CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Matt Hoffman has the potential to become a hard-throwing situational lefty in the Tigers' bullpen. Likewise, Jose Ortega could prove to be a surprise in middle relief. Just not now.
The 23-year-olds will open the season back at Triple-A Toledo, having been optioned out by the Tigers on Monday morning before their game against the Phillies. And Detroit's decision process on its final bullpen spot will go on without them.
A decision should be getting close. Monday's moves left the Tigers with 17 pitchers in camp, not counting injured Al Alburquerque. The right-handed relievers without a spot are down to Brayan Villarreal, Luis Marte and Chris Bootcheck.
"You think you have a lot of time," manager Jim Leyland said Monday morning, "but then you bat your eye and, boom, it's almost time to go. We're moving right along."
Villarreal made last year's Opening Day bullpen before spending most of the summer in the Mud Hens' rotation. The 25-year-old Marte made six appearances in the Majors last year but spent most of the season dominating hitters at Double-A Erie. Bootcheck is a Minor League signing who has stuck around despite expectations that the 33-year-old will be the Mud Hens' closer.
If the Tigers take a left-hander for their open spot in the rotation, as seems likely, they could decide to balance him out with a right-handed long reliever. They could also opt for a swingman lefty such as Duane Below or Adam Wilk, both of whom are in the running to start.
Hoffman had an impressive camp despite suffering some damage in his last couple outings. Yet as a lefty middle reliever fighting for what will probably be a long-relief role for that last spot in Detroit's bullpen, he had a difficult case to make. He gave up two runs on five hits in 6 2/3 innings, with two walks and six strikeouts.
"I really like Hoffman a lot," Leyland said. "I think he's got excellent movement. I want him to continue to work on his breaking ball. I really like him a lot. At this time, we decided no, but if somebody told me today that we would've had to take Matt Hoffman, I would be OK with that. I like him. I think he's got a chance to be a real good left-handed relief pitcher at the Major League level.
"His fastball moves like crazy, and I think from that [arm] slot, he can be real nasty with a breaking ball for left-handed hitters."
Hoffman will be a Mud Hen for a second season. So, too, will Ortega, who struggled at Triple-A last year but opened some eyes in camp this spring, giving up a run on three hits over 6 1/3 innings with four walks and four strikeouts.
"He's all right," Leyland said. "I think he just needs some experience. He's got a big arm."
Scherzer showcases improved efficiency
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Max Scherzer had been the only one of the Tigers' four established starters not to get through the fourth inning. On Monday, he became the first Tiger to last five.
For someone who has been looking for quicker, more efficient innings, and a team looking for that from him, that was a big development.
"I was throwing strikes," Scherzer said. "I didn't have any walks today. I thought that was big for me. I was making sure to throw the two-seam fastball, being able to throw that even behind in the count and still be able to throw that for a strike. My changeup was coming to life. I feel good about what I was able to do today."
Scherzer needed just 50 pitches to get through the first four innings scoreless while still striking out four, including back-to-back strikeouts on Hunter Pence and Jim Thome with 97-mph fastballs. All three runs he allowed came in the fifth, yet he had only one at-bat that lasted longer than four pitches.
Scherzer finished with 70 pitches, still shy of his pitch limit for the day but close enough that the Tigers chose not to bring him out for just a batter or two in the sixth on a hot afternoon.
"It looked like he got a little out of sync and a little tired," manager Jim Leyland said. "He threw the ball very well."
Relief corps well stocked from left side
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Tigers aren't that far removed from the days when they had one steady left-handed reliever in their bullpen and were searching for a second. It only feels like a long time ago.
In another year, Matt Hoffman might have lasted until the end battling for a lefty relief spot in the Detroit bullpen. For now, he's blocked -- not just by Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth, but by two lefty swingmen -- Duane Below and Adam Wilk -- currently contending for a starting job as well.
In a division where several of the most dangerous hitters are left-handed, that depth is a good development for Detroit, which shouldn't have to rely on trades -- such as last year's deal for David Purcey -- to supply southpaw talent again anytime soon.
"I'm very pleased with the options that we have," Leyland said. "I think it's pretty good."
Balester giving Detroit options out of 'pen
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- One reason the Tigers have some flexibility in how they fill the one open spot left in their bullpen is the flexibility of the newest reliever they have.
One reason Collin Balester has that flexibility is that he keeps pitching well this spring, no matter the situation they give him. After stretching out his arm for 2 1/3 innings of one-run ball on Thursday against the Orioles, the recently acquired right-hander added another scoreless inning onto his ledger Monday against the Phillies.
That pushes Balester's innings total to eight, most of any Tigers pitcher not competing for a rotation spot. And that's fine with Balester.
"I'm pretty used to it by now, doing whatever they need me to do," said Balester, acquired from the Nationals in December for Ryan Perry. "Usually I'd be going five innings, but I feel like I could go five if they need me to. It's just one of those things where you just get your work in."
Balester converted to full-time relief in Washington last year. The biggest step, he said, was mental.
"I don't look at it any different," he said. "To go five [innings], you have to get that one anyways. So I just go that one, and if they want to go out for a second, then I go for that second, or a third. If a starter goes out in the fifth, I'm not thinking I'm going to get to the seventh. I'm just going one inning at a time. That's really helped me a lot, instead of thinking I have to go five and save pitches. I just go attack hitters as if I was going to go one [inning]."
• Monday was the first of three consecutive Tigers games slated to be televised, either nationally or back to Detroit. Monday was an ESPN broadcast, as will be Tuesday's game against the Braves at Joker Marchant Stadium. Wednesday's home date with the Twins will mark the first broadcast of the year on Fox Sports Detroit. Both Tuesday and Wednesday's game will be streamed live on MLB.TV at 1:05 p.m. ET.
• Austin Jackson had one of the rare occasions this spring when he put a ball in play for an out, grounding out to third base to end the game. He went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and a walk Monday, giving him 14 strikeouts in 38 plate appearances, and 8-for-19 on balls put in play.