LAKELAND, Fla. -- The last time Nate Robertson started a season in the Tigers bullpen, he ended up winning back a spot and starting a five-year stint in Detroit's rotation. This time around, he's taking his relief role as a sign of a possible end.

While Robertson believes he can still be an effective starting pitcher, his remarks in the Tigers clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium on Thursday morning clearly made it sound like he doesn't think it's going to happen in Detroit. If he can't start here, he gave the impression he wouldn't mind starting elsewhere.

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"I think the cycle of a player's time in certain places, it comes and it goes," Robertson said. "This is my seventh year in the organization, and maybe my time here is nearing its end. And I'm fine with that. I'll tell you what, this is a first-class organization, and I appreciate everything that's been done for me.

"I don't go home and say, 'Man, I feel like these guys are really sticking it to me.' But at the same time, I'm 31 years old and I've got to think about my career. I can be very productive as a starting pitcher. That's what I believe. I think I can go out there and be durable, take the ball every fifth day, give you a chance to win as a starting pitcher in the big leagues. There's no doubt in my mind."

The Tigers obviously feel differently at this point. And the response from manager Jim Leyland provided serious doubt that Robertson is going anywhere.

"I don't want to start on a negative note here," Leyland said. "I think Nate Robertson has an excellent opportunity to be a huge part of our ballclub. You don't always finish how you start. But at the same time, the best way to get yourself in the position that you want to be is prove that you're supposed to be in that position."

Or, as Leyland also said, "We don't end anyone's career in the organization if we think it's best for our team that they make contributions."

Robertson spent Spring Training competing for what was supposed to be one rotation spot but ended up being two when Jeremy Bonderman had a setback that sent him to the disabled list. Swingman Zach Miner and 20-year-old Rich Porcello won those jobs Wednesday, while Bonderman is expected to be back within a few weeks barring further issues.

The bright side in Robertson's performance were the steps he made towards becoming a more effective pitcher. His 6.35 ERA last year was the highest for any American League pitcher with at least 162 innings. His 119 earned runs allowed led the league, and he was briefly pulled from the rotation in August before finishing out with a series of September starts.

Pitching coach Rick Knapp suggested to Robertson early in camp that he should "pitch more left-handed," meaning mixing pitches and working in and out of the strike zone more. Robertson responded with back-to-back effective outings before a double-play throw sprained his left thumb with little more than a week left in camp.

Robertson returned from the thumb injury for one last outing, this one a long-relief outing Tuesday. He gave up five runs on six hits in three innings, including two home runs.

"If you look at Spring Training, the only [thing] I think I graded myself badly was when I put people on base [with walks]," Robertson said. "The balls weren't being driven up until that last outing, when I gave up a couple long balls. For the most part, keeping the ball on the ground has been something I've been doing pretty well. Taking all that and applying that to be an effective starter in the big leagues, I think that I'm on track for where I need to be. You don't just lose the ability to know how to pitch.

"Again, you have to take some of the experience. You learn a lot of stuff up in the big leagues. Starting Monday, this stuff goes on the back of your baseball card. All that [Spring Training] stuff doesn't mean anything."

Leyland said he called Robertson into his office to explain the situation before he called in Porcello and reliever Ryan Perry to tell them they had won jobs.

"In my conversation with [Robertson]," Leyland said, "I explained to him the importance of the entire pitching staff, the importance of him accepting the situation with a tremendous attitude, and the bulldog approach that he showed me before at times to take this and run with it. I'm well aware that Nate Robertson wants to start. I think that he believes he's a starting pitcher. I believe that myself if it's the Nate Robertson of 2006."

The Robertson of 2009, however, is going to begin in the bullpen. His guaranteed contract, which will pay him $17 million through next season, would be an impediment to any deal.

"I'm going to continue to work hard and prepare myself, wherever that road may take me. I've always been pretty solid in believing that there's a plan for me somewhere, whether it be here or somewhere else. As long as you're healthy, then you have an opportunity. One person's opinion on you is going to vary from another's in this game. I've been around long enough to see that.

"I'm going to obviously do my very best to be a good teammate to these guys. I've been around a lot of these guys for a while. I think it just comes down to what I think about myself, and that's what I stick with."