good,"' Valverde said. "When I pitch, my eyes and my hair sometimes are different. But when the game's over, I'm a nice person.

"(On the field), I don't want to be nice," he said. "When you're nice on the mound, everybody gets home runs and other stuff. I want to focus, and if I want to celebrate, sometimes I do it. This is my game."

But who says he doesn't have a soft spot? His wife, Luisa, and their 11-month-old daughter regularly traveled with him on road trips last season and they'll do it again this year.

Valverde said having them close provides an emotional balance that makes him a better pitcher.

"I have to do it," he said. "When I bring my family, I stay in the room. I know not every player stays in the room, but I want to stay in the room and enjoy my little girl.

"I don't want to miss one second from my baby. When my baby laughs and walk or breaks something, I want to be over there."

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