Detroit set its pitching staff Thursday morning by optioning hard-throwing prospect Bruce Rondon to Triple-A Toledo, along with long reliever Luis Marte. With that, the seven-man bullpen is set for Opening Day, with lefty Darin Downs and high-strikeout middle relievers Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal joining long reliever Drew Smyly and veterans Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel.
Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, who announced the moves, said manager Jim Leyland will mix and match relievers in the ninth inning based on matchups.
"Any one of the seven could close a game," Leyland said. "That's just the way you have to look at it. I might call on anybody, and I'll have a little meeting with them. You have to be ready to pitch at all times unless you need a day off. Any one of them might get the ball to get the third out in the ninth."
Still, Coke, Benoit and Dotel would be most likely to get the bulk of the save opportunities, based on experience. Coke gained fame with two saves over the Yankees in last year's American League Championship Series, and could get a good share of chances next week against the Twins, with noted left-handed hitters Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, as well as the Yankees. Benoit, however, spent the past three years as Jose Valverde's primary understudy at closer. Dotel, meanwhile, has more experience at closer than anyone on the team between his 13 Major League stops.
"We have guys that we feel very comfortable can close games," Dombrowski said. "We may not have a closer anointed, but we have many guys that we think can close games."
As for Rondon, he'll be the closer for the Mud Hens as he tries to find the consistency that often eluded him this spring.
"We like him a lot," Dombrowski said. "He's thrown the ball very well at times this spring. All the times, you can see his arm strength and all that's attached. But we just thought he would benefit a little bit more by some more development time."
Rondon had a rough start to the spring as he worked through some mechanical issues. A tweak in his delivery from pitching coach Jeff Jones seemed to get Rondon into a dominant form, but he struggled in a couple outings down the stretch, including a rough appearance Wednesday, in which he walked two batters and let in a run on a balk after he and catcher Alex Avila had a mix-up on signs.
All the while, those struggles took place under the scrutiny of team officials, talent evaluators and media alike.
"Obviously [Tuesday], he was lights-out, but I think everybody has unrealistic expectations," Avila said Wednesday. "I mean, every time he pitches, you guys ask how he did. It seems like everybody expects him to have a 1-2-3 inning with three strikeouts every inning. That's never going to be the case."
Leyland acknowledged the attention level likely made an impact. He also cited that as a reason why closing at Toledo might be a boon for Rondon.
"I think it was more dynamic because of all the hype that went with it prior to him even coming to Spring Training," Leyland said. "That's why I think there was a lot of probably unnecessary stress for the poor kid."
Rondon finished his spring with eight runs allowed on 17 hits over 12 1/3 innings. He struck out 19 batters, but walked nine. The decision to send him down, Leyland said, was unanimous among the coaches and team officials who sat in on the organizational meeting after Wednesday's game.
Rondon struggled in that outing after dominating the previous day. The decision, however, came down to the spring as a whole, according to Leyland.
Dombrowski left open the possibility of bringing Rondon up, maybe even relatively quickly. However, Dombrowski said, "I don't want to put a time frame on it."
The decision, Dombrowski said, does not change his approach on the trade market. He said the Tigers do not have anything in the works -- for a reliever or otherwise -- to bring in anybody at this point.
"You still don't leave any stone unturned," Dombrowski said, "but I don't have anything I'm on the verge of. If anything happened right now, it would be completely something that I'm not [currently] working on.
"It has happened. That's why I don't want to discount it. But the way I look at it is, you keep talking to people, you keeping looking, you see what happens. I notice who's on waiver wires. I've talked to different clubs. Our scouts have talked to different clubs. I mean, it would really come out of the blue. And I would think that tomorrow, when we're heading out, I would think we'd be settled unless something totally unexpected happens."