Downs making push for lefty relief role

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The question posed to Tigers manager Jim Leyland on Saturday dealt with Darin Downs and whether left-handed relievers need contrasting styles to complement each other in a bullpen. His answer might have addressed more than that.

"In the past, there were five righties in the rotation, so your lefty long guy becomes a little more prevalent," Leyland said, "because if one righty has a bad game and they've got their lefties in there, you can bring a lefty in for a long man. That's a little different if you've got left-handers in the rotation, one or two."

If Rick Porcello wins a starting job, the Tigers will have the same all-righty rotation they used for the stretch run last season once Anibal Sanchez came over from the Marlins. That could create the need for a lefty long reliever, a role Drew Smyly filled at times last season and during the playoffs.

If Smyly cracks the rotation, he'll be Detroit's lone lefty starter, which could lessen the pressure for lefty long relief. That might leave Leyland more inclined to take an extra lefty specialist. So, too, could a closer-by-committee scenario that relies on matchups to determine the best option for the ninth inning, including lefty Phil Coke.

Downs is trying to make himself as versatile as he can. With six appearances, tied for the Major League lead this spring with teammate Al Alburquerque among others, he's getting a good look.

Downs had a mix of short and long appearances down the stretch last season. Six of his 18 appearances required two outs or fewer, while five of his outings lasted four outs or longer. He had more matchups with right-handed hitters (48 plate appearances) than lefties (38), but fared better against left-handed batters (6-for-35, three walks, 10 strikeouts) than righties (12-for-41, four doubles, one home run, six walks, 10 strikeouts). His numbers from Triple-A Toledo were very similar.

He's working on an offspeed pitch to right-handed hitters to try to balance things out, adding that to a fastball with movement in the upper 80s and a breaking ball.

"Over my career, I'm tougher on lefties, but I'm just trying to really bear down against righties, as well," Downs said.

That could be the difference between being a one- or two-batter reliever for lefties only, and a one- or two-inning reliever with some stability.

Downs is a versatile reliever, according to Leyland, and he's quietly off to a strong start this spring. His scoreless inning on Saturday against the Blue Jays pushed his Grapefruit League total to seven innings of four-hit ball with a walk and seven strikeouts -- including a nice curveball for a strikeout of the Jays' Jim Negrych to strand a runner and end the eighth inning.

"I'm very pleased with what I've seen from him," Leyland said on Saturday morning. "I like him a lot. He's done a good job. You know, I was almost dumbfounded when I saw that he only pitched 20 innings for us [last year]. It seemed like he pitched more than that. …

"I thought he did a very good job and he's had a very good spring. ... He's in the mix."

Jason Beck is a reporter for 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.