So who is the Tigers’ new closer? Excellent question. And we’ll all probably be asking it all spring, so get used to it.
You may have read someplace that rookie smokeballing machine Bruce Rondon would have to unravel beneath the palm trees to lose this job. But if that’s the deal, either nobody has told his manager that, or the manager just isn’t ready to say that -- and may never be.
Asked Thursday if this was Rondon’s job to lose this spring, Jim Leyland’s succinct reply was “No.”
Asked if it was anyone’s job to lose, the answer again was a terse “No.”
“I’m going to look at all my options,” the manager said. “And at some point I’ll make a decision. Hopefully, we’ll have a lead Opening Day and you’ll see somebody pitching.”
And that, Leyland said, very well might be the first time anyone outside the Tigers clubhouse has any real feel for who will be pitching the ninth inning this year. Seriously.
“I doubt very much there’ll be anybody anointed out of spring training as the closer,” he said. “Is it a possibility? Yes. But it’s really a front-burner thing that’s on the back burner.”
Now if you’ve studied your Leyland-ese over the years, you might actually understand how that’s possible. But if you haven’t, here’s how he means that: Yes, he got the memo that his team’s one significant hole is finding somebody who can get the last three outs. So winning the games this team is supposed to win is a big deal for a club with win-the-World Series ambitions. That’s where the front burner comes in.
On the other hand, much as the folks in charge would love to see a 22-year-old kid who throws 102 mph win this job, the manager isn’t ready to stamp “CLOSER” on the forehead of a kid who has gotten a total of 24 outs above Double-A. Hence, the label is on the back burner -- not the job itself. Got it?
“I’m not going to put that kind of pressure on the kid, that you have to win this job,” Leyland said. “I just want to see this kid throw. I know I’ve got guys who can close games.”
So the manager will run spring training just the way he always has. The "kid" will get his chance -- to pitch, to impress and even to close. But so will a bunch of other guys who have been there and done that closer thing, at least from time to time, through the years -- particularly Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit and Phil Coke, who became this team’s emergency closer in October when Jose Valverde imploded.
That’s the field, for the most part. But don’t ask Leyland to handicap the field. Not on Valentine’s Day. And maybe not even on Opening Day.
“I’ve talked about this for a few days, and I don’t mind talking about it,” Leyland said. “But I will not get into a day-by-day ‘Does somebody have an edge as the closer?’ I’m not going to do that. We’ll see how it plays out. I feel comfortable with Coke, Benoit, Dotel, [Al] Alburquerque. I think that all those guys can close a game at some point. But whether any of them could do it on a consistent basis, I don’t know the answer to that just yet.”
And what happens if and when Leyland does know the answer? Well, he’ll be telling us that answer when he points to the bullpen, not by stepping to the microphone. He made that clearer than ever Thursday.