CLEARWATER, Fla. -- A week ago, when Bruce Rondon was struggling to command his fastball and retire hitters, the Tigers were emphasizing that nothing had been determined in the closer race. Now that Rondon has posted back-to-back scoreless innings, they're still saying the same thing.
If anything, the options appear a little more complicated.
The presumption for those watching Tigers camp has been that a bullpen by committee is a fallback option for Detroit if team officials determine Rondon isn't ready for the big leagues just yet. It's looking more like they may pursue a middle ground, if the Tigers believe Rondon is ready to pitch in the big leagues and close games but not necessarily ready to "be the closer."
Asked about the chances of Rondon being part of a closer-by-committee situation, Tigers manager Jim Leyland put it in one word: "Possible."
"That's a very good question," Leyland said, "and that's a very good answer. Possible, and that only means possible."
Leyland summed up Rondon's standing with three scenarios.
"Is he in the mix as a closer? Yes," Leyland said. Is he in the mix to make the team, possibly as another pitcher you close with occasionally? Yes. Is it a possibility that he's not ready yet? Yes."
Leyland saw encouraging signs from Rondon's outing Tuesday, including a 101-mph fastball on the last pitch that Leyland said exploded in the strike zone from his view on the first-base side. The fact that Rondon threw his secondary pitches was encouraging, Leyland said, but he's looking for command as the next step and more swings and misses as they go along.
"This is a real talent," Leyland said. "And what it's going to boil down to is: Is this talent ready for this level? And I can tell you that decision has not been made."
If the answer is yes, then the next question will be whether he's ready to close full time or get chances as part of a committee. If it's no, then Rondon will likely get more seasoning at Triple-A Toledo.
"The question to me is: Do you feel comfortable that this kid is ready to go to the big leagues, whether it be as a closer or a guy that could break in and pick your spots? That's the question," Leyland said, "and I don't think that question is going to be answered until right down to the wire."
At the same time, though, Leyland said, "You're not going to know what Rondon can do at the Major League level until the day comes, whether it's two weeks from now or two months from now or a year from now -- until you see him at the Major League level. That's just the way it is."
Leyland has projected lineups for the teams the Tigers are going to face to start out the season, so it's safe to say that matchups will have an impact. If that's the case, the fact that the Tigers open the season against the Twins, anchored by left-handed hitters Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, is worth keeping in mind as Detroit weighs its options.