Much still unsettled about Tigers pitching staff

Rookie reliever Bruce Rondon has been wild and ineffective so far this spring for the Detroit Tigers.

Less than four weeks remain until opening day of the 2013 season, but what was supposed to be a strength for the Detroit Tigers is prompting a lot of attention and intrigue. I’m talking about the pitching staff.

Last season when the Tigs made their run to the World Series it was fueled down the stretch and in the playoffs by their pitching. Sure, Miguel Cabrera won the triple crown, but without their talented quartet of starting pitchers and a veteran bullpen, Detroit wouldn’t have gotten past the A’s and certainly wouldn’t have swept the Yankees.

Nearly everyone is back for the ’13 campaign, but many questions still remain for the pitching corps. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Anibal Sanchez are solid in the #1-4 positions in the starting rotation, but after that there are several undecided roles. Rumors are swirling in Lakeland that the Tigers will go outside their organization and acquire a closer, and the #5 rotation slot is murky.

As recently as earlier this week right here on this blog, Michael Betzold argued that a big-time closer was overrated and unnecessary. Despite those arguments, GM Dave Dombrowski seems ready to jump into the trade market and snatch a proven closer. The Tigers are one of the favorites in the AL, their core is in their prime and among the best in the game, and DD has received his orders from owner Mike Ilitch – go for it now.

Rookie Bruce Rondon, the behemoth with a howitzer attached to his right shoulder, was supposed to seize control of the closer role. But he’s struggled this spring, and the Tigers seem unwilling to hand the job to one of their other relievers. Apparently, slow poke setup man Joaquin Benoit, veteran Octavio Dotel, hyperactive lefty Phil Coke, youngster Al Albuerquerque – none of them have what it takes to close out games, according to Dombrowski and Jim Leyland. It seems evident that Detroit feels their team is in need of a closer who knows how to slam the door in the 9th inning.

But who could that be? Rumors have it that the Tigers are interested in Carlos Mamol of the Cubs, who has been closing out games for Chicago for about four seasons. The Dominican right-hander walks quite a few batters, but he also strikes out quite a few. The Cubs want to unload him, so if the two sides can agree on the right package, Mamol is the most likely new face.

And what about the Tigers former closer from the Dominican Repiblic, Jose Valverde? Leyland made it clear that the Tigers WERE NOT interested in bringing the unsigned free agent back for the ’13 season. That came a few days after the Tiger manager let it slip that the Tiger may consider welcoming Papa Grande back as an insurance policy. It only took Dombrowski about 15 minutes to send the message to Leyland that he was gravely mistaken. The other unsigned free agent closer, Francisco Rodriguez, is being shunned by the Tigers, probably because of his price tag (he’d likely demand in the neighborhood of $7-8 million) and the fact that he hasn’t been a closer since 2011. K-Rod seems to fit the Tiger mold pretty well – he’s a veteran who’s pitched on winning teams, he can pitch a lot, and he’s from Venezuala – the Tigers are stocked with players from that country.

Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly are fighting for the 5th spot in the rotation, and that battle could benefit the Tigers on the trade front. After three spring starts, Porcello has looked pretty good, and seeing as he’s still just 24 years old, teams are taking notice. The Texas Rangers are apparently interested in Porcello for their rotation, and other teams, like the Diamondbacks, have already come out and made it clear that they like Slick Rick. Whether Porcello is traded or not, Smyly also has some very good value. The young southpaw has been brilliant in two starts in Florida, and though they aren’t saying it, the Tigers would love to see Smyly take control of the 5th spot because that would give them one lefty in the rotation.

With the start of the season creeping closer, the Tigers have some decisions to make. In the next few days we’ll likely find out who’s going, who’s staying, and who will be taking the ball in the late innings for Detroit as they pursue the World Series title.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @twebman or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.