July 14, 2013 at 2:47 am

Lynn Henning

With two weeks before deadline, Tigers stepping up effort to add bullpen help

Detroit ó Notes, thoughts, items after the Tigers -- who canít seem to handle the thought of going 11 games above .500 -- melted away, 7-1, on Saturday night against the Rangers in front of a whopping crowd at Comerica Park.

Dave Dombrowski has 17 shopping days remaining ahead of the July trade deadline.

Dombrowski, whose bullpen needs repairs and replacements, hopes some on-the-fence teams decide to have a summer yard sale.

Clubs that view themselves as contenders today could decide as July wears on that their wiser focus is 2014 and beyond. And if those teams -- hello, Giants, Mariners, and Phillies -- become part of the mid-season sales force, the Tigers and Dombrowski will be happy to trade a prospect or even a current 25-man roster resident for some necessary bullpen help.

Itís a weird game.

A week ago, Dombrowski, the Tigersí front-office chief, and manager Jim Leyland thought they had finally settled down their relief corps.

Seven days later, Al Alburquerque no longer can be trusted. Darin Downs is on the disabled list. Phil Coke, who was solid Saturday night, had not pitched well for much of the previous month. Luke Putkonen has had his moments, good and bad, with too many on the latter side. And a right-hander whom most fans know only by way of a Google search, Evan Reed, is still on the team.

Dombrowski needs inventory. He needs a surplus of selling teams with marketable relief pitchers who can offer him a right-hander, as well as a left-hander. And at that point the Tigers can stitch together a sturdier bullpen that, among other Help Wanted areas, has never replaced the injured Octavio Dotel.

The Tigers have enough trade pieces to land the two relievers they ideally require if they intend to keep the Indians from pulling a Central Division upset.

The cost of adding those two pitchers will be easier to digest if the pretender-contenders cooperate. The Giants, in particular, should decide during the next two weeks that sitting out 2013ís playoff drive in the name of building a better team down the road is their smarter move.

Dombrowski wonít over-pay. But he almost always gets his man, and whether itís two relievers in July, or one in July and another in August off the waiver wire, bullpen help is on its way to Detroit. The GMís track record for mid-season deals all but assures it.

Bruce Rondon could be a second-half story.

I was ribbing a friend of mine the other day, a very smart baseball man named Mark Gorosh, saying he too often wants baseball prospects to arrive at their big-league lockers as finished products.

In fact, some pitchers and hitters can play at a fairly mature clip as quickly as they migrate to the majors.

But most donít. And to me a classic case is the Tigersí 22-year-old hotshot, Rondon, whose right arm can do amazing things with a baseball.

Consider his work Friday night against the Rangers.

Rondon threw 10 pitches. All were strikes. He mixed in 100-mph fastballs with a vicious slider, and even with a change-up or two. And the Rangers batters didnít much care for his mix.

Two of them struck out, another disappeared on a ground ball.

This was the Rondon the Tigers thought they might see in spring camp and who they hoped would become the everyday closer they later spent four months hunting, at least until Joaquin Benoit settled into the saddle as their latest and most reliable choice.

But if you think Rondon has arrived, or that his outing Friday was above reproach, youíre wrong. Itís a remarkable commentary on big-league baseballís sheer difficulty that Rondon had to be gently lectured afterward.

Leyland, the Tigers manager, made the proper point that a pitcher canít work the strike zone exclusively. Some pitches need deliberately to be thrown toward the dirt, or at the letters, or just off the plate.

Hitters who know that every pitch is going to be in that happy zone between the top of the knees and just above the belt buckle will eventually slam a few of those pitches, even if theyíre cruising at Rondon speeds.

But he is getting closer and closer to figuring out the rhythm and the sequence a pitcher must forge in attacking a batter who can do bad things even to a 101-mph heater.

Leyland explained it best when he said Tigers catchers are still ďguidingĒ Rondon. It means they not only are helping with pitch selection on a particular count, they are setting their targets in spots that donít necessarily require a pure strike-zone placement to handcuff a hitter.

Rondonís talent helps mightily because of the quality and range of his pitches. He has a terrific slider that should become his out-pitch as hitters gear for his triple-digit stuff. And he has that change-up, as unlikely as it will be that a back-end reliever of Rondonís makeup will ever need or rely on three pitches.

But what you are seeing appears to be a definitive big-league progression. With each trip to the mound, an enormously talented pitcher gets a bit more understanding of what he can, and must, do to defeat hitters.

He is growing up. And even accounting for a couple of bad nights that are all but inevitable, it is easy to see Rondon evolving as the most important second-half bullpen story on the team.

The kid is exceptionally skilled. Adding a bit of crust and know-how to that arm of his could make him positively lethal at a time the Tigers will never more need a back-end bullpen bruiser.


Tigers slugger Prince Fielder puts his arm around teammate Ramon Santiago in the dugout in the ninth inning. / Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News
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