Rodney's status unlikely for opener
Manager Leyland is searching for setup options in bullpen
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Fernando Rodney took a step towards getting back into the Tigers bullpen. And manager Jim Leyland took another step towards preparing to open the season without him.
"It's unlikely that Rodney's going to be ready, in my opinion," Leyland said. "Now, is that etched in stone? No. But I would think that's unlikely. I'm not going to push that envelope until he's right. The clock's ticking. There is a possibility that he could, but I think as the minutes go by, I think that's less likely."
Rodney threw only fastballs off the mound in the Tigers bullpen in what pitching coach Chuck Hernandez called a seven-minute session. It was his first session off of a mound since early in camp, when he came up with tendinitis in his right shoulder.
"I feel very loose today," Rodney said afterwards. "I didn't try to do too much."
As long as he feels fine, Rodney will play catch on Friday before throwing another bullpen session on Saturday. That would also be just fastballs, he said.
"I know we can throw changeups," Rodney said. "I need to throw the fastball first -- command, location, everything. Maybe the third [bullpen session], we'll think about [other pitches]."
It's uncertain where Rodney's work would proceed from there, or when he would be ready for a game. The Tigers break camp two weeks from Friday and head to Houston for two exhibition games against the Astros at Minute Maid Park. They could keep Rodney back and let him work some more before rejoining the club in Detroit if they think he's close.
For now, though, there's so much uncertainty that Leyland is proceeding as if Rodney won't be ready. Considering the effect his absence creates in Detroit's bullpen, it's going to take some planning.
Rodney is expected to be the key to how the Tigers handle the loss of Joel Zumaya, who is expected to miss at least the first half of the season following offseason surgery on his right shoulder. If Rodney's ready, he would be the primary eighth-inning setup man, reprising the role he shared effectively with Zumaya in 2006 and handled in part last year when he was healthy.
Leyland and the Tigers staff were already trying to identify another pitcher who could protect leads in the seventh inning and work the eighth on the days when Rodney is off. Without Rodney, Leyland said he would handle the eighth inning by committee, mixing pitchers according to the matchups.
In that aspect, the deeper Tigers starters can work out of the gate this season, the better they'll be able to work the bullpen.
"If we can get some extra length out of our starters, I'm talking about a third or two-thirds extra length, that would really be a big help," Leyland said. "I would say that's a big factor for us, but that's a big factor for everybody."
As for who the relievers will be, Todd Jones, Bobby Seay, Tim Byrdak, Jason Grilli and Zach Miner are pretty much set. Leyland added that the Tigers have six candidates for the final opening or two, depending on Rodney's status. That includes Francisco Cruceta, who has yet to arrive from the Dominican Republic due to visa difficulties.
Leyland wouldn't go down the list by name, other than including right-hander Freddy Dolsi as a longshot candidate. The 25-year-old right-hander has only one game above Class A ball, having closed for Lakeland last season, but his combination of mid- to upper-90s fastball, hard slider and changeup have made an impression along with six innings and one run allowed before he allowed two runs in as many innings on Thursday.
"He's one of those guys that, like I said early on, there's a lot more to it than meets the eye," Leyland said. "That's good stuff. That's very, very good stuff."
More experienced arms believed to be in the mix include Denny Bautista, who has thrown eight scoreless innings with eight strikeouts in making his case. Preston Larrison, meanwhile, has allowed just one run over seven innings in his five appearances while impressing coaches with his sinker when he keeps it down. Yorman Bazardo is another option, as is Aquilino Lopez.
"We're probably going to have to make two selections. That's the way I'm looking at it right now," Leyland said. "If, by chance, Rodney gets ready, that's like a bonus. That's like a Christmas present early. But if not, I'll be prepared for it. I am prepared for it."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.