In addition to those position players fighting for jobs on the Tigers big-league squad this season, we have a big bundle of relievers vying for spots. The closer role is open for the taking, whether or not you consider prospect Bruce Rondon to be the frontrunner, but even assuming that Phil Coke, Octavio Dote, Joaquin Benoit, Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal all escape camp without injury there will still be another non-closer spot up for grabs.
The Tigers have now played 9 games in total – following today’s split squad split-decision. If we take a look at today’s box score, it looks like Rondon is settling in and solidifying his case with a two-K, no-walk scoreless inning. Oh, wait, hold on… wrong Rondon. That Rondon is some Yankees farmhand… our Rondon didn’t pitch today. He has been drawing rave reviews for his pure stuff, but he has also walked 4 in fewer than three innings. I’d assume that if Rondon does not get the closer job, he’s not going to make the team at all, and it’s going to be because the Tigers brass is uncomfortable giving the job to a guy that walks a batter an inning.
You could say that Drew Smyly is one of those Tiger job-seekers, but I’m not sure how much he can really do to make something happen on his own. Dombrowski seems uninterested in holding him as a reliever over developmental concerns and he isn’t likely to deal Rick Porcello unless he can fetch a good price – he’d be better off trying to deal him at the deadline if at all. I’d say – despite the big discrepancy in their ERAs – that in two spring starts both Smyly and Porcello have been pretty good. Porcello has been getting Ks on breaking stuff, but he did give up that one home run. I just don’t think that Smyly being a tad better than Porcello is going to make mountains move – unless, I suppose, Porcello was just so bad that DD decided to cut bait and sell him for a song.
None of the 5 Tiger known quantities (as listed above) have done anything to hurt their chances of making the team or to knock themselves out of the running for the closer role should Dombrowski give up on the whole Rondon idea. As a unit, they have thrown 15 innings and allowed 3 runs with 14 K’s and 5 walks. Regardless of what happens role assignment, Tigers fans have to like the look of the bullpen as a unit with these guys returning. Coke – it has seemed to me – is the guy who wants to be closer most, so he bears keeping the closest eye on.
If Rondon does win the job (and he’s probably still the odd’s on favorite) the last spot in the ‘pen is almost certain to go to a lefty. But… there is still an awful lot of competition for that spot: Darin Downs, Duane Below and rule 5 pick Kyle Lobstein would have been the favorites going in, but really anybody who got an invite to camp could win that spot like Ryan Robowski or Jose Alvarez or Kenny Faulk. Even Casey Crosby, though the Tigers are not an organization that likes to move starters to the ‘pen. I’d say that prior to the first exhibition game, you’d probably have put money on Lobstein solely due to the fact that the team would lose him if he was left off the roster. After 3 appearances and a 9.53 ERA, Lobstein is going to have to make up ground fast to avoid being sent back from whence he came. Below has suffered through a couple of meltdowns already and needs to do the same, though frankly he may not get the same chances Lobstein does. Downs has allowed only 2 baserunners in four innings and should probably be considered the sole front-runner to be second lefty. The Tigers best option for the role – as far as talent and whatnot – is probably Smyly, but if they don’t want to do that to him they don’t want to do that to him.
If Rondon doesn’t win the job, basically anybody could still make it onto that bullpen – particularly if Rondon sent to Toledo to work on mechanical consistency or whatnot. It could be that Dombrowski would then look for options outside the organization, but he might just hand the 9th innning role over to Phil Coke, or Al Alburquerque or a semi-official committee. If one of the righties is named sole closer, there might be a vacancy for a righty in the ‘pen who would otherwise be blocked. Of the many guys who would like such a job, two have stood out so far: Luis Marte (0.00 ERA, 0.80 WHIP) and Luke Putkonen (2.25 ERA, 5 K/BB). So far non-roster guys Trevor Bell (5.79 ERA) and Shawn Hill (9.00 ERA) haven’t done themselves any favors as far as that potential opening is concerned nor have prospects Michael Morrison and Melvin Mercedes. If Coke were to win the closer’s job outright the team would likely be looking for another lefty (though that isn’t a certainty) past Downs.