March 28, 2013 at 9:32 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers will huddle over Bruce Rondon's fate

Lakeland, Fla. We poked, we pried. We did everything but use enhanced interrogation techniques on a baseball manager. We got nowhere Wednesday as Jim Leyland thawed following a nippy afternoon of Grapefruit League baseball in Florida.

The Tigers had just lost to the Phillies, 4-1, at Joker Marchant Stadium. As proof of Florida baseball's net worth, the score was irrelevant as 10 people quizzed the Tigers manager inside his clubhouse office.

The topic was Bruce Rondon. The concern was whether Rondon had just pitched himself to Triple A Toledo after a shaky stint, spanning two-thirds of an inning, which featured a couple of hits, two walks, a balk and two stolen bases.

Leyland, relaxed and probably relieved to be out of the chill, handled questions patiently. He said Rondon's outing wasn't good, but that it wasn't "bad-bad." He offered no clue as to the fate of his 22-year-old right-hander, who during spring camp was expected to win a job as bullpen closer.

And then, as the media crowd departed, Leyland said he would be having another conversation "in about five minutes."

No names were mentioned. None were necessary. The manager would be huddling with his boss, Dave Dombrowski; with assistant GM Al Avila; and with the Tigers coaches. Anyone could guess Rondon was probably on his way to Toledo for some graduate studies in closing, although during Rondon's wild March audition, expecting the opposite has been fashionable.

What had to be remembered Wednesday, as has applied in all of the Tigers' roster decisions during a tense week in Lakeland, is that Leyland is not the final arbiter on roster spots. Dombrowski, as the team's general manager, has final say.

He does not act unilaterally. He relies on his manager completely and is probably in agreement with Leyland on 99 percent of the cases.

Dombrowski also listens to his coaches: Gene Lamont, Lloyd McClendon, Tom Brookens, Rafael Belliard, Jeff Jones and Toby Harrah.

The men arrive at a consensus, which is either stamped by Dombrowski or settled along the GM's wishes.

How it all factors into the Rondon decision, which is expected this morning, is an interesting story of front-office thinking.

Expectations high

Dombrowski decided last autumn, even before Jose Valverde crashed during the playoffs, that the Tigers would make Rondon their next closer. He would need to win the job. He could always fail. But the GM's scouting reports and his first-hand knowledge of Rondon's skills and development convinced him the kid could do it.

There would be no push to sign an expensive free agent (Rafael Soriano). There would be no re-upping with Valverde. The Tigers could take a chance on Rondon when they had enough back-end bullpen support to go with a committee closer, if necessary, as the kid matured.

And it might well have come to that.

Rondon was still alive, at least in terms of making the team, following a brilliant outing Tuesday. But the Tigers needed to see back-to-back lockdowns. Wednesday, a young pitcher with immense potential looked like a young pitcher with immense potential. He had a rough day.

Anyone familiar with Dombrowski and Leyland realizes they will not take chances on the regular season. The gamble on Rondon can be criticized, and has been.

But the Tigers are in fairly good shape with Phil Coke, Brayan Villarreal, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Al Alburquerque, Drew Smyly — and, if Rondon doesn't make it, Darin Downs — offering Leyland ample choices until Rondon does a bit more growing at Toledo.

That is, if the Tigers decide this is their group. Downs, it seems, is an easy choice to replace Rondon when Downs has been brilliant this spring (0.64 ERA in 13 games).

Downs promising

The Tigers would have cringed at sending Downs to Toledo even if Rondon had been lights-out Wednesday. But that would have been their probable decision when their surplus of starting pitchers led to Tuesday's announcement Smyly would work as the second left-hander in Leyland's bullpen.

Intrigue has been in grand supply during these past six weeks at Tigertown. The script and the bullpen characters are far from resolved. And probably what Dombrowski, the decision-maker, can feel most comfortable about today is this:

The kid Rondon is going to be something special. But, perhaps, not quite yet.

Manager Jim Leyland pulls Tigers relief pitcher Bruce Rondon on Wednesday after he gave up two runs during the seventh inning. / Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
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