Tigers manager Jim Leyland is uneasy about pitching Al Alburquerque on consecutive days because of the fragility of Alburquerque's right arm. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)
Lakeland, Fla. — By sheer numbers alone, Al Alburquerque probably is the Tigers reliever most qualified to be closer — should Bruce Rondon not pan out to start this season.
Alburquerque has electric stuff, and gives up hits about as often as a pope resigns.
So why not slot him right into the ninth inning, as many Tigers fans suggest?
It's not that simple, and here's why: durability.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland understandably is very uneasy about pitching Alburquerque on consecutive days, because of the fragility of that talented right arm. And closers typically need to be available as often as 7-Eleven.
Todd Jones. Fernando Rodney. Jose Valverde. For better or worse, those guys could take the ball one game after another. If it was a save situation, you know they'd be in there.
But Alburquerque isn't of that mold, and it's perhaps all because of his lethal weapon.
The right-hander has a slider so wicked, he can hang it right down the middle — and still get a steady stream of swings and misses. That said, that pitch, which he probably throws as much or more than his mid-90s fastball, is chucked toward home with a violent delivery. And the result is loads of stress on his elbow and shoulder.
Remember, Alburquerque, 26, missed most of last season after undergoing elbow surgery. Nobody would be surprised if he goes under the knife again someday.
The Tigers and Leyland are well aware of all the concerns. That's why outside one or two quick mentions during the team's statewide publicity tour, the Tigers shied away from talking about him being a serious, full-time closing option. They've talked about Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke and of course Rondon. But Alburquerque, not so much. (For that matter, there was similar silence in regard to Brayan Villarreal.)
Alburquerque didn't pitch on consecutive days at all during his injury-shortened 2012 season, and only one time did he pitch more than once in a three-day span.
The season before, before the elbow surgery, he pitched five times on back-to-back days. For comparison's sake, Benoit did that more than twice as much. So the Tigers have a history of proceeding with caution here.
"How much can you abuse an Alburquerque?" Leyland said before Wednesday's game, in which Alburquerque pitched one inning, striking out two and walking two. "You gotta be careful."
The Tigers, certainly, have a big-time weapon in Alburquerque, who, in 56.2 major league innings has allowed 27 hits while striking out 85. And if Detroit does indeed go closer-by-committee, which today is the best bet — and that should remain the case until a trade is announced — he'll be squarely in the mix.
If they need a big out or two or three, he's an easy choice for Leyland.
Just not if he pitched the day before.