March 18, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers brass sorting out the roster as Opening Day looms

Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, left, pictured with manager Jim Leyland, will trade Rick Porcello if his heavy asking price is met. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)

Lakeland, Fla. -- You could all but see calendar pages turn as Jim Leyland sat at his office desk, burrowing into a hamburger, following Sunday's game at Joker Marchant Stadium.

Two weeks until Opening Day. A final roster has to be decided. And the pressure is building not only on players scrambling for jobs but on the men deciding who fits and who doesn't ahead of Detroit's first three games at Minnesota.

"I feel good," Leyland insisted. "We're OK."

But a gent charged with prepping a team for six months and 162 games also said, "I saw some things I didn't like too well," and here he was talking about relief pitchers who Sunday practiced a few innings of unlicensed butchery in a messy, 12-10 loss to the Nationals.

Leyland has a checklist in place for spring camp's final two weeks. Area by area, his roster decisions — and his concerns — are taking shape for all to see.

They likely fall along these categorical lines:

Starting pitching

The Tigers have time to decide on a fifth starter. They probably need every minute. Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers front-office boss, will trade Rick Porcello if his heavy asking price is met.

Otherwise, the Tigers probably will send Drew Smyly to Triple A Toledo and wait for health issues or trade partners to dictate how that extra starter can best be utilized.

Starting pitching still is the No. 1 reason opposing teams fear the Tigers. It's the basic argument by national analysts who view Detroit as a percentage pick to play in another World Series. Starters are Dombrowski's and Leyland's recipe for a sound night's sleep.

Bullpen

Leyland was asked if he could write off Sunday's debacle as easily as he shrugs off a Grapefruit League shutout, which is what the Tigers put together Saturday.

"I agree with that 100 percent," he said before moving into his "things I did not like" qualifier after Duane Below, Phil Coke, Al Alburquerque and others helped treat the Nationals to 16 hits and five walks.

What cheers Leyland is the sheer number of quality arms in his relief corps. Bruce Rondon's progress the past 10 days is particularly buoying to a manager who needs, eventually, a regular closer.

But relief pitchers are notoriously unpredictable. Sunday's game was Exhibit A in how easily a game can get away from a good team if its bullpen crew isn't clicking. Alburquerque walked three batters in two-thirds of an inning. Coke gave up four hits in a single inning. Below, whose left arm is important to this team's Triple A pitching depth, has a 12.38 earned-run average.

Leyland has no clear choice as a long reliever. There is no way the Tigers can get by without one. But if they take a long man, they cannot carry the six relievers Leyland ideally would prefer to take north, which for now includes a second left-hander, Darin Downs.

This is why the Tigers brass can legitimately fret 12 days before the team heads for Minneapolis. Bullpen problems could emerge for the simple reason relief pitching is fragile and capricious.

Infield

Not a lot of mystery here. Ramon Santiago has a $2.1 million contract for 2013. Unless traded, he probably gets the call ahead of Danny Worth (two errors Sunday at shortstop), who has a minor league option. Otherwise, the starters are set.

Outfield

Jeff Kobernus, the Rule 5 pick, has looked for most of camp like a good bet to make the team. He has speed and can play infield and outfield. But Matt Tuiasosopo has changed the landscape because of his sudden power surge (three homers in his last five games).

Tuiasosopo, 26, is a former third-round pick (Mariners) who can play infield and outfield. He has a right-handed bat the Tigers liked when they signed him to a minor league deal. He has a minor league career OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .754. Stay tuned.

Don Kelly appears to have the other bench job locked up. Quintin Berry is hamstrung because of his left-handed bat and limited flexibility. That should leave Kobernus and Tuiasosopo to settle matters for a final bench spot.

Those last roster spots are an issue that should clarify ahead of the team charter boarding for Minneapolis. The bullpen is more entangled. Dombrowski and Leyland have some decisions to make. It would help if Sunday's collapse was one of those typical, one-day Grapefruit League mishaps.

But remember those operative numbers: seven relief pitchers, one of which is obliged to be a long reliever.

Dombrowski and Leyland are only too glad the season doesn't begin until April.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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