March 9, 2013 at 5:43 pm

Lynn Henning

Closer is only story line on otherwise sound Tigers team

Lakeland, Fla. -- What are you doing April 1?

Perhaps watching a baseball game? From a place called Target Field that the Twins and Tigers hope is at least clear of snow by the time Opening Day's first pitch is tossed?

And what do students of Detroit's baseball team foresee as they note Jim Leyland's gang is three weeks from pulling spring camp's stakes ahead of that flight to Minneapolis?

The Tigers have gotten lost this week in the necessary obsession with closer Bruce Rondon, whose virtual make-it-or-break-it appearance Friday at least bought himself and Detroit time as they nervously deal with the team's only serious issue.

That's right. The closer is at the moment about as close to a weak link as the Tigers feature.

Closer could have 60 saves

Scott Boras knows it. Baseball's favorite agent mentioned during a conversation earlier this week that whoever closes for the Tigers is likely to have a shot at 60 saves.

He might be right. The Tigers have incredibly solid starting pitching. They have quality bullpen help apart from the white-knuckle matter of who will close.

And, maybe most important for a team that had constant trouble on offense in 2012, the Tigers have two more star hitters in Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter. Factor in the typical team's usual surprise on the plus and on the negative sides, and this team could score 100 more runs than it did a year ago.

The Tigers know this. Dave Dombrowski, the team's architect, understands it. So does Leyland, a manager who probably had a hunch the Rondon journey might be more than bumpy as his club's ninth-inning options evolved.

That's what these final three weeks in Florida will be all about. A team will determine if a 22-year-old kid can, as Boras reminds everyone, become the first closer so young to usher a team to a championship.

If the Tigers can somehow bank on Rondon to finish games with reasonable success, they can get greedy. They can trade Rick Porcello for a better player at another position, which ideally would happen at shortstop, the one area of infield defense and offense the Tigers can reasonably hope to address.

Boras: Mentor needed

But that depends upon Rondon branding Porcello as something other than trade bait for a closer. Three weeks isn't a lot of time for Rondon to harness the strike zone with consistency and to trust secondary pitches that weren't on display in Friday's 15-pitch outing against some weak Mets hitters.

Boras makes a good point. Almost all modern-day closers have had mentors who helped them with the transition from kid talents to trustworthy ninth-inning firemen.

Jonathan Papelbon. Billy Wagner. Joe Nathan. Trevor Hoffman. On and on and on.

He wants the Tigers to sign his client, Jose Valverde, to a one-year deal that would help ease Rondon's transition and provide the 100-mph man with on-the-job counsel.

The Tigers appear uninterested. They believe Valverde was coming apart even before his October meltdown that nearly turned a long playoff run into a one-week cameo.

And so there's your issue. There is your debate. There is your matter to yet be resolved during these final 21 days of spring camp.

This Tigers team is much better than the 2012 version. It's potentially 10 games better.

Unless, of course, something bad happens: a long-term injury, or (shudder) a team giving away games it otherwise has won.

For now, enjoy the drama. It will be flavoring Lakeland's otherwise staid scene for the next three weeks.

Tigers catcher Alex Avila talks with rookie and closer hopeful Bruce Rondon during an outing last week. The team's lack of a viable closer is the only thing the team has had to fret about this spring. / Robin Buckson/Detroit News
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