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Henning: Tiger bullpen's ups and downs unsettling

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Bruce Rondon pitches during the eighth inning Wednesday against the Marlins.

Lakeland, Fla.— Following the Tigers bullpen during spring camp is like tracking a wild-ride stock market. Tigers relievers should be listed on CNBC's bottom-of-the-screen crawl.

Ups and downs have been fast and extreme. Yesterday's bulls can be today's bears. And, unfortunately for the Tigers, sellers these days are outnumbering buyers, at least on the Marchant Stadium Stock Index.

The most unsettled area on Detroit's roster continues to baffle analysts and, worse, potentially stress the Tigers as they head north in 10 days to begin a new season.

Bruce Rondon, right-hander: Wednesday's close — Up one point

Rondon had for the Tigers on Wednesday that rare Grapefruit League inning: 1-2-3. He threw mid-90s fastballs that helped keep the Marlins from turning around a game the Tigers won 8-4. His slider was biting. And he tossed a couple of change-ups that made his pet pitches doubly lethal.

Because his stuff is so vicious, he could become the game-changer in manager Brad Ausmus' back-end lineup. That he is throwing this well 12 months after Tommy John surgery is the best news the Tigers have gotten from a single pitcher in camp.

■Joakim Soria, right-hander: Wednesday's close — Up a half-point

Soria's fastball was too tame for a couple of weeks and anyone would have wondered what happened to a former ace closer's heater. Bad enough that he had done little in 2014 except get hurt after the Tigers traded for him last July. This spring, his fastball was still AWOL.

But he was dealing for a couple of weeks with a finger blister. He has been throwing harder since, if not with the steam some expected. He has a pocket-full of pitches and knows how to locate. He is 30 years old and smarts are part of his package.

The Tigers should live with Soria as their eighth-inning guy, or, depending upon another reliever's fate, as their potential closer.

Joe Nathan, right-hander: Wednesday's close — Up one point

A certain baseball front office needed a surprise, a good one. It might have arrived Wednesday.

Joe Nathan pitched his best inning of baseball since late last season. You have to be careful about Marchant Stadium's radar gun, which is like asking your teenager how she or he did on today's test. You're going to get a higher number than is perhaps accurate.

But during Wednesday's stint Nathan had a zesty fastball-slider combination. His four-seamer slipped into the 92-94 range (Marchant's testimony, anyway). He also stayed in the strike zone. Nathan's mission is simple: Repeat Wednesday's work during these closing days.

But in that inning against Miami he might have moved from probable longshot to a pitcher who, thanks to this crew's crazy ways, has a chance to keep his job.

■Al Alburquerque, right-hander: Wednesday's close — Unchanged

It's unrealistic to think Alburquerque can be the door-closer he was in 2011. But neither does he blow a game to bits. At least not often in the five seasons he has been in Detroit.

He loves his slider and the Tigers would prefer that he flip a few more fastballs. They might remind him of this as they examine Alburquerque's Grapefruit League ERA of 4.50.

But mark him down for sixth-inning work and for occasional cameos in the seventh. And live with the fact that, with Alburquerque, little changes.

■Kyle Ryan, left-hander: Wednesday's close — Down one point

The Tigers were looking at Ryan as one of two lefties Ausmus wants to take north. They were thinking of him as a long reliever, or as an occasional short man.

But he is young, and in Tuesday's game against the Yankees he couldn't find the strike zone or his way out of an inning. He now joins a surplus cast of Tigers relievers who have nine days to win a job.

■Ian Krol, left-hander: Wednesday's close — Up a half-point

Krol has a March ERA of 4.50. Not great, but he has pitched well of late. And that can win a bullpen seat when you have an arm as good as his. Krol throws hard and has added a cutter he can use on right-handed batters. There are innings when you understand why the Tigers chased him as part of their crowd-pleasing 2013 trade of Doug Fister.

Look for him to be part of Opening Day's introductions. And to get steadily better. Detroit has a good pitcher here.

■Tom Gorzelanny, left-hander: Wednesday's close — Down a point

Gorzelanny is better than his numbers. He has to be better. His ERA is 9.00. A pitcher with a reputation for doing steady, journeyman's work in a bullpen's rear end has nine days to get it together.

■Joba Chamberlain, right-hander: Wednesday's close — Down a half-point

The Tigers never seemed like a team that would have signed Chamberlain in 2013. They were the last club expected to re-sign Chamberlain this winter.

He has not looked good. His ERA is 6.43. His pitches too often have been ripped. But he still has a repertoire. And he seems to defy rational projections. So, with his unique history in mind, he probably makes the team.

■Angel Nesbitt, right-hander: Wednesday's close — Down a quarter-point

Nesbitt embodies the craziness of this spring's Tigers bullpen. A week ago, he had the team made, as even the Tigers half-acknowledged.

A rookie with his quiver full of pitches will be in Detroit either on Opening Day or soon afterward. But because he has been acting his age (24) in a pair of back-to-back appearances, and because slip-ups can trigger added problems, it would benefit Nesbitt to throw swing-and-miss stuff in these waning days of Grapefruit League auditions.

Nesbitt is symptomatic of an entire relief corps. You look at this bullpen bunch on March 26 and it's as predictable of a pitching collection as it was three weeks ago. Which is to say it isn't close to being settled, or even reassuring.

It's why three or four guys, maximum, have all but won jobs. And why as many as three more will need to pitch — well — in camp's final days.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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