Someone will close for Tigers, they just don't know who
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers are close to being a perfect baseball team.
"There are no perfect teams," manager Jim Leyland offered.
He's right, and just because a team might look perfect in March doesn't mean it's going to be perfect six months from now.
Still, Leyland's team is striking because it seems dominant in most areas. Rotation. Lineup. Leadership.
Now about the bullpen. It has depth, plenty of it, and lively young arms -- Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal and others. Leyland has one quality left-hander in Phil Coke, and another might emerge by Opening Day.
All that said, there's just one teensy question about these Tigers (and why do we always focus on the negative?).
They don't have a proven closer.
Detroit has all kinds of depth, but no one who has shown he can get the final three outs of a game. With so few questions in other areas, with Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, the lack of a closer has become a popular Spring Training question about the Tigers.
Frankly, there are days when Leyland has, you know, answered enough questions about something that hasn't yet been figured out. The issue may not keep the Tigers from a third straight postseason appearance, but it has the potential to be significant because it could dramatically impact everything that happens after the fifth or sixth inning of games.
It could end up forcing Leyland to get another out or two from his starters, and while that doesn't seem like a big deal, those extra batters in June and July can take their toll in October.
Leyland knows that some people believe the solution is as simple as taking one of his best relievers -- Alburquerque, for instance -- and making him the closer. But it doesn't work that way, because pitching the ninth inning isn't the same as pitching the seventh or eighth.
There's something about going out there with no safety net and the game on the line that rattles some people. Some pitchers -- Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Craig Kimbrel -- thrive when the game is on their shoulders. Others are lights-out in the seventh or eighth but not nearly as good in the ninth.
"It's a sacred job," Leyland said. "Let's put it that way. To get outs 25, 26, 27 is pretty valuable when you're supposed to win something. Some guys can do it and some guys can't. You never really know for sure who can or can't do it. You don't know until you put guys in that situation. Yeah, it's a big piece. No question about that."
The Tigers had veteran Jose Valverde in that role last season. Once upon a time, he was one of the best. Valverde struggled badly down the stretch, and Leyland ended up using Coke for a chunk of the postseason.
This offseason, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski decided to look at 22-year-old Bruce Rondon, who began last season at Class A. His fastball has been clocked at 100 mph. Yes, you read that right -- 100 mph.
In 53 innings in 2012, Rondon had 26 walks, 66 strikeouts and a 1.53 ERA. He was so overpowering that Dombrowski thinks he might make a successful jump all the way to the Major Leagues in 2013, and Rondon pitched well in winter ball to reinforce that opinion.
And then Rondon got to Spring Training, and he seemed rattled at the beginning. He struggled with the strike zone and got hit hard at times. Rondon calmed down considerably in his past two appearances. On Friday, he threw 10 of 15 pitches for strikes and was clocked at 100 mph twice.
But the Tigers know that until Leyland begins handing Rondon the ball in April and May, it'll be impossible to know how ready he is. From the beginning, Leyland has preached patience, warning reporters about jumping on -- or off -- the Rondon bandwagon.
"Most guys were all fired up about a 100-mph fastball, blah, blah, blah," Leyland said. "Now he has gotten hit a couple of times, so now everybody is, 'Oh my God, what are you going to do for a closer?' In my position, I don't worry about that. You just have to learn to roll with the punches and not get too excited when you're the manager. We'll come up with something, and it'll be pretty good."
The Tigers are also considering their options, including possibly trading one of their starters (Rick Porcello?) for a closer.
"We'll have somebody to get the last three outs," Leyland said. "It might be two different guys on a night. It might be a lefty to get the second out of the inning and a righty to get the third out. But what people don't realize is that when you have to do it that way, the effect it has on you in the seventh inning, because you can't use that guy to get the biggest out in the seventh inning. [But] if you can't get the out in the seventh inning, the ninth don't mean spit. That's where it gets tricky."
With the bar set so high, there's little margin for error. After getting swept in the World Series and then getting Victor Martinez back from a knee injury and signing Torii Hunter, the Tigers have set the bar high.
So can they win the World Series without a proven closer?
"It's Jim Leyland's personal opinion that if you have a dominant closer, without question you're better off than if you have to go by committee," Leyland said. "That's just my opinion."
But he's convinced the Tigers will come up with something. He's just not sure what it will be.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.