Inside Pitch: Closer Competition

With the other remaining options dwindling, it appears more and more likely that the Tigers will be heading into spring training hoping to find their 2009 closer already in camp. Plus, how a few other relievers are progressing.

It seems more and more likely that the Tigers will enter spring training gambling they can find a closer on their roster.

The leader in the clubhouse is right-hander Fernando Rodney, but he's no lock. Rodney was alternately superb and super bad when asked to take over ninth-inning chores last season when right-hander Todd Jones was beset by shoulder problems that ultimately ended his career.

Finding a new closer was a winter priority, but economics have clearly played a big part in Detroit's roster reshaping.

The Tigers would have had their closer situation resolved by now if they were operating under the same guidelines in place the last few winters.

But the collapse of auto sales, the troubles of the auto industry and the fact that Michigan's economic problems are worse than practically every other state in the nation has led Detroit to quietly rein in spending for the moment.

It reduces the Tigers to hoping Rodney can step up and become a dominant closer in his walk year. He has the stuff; it's just not always there.

The organization is watching the progress of closers whose careers have been derailed by injures, maybe hoping to sign one of them to a contract laced with performance incentives.

Or the Tigers might wait to see what shakes out in spring training to see if a closer or prospect becomes available in trade.

"I'm not sure of the timing," general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "We could go to spring training with that thought process (wait on a trade), although we'll continue to examine availabilities before then.

"It's hard to predict this year's process before spring training -- there are so many more free agents available at every position."

And in the back of everyone's mind is the hope that right-hander Joel Zumaya can come back from two years abbreviated by injuries to start becoming the closer the club anticipated two winters back.

--CF Curtis Granderson is on the list of players invited to be on Team USA in this year's World Baseball Classic. According to Major League Baseball, provisional rosters will be announced Jan. 19 and the final 28-man rosters for each country will be announced Feb. 24. Team USA workouts begin March 2, and the Americans' first game is March 7 against Canada in Toronto. Team USA is in Pool C with Canada, Italy and Venezuela. All Pool C games are at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.

--RHP Joel Zumaya could begin throwing this week as he continues to progress from the stress fracture in his shoulder that cut short his 2008 season. Zumaya quit throwing in September after tearing scar tissue in the shoulder. He was cleared late in December to expand his strengthening program to include overhead exercises with his arm and shoulder, according to trainer Kevin Rand. Zumaya was examined in San Diego, where he lives, by Dr. Heinz Hoenecke, one of the specialists who performed reconstructive surgery on the AC joint in Zumaya's right shoulder in November 2007. Zumaya plans to travel to Detroit's spring training base in Lakeland to begin his throwing program. "He's steadily gotten better," Rand said. "He's gotten full, pain-free range of motion back, and he was able to begin doing strengthening work." It is too soon to tell whether Zumaya will be ready to participate fully in spring training when pitchers and catchers report Feb. 14.

--OF Wilkin Ramirez, one of the Tigers' highly regarded hitting prospects, played only seven Dominican winter league games because of symptoms consistent with gastroenteritis. Ramirez was sent home after becoming ill. He was added to Detroit's 40-man roster in November and is expected to begin the season at Class AAA Toledo. Ramirez has good speed and power but must master changeups and curves to make the majors.

--RHP Freddy Dolsi is working on adding to his fastball as he toils for Licey of the Dominican winter league. Dolsi, who impressed as a midseason call-up by the Tigers after working only a handful of Class AA games, had a 6.75 ERA through his first eight winter league appearances, all in relief. Dolsi had eight strikeouts and only two walks in 6 2/3 innings, although he had allowed eight hits. He is seen as a future closer candidate once he gets a reliable pitch to add to his fastball.

--RF Magglio Ordonez enters the 2009 season eighth among active players with a .312 career batting average. That puts him 84th on the all-time list. Ordonez won the 2007 AL batting championship and challenged again in 2008 before a September slump put him out of the race. He has hit .300 or better three of his four seasons with the Tigers.

