AL champs' only question mark is closer role
If flame-throwing rookie Rondon falters, Leyland has other 'pen options
The Tigers' present popularity and positivity was probably best illustrated by the healthy scalping market that took place outside TigerFest at Comerica Park over the weekend. Even mere discussion about the club's upcoming 2013 season makes for a tantalizing ticket.Thing is, there's not a whole heck of a lot to discuss -– at least, not in the realm of roster debate that so often flows from the lips of fans this time of year. The Tigers, fresh off an American League title and hopeful of another World Series opportunity, have about as firm an Opening Day outlook as a club -- particularly a contending club -- can hope for two weeks before Spring Training camp. They have the enviable element of rotation overflow, which is why Rick Porcello has been dangled in the trade market. And they have a stacked lineup whose first five spots -- Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez -- might as well be written in cement. As Jim Leyland said of those first five spots, "You don't have to go to Harvard to figure that out, do you?" Nope. But as if to satisfy those in search of some spicy spring storylines, the Tigers were gracious enough to leave one major element of their roster untouched this winter: the ninth inning. And while their situation falls short of a closer conundrum, it certainly is within the realm of closer curiosity. Now, here's where you give Leyland points for positivity. He knows the questions about rookie Bruce Rondon's preparedness for the ninth will arrive in full force when the Tigers report to Lakeland, Fla., and he promises he is ready for them. "I'm excited about the Rondon situation," Leyland told reporters last week. But Leyland is no dummy. While "closer mentality" is a decidedly overrated trait, Leyland knows how a questionable closer can alter or unravel an otherwise good team. He knows the demoralizing effect of lost leads and how they make starting staffs and lineups try to do more than they are reasonably capable of. Leyland also knows that there is no way to know how Rondon's stuff will translate. It is true that closers sometimes "fall from trees," but not without some felled forestry along the way. Building a big league bullpen is easily among the game's more maddening assignments, and the assignment is made all the more challenging when such an important piece of said 'pen is so unproven. The Tigers, then, are taking a big risk in leaving a championship-caliber club so vulnerable in such an impactful area. But that's not to say they're going about this the wrong way. After all, because of the aforementioned maddening tendencies of bullpen construction, the ninth inning is the easiest area of free agency to throw good money at badly. You can certainly understand the Tigers' hesitance to part with a Draft pick (and $28 million) to sign Rafael Soriano, in particular. And Rondon is a prospect worthy of Leyland's excitement. He effortlessly reaches triple digits with his fastball, and he uses his big body to get deceptive downward action on his pitches. He saved 29 games across three Minor League levels in 2012, so at least closing out games is, to him, a familiar feeling. Rondon is worth a shot, to the extent that you have assets in-hand to insure you against his demise. And the Tigers do. Let's say Rondon isn't deemed ready in camp or flames out in April. It's entirely possible. After all, he walked more than seven batters per nine innings just two years ago and has worked all of eight innings at the Triple-A level (walking 7.9 batters per nine at that level). Leyland's excitement could quickly morph into indigestion if the kid starts routinely walking guys in the ninth. At that point, the Tigers would find themselves scrambling for other options, be they internal or external. Fortunately, they seem to be decently prepared for either route. If a trade must be made, Porcello still stands as a reasonably attractive chip -- a ground-ball specialist who could thrive with the right defensive alignment around him. And if the trade market continues to bear no fruit, you can look at the Tigers' present bullpen alignment and see a few closing candidates. If Al Alburquerque remains healthy (admittedly, a big "if"), he certainly has the strikeout stuff (13.5 strikeouts-per-nine in 56 2/3 Major League innings) to shine in the ninth. The whole ball-kissing incident in last year's AL Division Series shows us he even has a little bit of that much-hyped closer quirkiness. If the first five months of Bryan Villarreal's first full season (before he tired in September) are any indication, then he, too, might be able to handle save situations. Villarreal struck out 10.2 batters per nine and had a 2.63 ERA for the season. I'd be inclined to leave Joaquin Benoit, who was more homer-prone in 2012 than his career numbers would lead you to expect, in the setup role he's accustomed to. And I wouldn't place too much emphasis on Phil Coke's success in the closer role last October, as that was more a matter of right place, right time (or, better put, right place against the left-leaning Yankees lineup). But I would suggest that among the established arms of Benoit, Coke and Octavio Dotel and the up-and-comers in Rondon, Alburquerque and Villarreal, it is reasonable to suspect Leyland will be able to piece together the late-inning outs. The Tigers are far from a perfect team. Their infield defense, even with Omar Infante at second for a full season, remains suspect, which is why they will likely continue to look for a defensive upgrade over Jhonny Peralta at short. And we must not forget that while this was, ultimately, a World Series club last season, it was a club that endured a laborious trek to a division title in a far-from-daunting AL Central and a club that was convincingly swept by the Giants in the Fall Classic itself. But this is a club once again in prime position to claim a postseason spot, which is all that can be asked at this point. And while the closer situation is certainly a source of curiosity, it ought not do much to dampen that air of positivity surrounding the Tigers and their fans.