Closer is Greene’s job to lose; rest of Tigers' 'pen in flux

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire is in a tough spot these first couple of weeks, especially when he’s confronted with specific roster questions. Hard answer questions about his bullpen and rotation when he’s had actual eyes on these players for just two days.

Still, there was one thing he could say somewhat definitively: The closer role is Shane Greene’s to lose.

“If the guy had the job when they left here (last season), I’m not going to say he’s not going to be my closer,” Gardenhire said Thursday after the second pitchers and catchers workout. “There is always competition for everything, but I think the way the season ended last year, I think he comes in as our closer, absolutely.

“It’s his job to lose.”

Greene hasn’t been shy about stating his intentions.

“Walking into the clubhouse for spring training, I would say the closer job is mine to lose,” he said during TigerFest last month. “Having said that, everybody here wants to win. I’ve proven I can pitch in the sixth and seventh innings with the game on the line. If they think there is somebody else that can close games and that’s what it takes for us to win, I am all for it.

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“As of now, I am walking into that clubhouse with my chest out feeling like I am the closer. I earned that job and it’s mine to lose.”

Gardenhire likes his chutzpah.

“Absolutely; that’s confidence,” he said. “He’s been here and he’s done it and you want that attitude. These guys are a special breed. They have no fear. So why would he be afraid to say something like that? I want that. I want that attitude.”

OK, the closer spot is settled for now. But the rest of the bullpen, and maybe a couple of spots in the rotation are still wide open, and probably will be in flux throughout the year.

“Will there be a lot of changes throughout the year? I think so,” Gardenhire said. “We’re going to see a lot of people this year.”

Sorting out the pitching staff, he said, is critical, Job One.

“That’s one of the biggest things that has to happen here,” he said. “I think we’re going to catch the ball OK and I think we will get some hits. But I really believe we have to figure out this pitching staff — like you all already know.”

The Tigers finished at or near the bottom in nearly every pitching statistic last season and two of their best pitchers — Justin Verlander and Justin Wilson — have been traded. That’s why there are 31 pitchers in camp right now including seven non-roster invitees.

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“We’ve got a bunch of big guys,” Gardenhire said. “There are some animals out there. You see them on the field, there’s some horses. Talking with Boz (pitching coach Chris Bosio) and Rick Anderson (bullpen coach), there’s a lot of live fastballs down there. A lot of big arms.

“Anytime you have those kind of arms, you try to find the right place for them and how to use them. That’s really important. We have a lot of big arms with a lot of talent. That’s a good start.”

Gardenhire hinted that it might take a lot longer than seven weeks to sort it all out. So make sure the Detroit-Toledo shuttle is serviced and gassed up.

“We have a lot of arms and we have some maneuverability to go up and down,” he said. “Maybe if they don’t start here they can go there and work their way back. But we do have some working parts that are going to get experience.

“That’s the big thing over these next couple of years – guys getting a shot, guys getting a look, the whole package. It’s going to be entertaining.”

Of the relievers on the 40-man roster, only Drew VerHagen and Buck Farmer (vying for a rotation spot for now) are out of minor-league options.

It was interesting to hear Gardenhire talk adamantly about establishing set bullpen roles. It was something former manager Brad Ausmus tried to do the last couple of seasons, but never had the pieces to make it work.

And there are fewer established bullpen pieces now, but Gardenhire isn’t deterred.

“It’s a big challenge,” he said. “Running a good bullpen is really big for a manager and a pitching coach. You don’t want that phone to ring and six guys get up not knowing who’s going in. They have to have their roles pretty clear.”

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It’s a two-part process — they have to know their role and they have to accept their role.

“The one thing you have to have when you are setting a good bullpen is, they have to appreciate their role,” Gardenhire said. “If they don’t appreciate it and think they should be somewhere else, it gets a little difficult with them.”

But that's putting the cart before the horse. The initial task, before bullpen roles are doled out, is to identify the best arms. Gardenhire said it may not come down to having a set number of left-handers and right-handers. He just wants the seven best pitchers.

“A lot of things have to happen,” he said. “Match-ups, I mean it’s not always lefty-righty. It’s the best arms and the best talent. I’d love to have the lefties and be able to mix-and-match, but sometimes it doesn’t work and you have to ad-lib.

“It’s all about the best arms and which guys can figure out how to get people out.”