Lakeland, Fla. — Thinking back a year to those Grapefruit League games of March, it’s amazing, the tension that hung over Bruce Rondon’s every appearance and pitch.
The Tigers came to camp in 2013 with a 22-year-old rookie as their closer. They professed to have options. But they really didn’t.
And when Rondon finally proved he needed to bake at 350 degrees for a few more weeks, the Tigers were left with Joaquin Benoit, and later Jose Valverde, and then Benoit again, who was on the mound against David Ortiz when the sage Red Sox slugger gutted them with his October grand slam that ruined what might have been a World Series season in Detroit.
So much has changed in 2014. Brad Ausmus, the Tigers manager who is lucky to have avoided last spring’s Rondon vigil, mentioned the obvious difference as he sat in his office Tuesday afternoon, a few minutes after the Blue Jays had beaten the Tigers, 3-2, in 10 innings at Marchant Stadium.
“We’ve got Joe Nathan as our closer,” he said, speaking like a homebuilder who was happy to at least have the footings poured and the basement done. “Overall, I feel pretty good about our arms. We haven’t necessarily assigned positions yet.”
The Tigers have not settled on who, precisely, will be their eighth-inning setup man, although if it is not Rondon, who is infinitely steadier than he was a year ago, it would be startling.
Ausmus has not named Al Alburquerque his primary seventh-inning option. He hasn’t yet anointed Ian Krol as his No. 1 — and maybe lone — left-hander. But those men — all have been outstanding in Florida — and their roles are as clear from a press box seat as they no doubt are to a new manager.
Decision pending on Coke
It’s the other group that has brought to camp the only real pitching drama a little more than two weeks before the Tigers jump on a charter jet ahead of Opening Day.
Have they seen enough potential from Joba Chamberlain to stick him into a reliable back-end role as he continues to build muscle and confidence following his 2012 Tommy John surgery?
The answer, probably, is yes. Chamberlain had a bad day Tuesday (home run, single, two walks, two runs) in a fairly miserable inning of hard labor, but he has shown enough fastball (94 on Tuesday) and slider (very good against the Yankees) to push for an Opening Day job.
Chamberlain has the rest of the month to put things together. The Tigers can live with Tuesday’s effort when there has been just enough upside to at least suggest two more weeks will get him into regular-season pitching shape.
Phil Coke is the bigger issue. The Tigers have a decision to make, this week. He has not pitched well, overall. If the Tigers release him by Saturday (March 15 is the annual cutoff date), they can save $1.6 million of the $1.9 million they otherwise will owe him for 2014.
Coke’s edge is obvious: He pitches left-handed. If he isn’t retained as the second lefty the Tigers, and almost all clubs, insist on carrying, they are left without a serious option beyond Krol.
They can get away with it, at least in theory. But based on his Grapefruit League performances, it will be difficult to invest seriously in Coke.
On the plus side, he had a couple of strikeouts against left-handed batters Tuesday. The overall story was consistent with past outings and was less upbeat. He pitched behind in the count to four batters. His fastball topped at 91. It appeared he missed the strike zone with every breaking pitch.
Reed for reliever
Assuming the Tigers give a 25-man roster spot to Chamberlain and part ways with Coke, Ausmus needs another reliever.
The choice, today, would be Evan Reed, a right-hander who has pitched in five games. He has a 1.50 ERA and has clamped opposing hitters with a .100 average.
He is throwing a fastball back-end bullpens demand: 95-97. His secondary pitches, which weren’t terribly sharp during his Tigers audition in 2013, have been better. Right now, Reed, who is out of minor league options, makes the team.
Luke Putkonen is the apparent winner, hardly by default, of the bullpen’s long relief chores. He hasn’t allowed a run in four games. In six innings, Putkonen has been tapped for three hits, has struck out six and walked none.
The numbers don’t mislead. Putkonen a year ago had some of the best raw stuff in the Tigers bullpen. He lacked experience and pitching maturity. It looks as if he got a year older and a gear better in the interim.
Halfway through camp, Ausmus can take heart in a couple of realities most managers accept in the combustible world of big-league bullpens. He has time on his side. He also has some good young arms that should be ready later in the season, with Corey Knebel topping the list.
And, of course, he has a boss, Dave Dombrowski, who isn’t about to revisit 2013’s bullpen adventures and who will add an arm if necessary.
It doesn’t mean the relief corps will be bulletproof. It doesn’t mean there won’t be anxiety, even as Ausmus decides on his final seven bullpen arms.
But the manager is right. He has a closer. He has a quorum of legitimate arms. What he has ahead are decisions that should be far more comfortable than the scary choices his predecessor, Jim Leyland, confronted 12 months ago.