Tigers weighing relief corps options
Detroit could begin season with three lefties in bullpen
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers' left-handed approach to left-handed relief this spring is nearing completion. And as Spring Training heads into its final week and a half, there's no obvious indication about the right move.
When the team began workouts a month ago, officials downplayed how many lefty relievers they might need. Adding Joaquin Benoit to a core group that included Jose Valverde, Joel Zumaya and Ryan Perry gave Detroit potentially four established relievers who could retire left- and right-handed hitters equally well.
Zumaya's season-opening stint on the disabled list, with no timetable for a return, has changed the mix. So has the performance of the left-handers in camp, many of whom came in without Major League track records. Brad Thomas is the only one of the bunch with a full season in the big leagues.
Now, the Tigers could break camp with three lefties in their bullpen. It isn't just about heading north with enough arms to handle some of the American League's better left-handed hitters in the late innings. Lefties in camp have stepped up enough, surprisingly so in some cases, that they could comprise three of the best seven relievers the Tigers can use.
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Choosing three, though, is a process that might go into the final days of camp.
Thomas appears to be the one with a spot set, both for his performance in camp and his versatility last year. No Tiger had pitched in more games this spring entering Friday than Thomas, whose 10th-inning run allowed against Boston on Tuesday was just his second run and fifth hit surrendered over eight innings. His improved breaking ball has drawn compliments from manager Jim Leyland and pitching coach Rick Knapp.
"Brad's done great," Knapp said earlier this week. "He's not trying to overthrow. He's trying to get his breaking ball [refined]. He's right on target to be that kind of swingman that does a little bit of everything. He can get you the lefty out, or he can get you three innings."
Whether Thomas would get a lot of late-inning lefty against lefty appearances is a different question, especially since the Tigers don't have another established multi-inning reliever. That's where the other southpaws might come in.
Daniel Schlereth entered camp poised to step up as the Tigers' next late-inning lefty. Then came a hamstring strain that sidelined him for nearly two weeks. Just as he seemed ready to catch up on innings, he walked four straight Cardinals on Wednesday in a game he could have pitched two innings.
The Tigers still expect Schlereth to catch up, and he still has some of the nastiest stuff of the lefty candidates. His breaking ball, however, has been inconsistent, according to Leyland, in part because of the time off.
"I think you saw somebody that's just rusty, hasn't been out there very much," Leyland said. "And I think he fell into that trap that a lot of us fall into. The more he couldn't throw a strike, the harder he tried to throw a strike, and that just compounded his problems."
Leyland hopes to get Schlereth two innings his next time out.
"He needs to pitch," Leyland said. "All systems say he's healthy. He needs to get out there, get a little something under his belt."
Schlereth has the capability to retire left- and right-handers. So, potentially, could Fu-Te Ni, who has gone from almost a non-roster afterthought to a strong option thanks to improved command. His spring strikeouts keep piling up, now at nine over eight innings of three-hit ball through Thursday.
Ni could well make his second straight Opening Day roster after a roller-coaster 2010 season.
"Ni's doing great," Knapp said. "He's really spotting up his fastball. Really at the end, it was his fastball command that held him out to me. And man, he's dotting his fastball really good, and he's turning the ball over and having that sink to the right-handed batter, which is a whole other weapon."
Deceptiveness helps out the two prospects left in the discussion as well. Charlie Furbush entered camp as a potential insurance starter, but keeps hanging around by keeping hitters off-balance.
Furbush has been a non-contact pitcher in a good and bad sense. He has 13 strikeouts over 11 2/3 innings, including nine over five innings in his last two outings, demonstrating the deceptive delivery that helped him rack up strikeouts in the Minors last year. But he also has eight walks, including three in a two-inning stint against the Twins on Thursday that pushed up his pitch count.
"Command wasn't as good [Thursday], but I thought he threw the ball extremely well, used all his pitches," Leyland said. "He's got to just learn to let it just happen ...
"You have to learn how to make it a little bit easier on yourself, just let your ability take over and not worry about getting the out before you throw your pitch. Throw the pitch, make the pitch and you'll get the out. He's a young guy. He's hyped up. That's normal."
With a sidearm delivery but opposite results, Adam Wilk has pitched himself into contention. He wasn't a high-strikeout guy in the Tigers system last year, but he held down hitters, as evidenced by three innings of one-hit ball against a well-stocked Orioles lineup last Sunday. He entered a bases-loaded situation against Albert Pujols on Wednesday and gave up a grand slam, but Leyland chalked that up to pitch selection rather than execution.
"He has been very, very impressive," Leyland said.
One factor quietly lingering over the mix is how Leyland decides to slot his rotation in the opening week. With two off-days before the Tigers play their fifth game, they won't need a fifth starter -- barring rainouts -- until their ninth game, and they don't plan on using one before that.
If Leyland opts to start Brad Penny and put converted reliever Phil Coke in the bullpen for the first six games, the Tigers will have one of their most important relievers from last year back in the fold for left- and right-handed hitters.
Depending on how close Zumaya is to a return when the Tigers break camp, Coke could end up covering most of Zumaya's absence. It doesn't seem likely, and given Zumaya's history of setbacks, the Tigers can't plan around a firm return two or more weeks out, but it's a twist.
It's another offspeed pitch in a race that has seen plenty of good ones this spring.