Jim Leyland's Comments on Closer Role Expose Tigers' Job Still Available

Ron Juckett@ronjuckettContributor IIIMarch 4, 2013

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL - FEBRUARY 22:  Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland #10 watches the action during the game against the Atlanta Braves on February 22, 2013 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The Tigers defeated the Braves 2-1.  (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Leon Halip/Getty Images

If you were wondering if the Detroit Tigers front office was concerned about Bruce Rondon’s early audition for the closer’s role the spring, then you would be right.

In an interview with CBS Sports Radio’s TBD in the A.M. Monday morning, Tigers manager Jim Leyland addressed Rondon’s slow start and the position overall:

"I think my No. 1 concern right now is the closer's situation. I don't think you can try to hide from that—tell the people what you truly believe. I am concerned about that, there's no question about that. That's just the way it is...I am worried a little bit about that closer's situation to be honest with you, and I am a little bit concerned about the bullpen if you have to put too much stress on them.”

Even as Leyland—a couple of times—expressed an interest in re-signing former Tigers closer José Valverde (via Joel Sherman with a h/t to Hardball Talk), the front office is not that interested and Valverde chose not (via Detroit Free Press) to pitch for the Dominican Republic in this year’s World Baseball Classic.

Rondon, the highly-touted prospect that advanced from A-ball all the way to Triple-A last year, has indeed struggled with his control this spring.

In four appearances, Rondon has walked five and struck out six in 3.2 innings. He also has thrown a wild pitch, given up a home run and allowed five total hits.

His WHIP of 2.727 is nowhere near the number needed to be an effective closer.

Whether he is too keyed up, or just generally struggling with the strike zone, if the season started now, Rondon would be in Toledo, not Detroit.

In his first experience of the spring, against the Toronto Blue Jays, Rondon retired the side with two strikeouts after allowing a single and a walk. That afternoon he pitched his way out of trouble.

The record afterward indicates he has not been that lucky again.

With the World Baseball Classic underway, and with so many batters trying to get at-bats in before they are sent down to the minors, the Tigers will not have the best luck at assessing Rondon’s ability to retire major-league hitting until the last week or two of camp.

As with any potential closer, the team and the pitcher have to have confidence in his ability to do the job. A couple bad outings early in spring should not tell the whole story.

But the Tigers have pulled Rondon out of his next scheduled appearance (via Detroit News) to work on his pitching mechanics.

If this is indeed a mechanical issue, then hopefully it can be easy to sort out.

If this is a confidence and stress problem, on the other hand, then maybe a month or two in Toledo while Rondon gets his mojo back may be the best option.

If Leyland really is concerned about who pitches the ninth inning at this point, then rest assured that the Tigers are having deep internal discussions.

There are, of course, other candidates already on the team that could be given an audition to close while Rondon pitches under less stressful conditions. Anyone in that pen right now—from Phil Coke to Octavio Dotel—could win the job.

With three weeks and change before Opening Day at Target Field against the Minnesota Twins, there is still plenty of time to give Rondon a full audition for the chance to close.

What is different with Leyland’s statement, as supposed to what was said over the winter, is that Rondon may not be the guy after all to get that call in the ninth.

Whether that changes or not before the season starts will depend on what he does, and what the rest of the staff does, the rest of the way.

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