Jim Leyland has a lot of options to ponder before the season begins. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)
Lakeland, Fla. — The Tigers leave Florida a week from Saturday. They still have major issues to decide.
And they will be decided. Here's how they could turn out.
If I were Jim Leyland, I would have a closer, obviously, but not name a closer.
Huh? Here's the explanation.
What good would it be, when so much of the focus of spring training has been concentrated on NOT heaping pressure on Bruce Rondon, to get to the beginning of the season and suddenly crown him with fanfare as the closer?
That would not be in keeping with how the Tigers have handled it so far, including recently when Leyland turned to reporters on the road and said, "You guys have to get off this closer kick."
Get off the closer kick? That's not going to happen until someone actually gets it done.
But if I were Jim Leyland, this is what I would do: I'd make Rondon my closer, but leave spring training saying he has only made the team.
Writers will see through that. Rondon won't be on the team as a middle reliever, but he also won't be mobbed with microphones until after he either converts or doesn't convert his first save situation.
Even then, Leyland might say, "We have a lot of closer candidates. It was his turn today."
Look, Rondon is going to get a shot to be this team's closer. I have no doubt about that. And it looks like he has both the equipment and correct mental approach to get it done.
What the Tigers don't want, however, is for him to have to gulp down his anticipation before his first save situation and have a bunch of time to dwell on it in advance.
They're not going to name him their closer. He's just going to become their closer (or not) by how he handles the opportunities he's going to get.
It's smart. It's low-key, and I believe it's the reason Leyland told us to get off the kick.
Uh-oh, and I mean UH-OH.
If I were Jim Leyland, that's what I would be saying.
I like Andy Dirks as a player. I like him as a hitter, I like him as an outfielder who busts his butt in left, but he's a guy who dives, who collides, who leaps, who comes up dirty.
He's going to beat himself up out there, as he did Tuesday when he banged a knee against a wall at Joker Marchant Stadium. Dirks limped back to his position, and left the game when a pinch-hitter appeared for him in his next at-bat
He's day to day.
But that's Dirks. He plays hard. It's one of the reasons why the Tigers, and probably you, too, like him as a ballplayer. His .322 batting average last year might be a reason, too. Ya think?
The Tigers will need a right-handed hitter in left, however, more than they perhaps want — more than they would program, in fact, into their perfect plans.
It's a role that probably won't go to Matt Tuiasosopo and shouldn't go to an unproven Rule 5 guy such as Jeff Kobernus, who has proven absolutely nothing at the major-league level.
This is a 200 at-bat role that needs to be occupied by someone who has played out there before, a right-handed hitter with a track record more extensive than any candidate on the Tigers can offer.
They don't have that guy, though. They're in a bind — which is why, if I'm Jim Leyland, I'm muttering an inaudible, but probably profane "uh-oh"
Kobernus gives the Tigers speed on the bench. That's good. He's athletic and plays hard. But the Tigers are a $150 million ballclub that truly believes it can win this year.
With a Rule 5 converted second baseman occasionally in left, though? Look around, Tigers. Someone suitable could become available near the end of camp.
If I'm Jim Leyland, I'm not saying, "Heads, it's Porcello; tails, it's Smyly."
This has been a close competition for the fifth spot. But in the end, if I'm Jim Leyland — and despite really wanting a lefty in the rotation — I turn to Porcello and say, "It's still yours."
Why? Because he hasn't done anything this spring to lose the spot. On the contrary, he has done everything to keep it.
Plus, Smyly will be more useful in the bullpen than Porcello until he's needed in the rotation.
Ailments happen, you know. Starters say "ouch" once in a while — and another one will be needed during the course of the season, maybe more than one, thus requiring a dip into the minor-league ranks.
The Tigers like their 1-6 starters. They're not sure of seven and beyond.
So if I'm Jim Leyland, I'm saying to the front office, "Don't trade Porcello, because it doesn't leave me with much of a safety net."
Then I tell Porcello when he'll be starting — and I put the coin away.