Mud Hens manager Phil Nevin on Jose Ortega: "This is my fourth year with him, and this is the best I’ve see him throw it." (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Toledo — One thing you can count on in April. Baseball teams are like spring weather. Cold one week. Warm the next. Depressing one day, exhilarating 24 hours later.
The Tigers are testaments to both baseball and meteorology. Their bullpen, for example, has been like that thermometer on your back deck. Wednesday it was rising, warmed by a three-game winning streak as Detroit waited for an evening game against the Mariners, and also by news that potential troop support is coalescing at Triple A Toledo and at Tigertown in Lakeland, Fla., where Jose Valverde's comeback tour is in swing.
The Tigers' internal reports state that Valverde is throwing his fastball in the "low to mid 90s." It means he is in a 91-94-mph range that can do the trick as long as his primary pitch is being thrown to manageable locations and, more important, as long as he is mixing in a split-finger fastball.
The Tigers say, yes, the split is there. We'll see. He's on track to pitch in games at Single A Lakeland Thursday and Friday. And while Valverde won't be attacking big-league batters, the Tigers will get a sense for where he is with the strike zone and with his repertoire.
If that goes well — still an if — he will move to Triple A Toledo for further inspection. And if he can cut it there, Valverde, the supposed Tigers exile, will return with a hop-skip from the bullpen, a spurt of water spat into the air, and to the pitcher's mound. For better or for worse.
Meanwhile, other Tigers projects and options are being groomed.
Bruce Rondon is still a decent bet to pitch in Detroit in 2013. And maybe to work as the team's closer. And maybe sooner rather than later.
"He's gonna be good — trust me," Phil Nevin, the Mud Hens manager, and a man not known for embellishment, said Tuesday. "He threw 14 of 16 pitches for strikes at one point the other night.
"He's starting to recognize things. People just need to realize how old he is (22). He's pitched three months of baseball above Single A.
"But what I like most about him is that he's got the mentality of a closer that must come with that job. He wants that ball in the ninth."
Rondon has pitched in five games at Toledo and has a 0.00 earned-run average. He has worked 5.2 innings, has allowed four hits. He has struck out seven, walked two.
His slider is fine. His four-seam fastball is rocking the radar guns. And, in a development that proves both how young he is and why is needs time at Toledo, he is now throwing a heavy, two-seam fastball that hitters won't appreciate because of its sinking flight path.
But he needs a bit more time. A couple of months would be the reasonable guess.
The arrival of either Valverde or Rondon would do wonders for a Tigers bullpen that, for now, is handling business tidily. Not a shocking development, nor is it Shangri-la if you are manager Jim Leyland. It would simply help everyone if Leyland could entrust the ninth inning to a steady, dependable fireman who would better enable him to keep relievers rested and available for earlier-inning situations.
Joaquin Benoit is for now finishing games in slick fashion. But he is also three months from 36 and must be watched because of durability concerns Tigers insiders understand fully. He can't pitch every day. Not if you want a right-hander who is perhaps the smartest pitcher on the staff to make the most of his wits — and a repertoire that doesn't have quite the sizzle it did a few years ago.
It is in sorting and balancing the rest of his cast that running a bullpen becomes the most tangled assignment a manager faces. Some pitchers are situational. They are pure match-up pitchers. Some can handle batters on both sides of the plate. Some can pitch frequently. Some need extra rest. And on some days, maybe two or three aren't available because of their timecards from the past game or two.
This is why it is essential that the Tigers not only find a closer, but that they continue to polish replacement parts, with one pitcher in particular worth following: Jose Ortega, a right-hander, 24, who long has been considered one of the top power-pitchers in the Tigers chain.
His numbers as of Wednesday: five games, 0.00 ERA, 6.2 innings, three hits, six strikeouts, two walks.
"This is my fourth year with him," Nevin said, "and this is the best I've see him throw it."
A.J. Sager, the Mud Hens pitching coach, said of Ortega: "He's always had the good arm. But the big thing we've seen is his slider."
What it means, again, is that fans who tend to panic would be wise to let April be April. A team trading for a relief pitcher now is (a) probably paying a ridiculous retail price and (b) not necessarily getting an upgrade, even if fans love name recognition and believing that new blood is helpful blood.
The Tigers are surviving without a closer. One will arrive in time. As will other arms, from their farm system, which tend to evolve in an organization that fundamentally pays attention to pitching.