March 28, 2013 at 4:46 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers 'pen: No Bruce Rondon but plenty of talent, flexibility

An impressive spring earned Darin Downs a place in the Tigers' bullpen. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Lakeland, Fla. — You can all but see Jim Leyland on this Thursday at Tigertown. He is sitting in his office inside the Tigers clubhouse. He has taken a long drag from his Marlboro.

And, he has said to himself: It's over.

The Tigers manager and his boss, Dave Dombrowski, can get busy thinking about Opening Day. About a new baseball season flush with promise. Resolved, at last, is their biggest and scariest issue, even if it is nothing close to the scenario imagined when spring camp began six weeks ago.

Bruce Rondon is not the Tigers closer. Drew Smyly is not in the starting rotation.

And yet the men who have crafted, and who must oversee, this 2013 Tigers team, will head to Minnesota ahead of Monday's season-opener carrying five starters and seven bullpen arms, all of them high-quality.

If they had given one of those back-end roles to Rondon, a 22-year-old heavyweight right-hander with great power and potential, the Tigers would have been dealing with an extra roster element: anxiety.

But now, even without a designated ninth-inning fireman, Leyland has the freedom to use his bullpen in a way that could re-define the notion a contender must — must — have an everyday closer.

It has to do, principally, with Leyland's left-handed relief arsenal. He has three pitchers he can use from the left side rather than the one, Phil Coke, who only days ago was looking like a lone option.

The Tigers wanted left-handed starter Smyly to be a regular part of Leyland's rotation. But when Rick Porcello pitched brilliantly in spring camp, and when Dombrowski's trade price for Porcello wasn't met, the Tigers decided to make the best of their surplus.

They would use Smyly as their long-reliever and reserve the option of using him also in short stints. Not ideal when the Tigers want Smyly to throw multiple innings regularly, but for the time being, a net gain for the bullpen.

Darin Downs became the next happy dividend for Dombrowski and Leyland as the Rondon matter was settled.

Downs, a left-hander, has been the best and most consistent relief pitcher in camp. He has pitched in 13 games spanning 13 innings. He has an 0.64 earned-run average. He has 16 strikeouts and has allowed three walks.

Rondon, if he had made the team, would have pushed Downs to Triple A Toledo. The Tigers would have lived with the injustice as long as Rondon was proving that his high-horsepower fastball-slider repertoire was big-league ready.

But it wasn't. And so Dombrowski and Leyland, as they met with their staffs Wednesday, decided to divide and conquer.

Smyly and Downs join with Phil Coke to forge a serious left-handed bullpen troika that should mesh neatly with the team's established right-handed relievers: Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal.

It was close, very close, for Rondon. Dombrowski all but acknowledged Thursday that Rondon had made the team following Tuesday's incendiary inning against the Braves that featured Rondon in all his fury: 100-mph fastballs, heavy sliders, with two blow-torch strikeouts of hitters on the level of Justin Upton and B.J. Upton.

Rondon had essentially made the team. He needed to pass only one more test: Wednesday's assignment against the Phillies, which would prove to the Tigers that their young warhorse could handle back-to-back stints.

Rondon wobbled. It proved, once and for all, that the kid needed more time at Triple A. Likely, it won't be a long assignment for Rondon. It would be no surprise if he were back inside of a month or six weeks, bolstered and ready to assume a mission he wasn't quite able to tackle in March.

The Tigers won't fret. For now, anyway. Leyland can close games with Coke, or with Villarreal, or with Dotel or Alburquerque. It doesn't mean the Tigers will win all of those games. A couple of blown saves will unsettle a team that today looks as if it can handle this interlude between spring camp and a point when Rondon is ready for regular ninth-inning work.

But the Tigers should survive. And in an ironic way it should prove that all the spring-camp sweating by Dombrowski and Leyland was somewhat for naught.

They have a 12-man pitching staff that's loaded with talent and flexibility. It's not a bad way to begin a baseball season.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com@Lynn_Henning

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