"We have some contracts. You know that. You know I know that. You know the general manager knows that. Hopefully those guys are good -- let me put it that way."
It's essentially the acknowledgment of the big issue facing the Tigers, who have $34.5 million -- better than one-fourth of the team payroll -- committed this year to Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis, but no roles sealed for any of them. They combined for three victories and four quality starts last year, all from Willis and Robertson, and they combined for five stints on the disabled list. All three contracts are up at season's end.
They have a smaller stake, but a similar hope in Armando Galarraga, the pitcher who led the club in wins in 2008. Leyland's acknowledgment was an effort to head off the discussion early instead of answering leading questions about it for the next few weeks.
The Tigers need fourth and fifth starters, and while they could conceivably fill out the rotation without any of the big contracts if Galarraga and Eddie Bonine outpitch the other three, it would surely be advantageous if at least one of the highly-paid trio can earn a spot. If more than one of them can earn their keep, even better.
If none of them do, well, the Tigers have decisions to make that could make their tough choices last year look elementary.
"There's no sense pulling any punches," Leyland continued. "Those guys know what's at stake. I know what's at stake. I know our situation. Tell it like it is. But, in saying that, people have to perform."
That doesn't mean one outing changes much, especially one in the opening days of Spring Training games. But for Willis, Thursday was a good day.
Willis started off each of his two innings with leadoff walks, and he ended both of them walking off the mound to ovations from the Joker Marchant Stadium crowd following the third out. In between, he showed the ability not only to keep the ball around the strike zone, but to get both swings and misses as well as contact for outs.
"I was a little jerky out of the windup," Willis said, "but as far as how my arm felt, the kind of life my ball had, I felt great about it. I'm feeling good. So far, so good."
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It doesn't mean he's going to win a rotation spot yet, but it beats the alternative.
"I just want to help," Willis said. "I just want to play good baseball."
Willis feels everyone is on the same page for that, trying to help the team instead of necessarily competing against each other. As close as they came to winning the division last year, Willis said, there's a sense of trying to get the team over the top. The fact that Willis, Bonderman and Robertson all have guaranteed contracts this year means there's no immediate financial stake in this fight.
Galarraga later gave up a four-run seventh inning, but likewise, that doesn't mean he's behind. He has been working on adding a few facets to his game, including different arm angles on certain pitches. Bonderman threw two scoreless innings against the Blue Jays Wednesday, while Robertson got out of whack mechanically in his second inning of work before getting a big strikeout.
Those are merely the first of many outings to go before the Tigers make decisions. That said, Leyland wants to see those arms as much as possible, enough that he admits he'll pay particular attention to those four. He feels he has an idea what to expect from Bonine and Phil Coke, but he simply doesn't know what to count on from the others.
"Obviously, we'd like guys, if you're paying contracts, we'd like them to be able to pitch good for us," Leyland said. "That's common sense, isn't it? Doesn't mean it's going to happen, and it doesn't mean it's not going to happen. We're going to try to make decisions based on what gives the Tigers the best chance to win."