Leyland plans for 'pen without Zumaya

Leyland plans for 'pen without Zumaya

Leyland plans for 'pen without Zumaya
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers had long since set up their bullpen for the chance they wouldn't have Joel Zumaya, given his injury history. Now that Zumaya most likely won't be available to start the season, that doesn't make manager Jim Leyland's task of assembling a bullpen without him that much easier.

The late innings won't change, with Joaquin Benoit setting up closer Jose Valverde, and Ryan Perry taking seventh-inning duties. Zumaya, when he's ready, is expected to slot in alongside Perry, as has been the plan all along. But the skills Zumaya brings to the bullpen are difficult to replace in any slot, and they go well beyond a triple-digit fastball. He can get a lot of outs in a lot of situations.

"I don't think right now, from within camp or by trade, that you could replace a healthy Joel Zumaya -- and I emphasize a healthy Joel Zumaya," Leyland said Wednesday. "So you have to just keep looking and try to come up with somebody, most likely from within. You feel comfortable, but you're not going to be getting Joel Zumaya. That's not fair to ask somebody out there to be Joel Zumaya. So we're going to continue to look at guys who throw -- either right or left -- and see how it plays out."

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For Zumaya's responsibilities, Perry becomes all the more important as the primary seventh-inning reliever, a role he struggled to fill at the outset last season. His stingy second-half numbers last year -- including a 2.37 ERA, 2.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .215 batting average allowed -- put him back in a prime position, and his bullpen spot was set. His perfect ninth inning Wednesday against the Phillies improved his spring numbers to six innings of one-run ball with four hits, a walk and four strikeouts.

Perry still has his hiccups, but Leyland is encouraged.

"I think he's almost over the hump," Leyland said. "I think he's getting better all the time. Every once in a while, he takes a step backwards. That's to be expected. That's nature. But I think he's getting better all the time."

Perry has consistently hit the strike zone, including with a changeup he's developing, and he quietly admits this is the best he has felt at this point in Spring Training in his three years in camp.

"Honestly, yeah," Perry said. "With my control of my pitches, I feel like I'm not trying to give it too much. I feel great right now with every pitch. Having confidence in my changeup is rare, since I haven't really thrown it much over the last two years, but it's really something I've been working on here."

Filling the extra bullpen spot is another matter. The arms in camp can replace some of the strengths of Zumaya, but not all of them. They'll have to pick which strengths are most important to replace.

Power, of course, tops the list, and it doesn't discriminate in the splits. After an uncharacteristic .344 batting average and 1.080 OPS allowed to left-handed hitters in 2009, Zumaya rebounded last year to hold those numbers to .215 and .616, respectively. A big reason was the improvement of his other pitches, his ability to change speeds and throw an occasional breaking ball that would freeze hitters.

There isn't another 100-mph fastball in camp, though there are power arms. The Tigers signed Alberto Alburquerque to a Major League contract last fall because they liked his arm, combining a strong fastball with a sharp breaking ball. But as Leyland pointed out a few days ago, Alburquerque's fastball command has lagged behind the breaking ball, which explains his four walks in 3 2/3 innings.

Perry's changeup could come in big here. He doesn't throw quite as hard as Zumaya, and he said his velocity is down slightly so far this spring. Add an effective offspeed pitch to his arsenal, though, and the fastball becomes more deceptive.

"Change of speeds is the biggest factor," Perry said. "I could go out there with a 100-mph fastball, nothing else and get lit. But when you put other pitches in the back of hitters' heads, they're going to start guessing. It definitely messes with their rhythm."

The righty-lefty balance, as Leyland hinted, could be a consideration for the Tigers in these next few weeks. Until now, Leyland has said a lefty specialist isn't quite as important to their bullpen, because Zumaya and Benoit have been strong against right- and left-handed hitters. Take away Zumaya for more than a short stretch, and that balance might have to be reviewed beyond veteran lefty Brad Thomas.

Daniel Schlereth, out the last week and a half with a strained left hamstring, is expected to pitch again this weekend. If he does, Leyland said, he's back in the mix for a spot. His breaking ball makes him a potentially formidable foe for right-handed hitters, as he showed by striking out Manny Ramirez in a key situation last September at Chicago. Fu-Te Ni is getting a close look off his strong spring so far, and fellow sidearming southpaw Adam Wilk has six scoreless innings after throwing two more on Wednesday.

But Zumaya's absence could also open an opportunity for someone who can get key outs with runners on base, something Zumaya's fastball could accomplish with swings and misses. Robbie Weinhardt can't match the strikeouts, but with his sinker looking more consistent, he can induce the ground balls that accomplish the same goal.

Long story short, the Tigers could go in a lot of different directions. They already had one open bullpen spot, and Zumaya's absence would leave two. And they might need both to do what they want. The one sure thing seems to be the importance of Perry, which would've been there regardless.

"I don't necessarily consider it more pressure, anything like that," Perry said. "You're in the game. You've got to get it done, regardless of the situation, regardless of who it is, regardless of who we have on our roster at that time. We're there for a reason. We're there to get outs.

"Would it help to have Zumaya? Gosh, with him, I think we could be completely lights-out. But we're going to go get it done for him."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.