--OF Alexis Gomez is returning to the organization where he was most successful, the Tigers. Gomez rejoined the Tigers on a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training with the big club. Gomez, 30, last played in the majors in 2006 with Detroit, where he hit a two-run home run and drove in four runs in his first postseason game, in the AL Championship Series at Oakland. He went 4-for-9 in three games of the four-game ALCS sweep, helping make up for the left-handed bat lost when injured 1B Sean Casey missed the series. Gomez signed with Colorado that winter and spent the 2007 season at Class AAA Colorado Springs before joining the Marlins organization last year at Class AAA Albuquerque. He batted .234 with five doubles, four home runs and 12 RBIs in 23 games (73 at-bats) for the Isotopes. Gomez batted .272 for the Tigers in 2006, playing 62 games, mostly as a late game replacement. His contract calls for a $415,000 salary if he were to spend the entire season in the big leagues.

BY THE NUMBERS: 113 -- Errors committed by the Tigers last season, tied for fifth-most in the majors. It was a big reason Detroit has new players at shortstop, catcher, third base and left field for the 2009 season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've really been focused on improving our defense, and that starts with putting Brandon (Inge) back at third, where he is one of the best in the league. When you add Adam (Everett), that gives us one of the best left-side infields in the game. Adam is one of the premier shortstops in the game." --General manager Dave Dombrowski on one of his offseason objectives to improve the Tigers for this season.

The Tigers added another starter (RHP Edwin Jackson) and made moves they believe strengthened a deficient defense by adding C Gerald Laird and SS Adam Everett while shifting Brandon Inge to third and Carlos Guillen to left, but they still need to improve a bullpen that was one of the worst in baseball last season. Detroit has no proven closer and no highly touted candidates. Shedding one of the DH types remains a quiet priority.

BIGGEST NEEDS: Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski took care of his positional tweaking and added a starter at the winter meetings but essentially exited the conclave without materially aiding the relief corps. Detroit may have to rely on a shaky RHP Fernando Rodney as its closer. A bona fide closer would help, but a stout setup man and some middle-inning assistance are also essential.

ARRIVALS: C Gerald Laird (trade with Rangers), SS Adam Everett (free agent from Twins), RHP Edwin Jackson (trade with Rays), LHP Kyle Bloom (Rule 5 selection from Pirates), C Matt Treanor (free agent from Marlins).

DEPARTURES: RHP Kyle Farnsworth (free agent, signed with Royals), RHP Todd Jones (retired), SS Edgar Renteria (free agent, signed with Giants), OF Matt Joyce (traded to Rays).

FREE AGENTS: RHP Freddy Garcia, LHP Kenny Rogers, LHP Casey Fossum, C Vance Wilson, RHP Gary Glover, RHP Aquilino Lopez.

There was some early interest in Garcia, but that has waned with the acquisition of RHP Edwin Jackson and Garcia's shoulder troubles in winter ball. Rogers could be brought back but only on a low-risk contract and only if he expresses interest. Glover and Fossum won't be back. Wilson has missed two years with Tommy John surgery, but his chances for even a minor league contract diminished with the addition of Laird and Treanor. Lopez was non-tendered.

ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: RHP Edwin Jackson, C Gerald Laird, RHP Justin Verlander, LHP Bobby Seay, OF Marcus Thames, RHP Joel Zumaya, RHP Fernando Rodney.

All were tendered contracts but are likely to be signed before arbitration hearings begin. Detroit will explore offering Verlander a longer-term contract but may go with a one-year deal to see how he rebounds off his poor 2008 campaign.

IN LIMBO: LHP Nate Robertson, LHP Dontrelle Willis, OF Marcus Thames, UT Ryan Raburn.

Even though Robertson and Willis have guaranteed contracts, Detroit can't afford to keep both unless both are in the rotation. Thames and Raburn have limited market value.

MEDICAL WATCH: RHP Joel Zumaya (right shoulder soreness due to scar tissue breakup) will keep building up his shoulder and could begin throwing in December.

RHP Jeremy Bonderman (right rib removal, blood clot surgery in June 2008) resumed throwing before Thanksgiving and is expected to be fully ready when spring training begins.

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