March 21, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Lynn Henning

Bruce Rondon's loss is crushing blow to Tigers' bullpen

Bruce Rondon was expected to close out the eighth inning this season for the Tigers before he was informed he was to undergo Tommy John surgery. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Lakeland, Fla. Ė If nothing else was going quite right for the Tigers a week before breaking spring camp, their bullpen was at least cooperating.

And then, from the same dark cosmos that slammed Andy Dirks and Jose Iglesias with months-long injury recoveries, the Tigers learned Friday that their best bet for wiping out eighth innings, Bruce Rondon, will be gone for the year because of Tommy John ligament surgery on his right elbow.

If you happen to be a sadistic scriptwriter weaving a story about how a playoff team slips into ruins because it canít stay away from the disabled list, the 2014 Tigers are potentially your subject.

Rondon, in tandem with new closer Joe Nathan, was the best remedy Detroit had for curing last seasonís uneven bullpen ills. Nathan would lock down a ninth inning that had previously been in the custody of Jose Valverde (gulp) and Joaquin Benoit, while Rondon and his 100-mph fastball were scheduled to vaporize batters in the eighth.

Now, with Rondon departing at the very point he was settling in as a trusty option, the Tigers are nearly in as much flux as they were a year ago when first, Rondon, and then, Valverde, proved they were either not ready nor capable of handling a closerís role eventually occupied by Benoit, and now by Nathan.

Slim pickings

The Tigers have options for replacing Rondon. But they are hardly ideal. And, in the case of Joba Chamberlain, who is regaining ground lost to his Tommy John surgery of 2012, they may not be reliable.

It points to another scenario that will involve time, as well as risk: Corey Knebel, a right-handed fireman grabbed by the Tigers in the supplemental round (first round, as it officially is known) of last Juneís draft, will soon be ready for work at Comerica Park.

How soon is the scary question. Knebel needs apprenticeship at Double A or Triple A. He isnít ready for big-league duty quite yet. The projection is that he could be ship-shape as early as June, but even if the best-case scenario applies, the Tigers will be at least 50 games into their 2014 season by the time he can help.

In the meantime, Brad Ausmus, who might want to reconsider that decision to manage the Tigers in 2014, is left with a cast not nearly as reassuring as it was ahead of the Rondon bombshell.

Al Alburquerque can perhaps move into the eighth inning if Chamberlain isnít the answer. But if Chamberlain canít absorb the eighth, neither will he be a happy option for the seventh.

Ian Krol is the resident put-away left-hander and must be available for duty anytime after the fifth inning, perhaps for multiple innings. He is not a set-up man.

Evan Reed has looked good during spring camp but by no means is a reliever you could assign a long-term role, even if he makes the team, which came closer to happening Friday.

Phil Coke is on the bubble and probably will go north. But, again, he will be a situational choice. The same with a right-hander such as Jose Ortega, who has the pitches, but who has never displayed that he is ready for prime time.

Dave Dombrowski, during his ongoing shopping for a shortstop and left-fielder to replace Iglesias and Dirks, will now be making multiple stops at the mall, probably initially at Relievers íR Us.

Big hit

The loss of Rondon is devastating. With a team designed to take advantage of its starting pitching, and with a lineup crafted toward winning tighter, lower-scoring games, the Tigersí front-office czar must deal with a bullpen that could incinerate, now that Rondon is not there to lock down those vital eighth innings.

The Tigers could, eventually, catch a break. Knebel might arrive. Melvin Mercedes, something of a Rondon look-a-like, could advance. But breaks havenít been falling Detroitís way during this star-crossed spring camp.

The worry on a town and a teamís part is that the breaks could remain just as bad after a team arrives at Comerica Park on March 31 for its first real-season game. Donít be surprised if the Tigers are wearing on their jersey sleeves red crosses.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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