Inside Pitch: Bullpen Working Itself Out

Things are by no means set in stone yet, but the Tigers are optimistic that the moves they've made this offseason will indeed a solidify the bullpen, a group that was much maligned in 2008 for its struggles.

Detroit's bullpen is slowly rounding into shape. Sort of.

"We have issues," manager Jim Leyland said. "I don't think they're bad issues. They're actually good issues. Let's find out. Let's find out who the guys are, who steps up, who in the end makes the most sense for our team. We have a very tough spring training."

Injured right-handers Jeremy Bonderman and Joel Zumaya both must continue to show their health issues are behind them.

Zumaya was scratched from a one-inning simulated game Saturday because of lingering tightness at the top of his right shoulder.

Bonderman's health and ability to open the season in Detroit's rotation directly affects whether right-hander Zach Miner is a starter or a reliever. Zumaya's health could have a bearing on whether hard-throwing rookie right-hander Ryan Perry opens the season with Detroit or at Double-A Erie.

So far, left-hander Bobby Seay has lived up to his performance level of the first half of last season. That means Leyland can either add a second lefty to the bullpen or not. Rule 5 pick Kyle Bloom will get more opportunities to show he can make it, as will left-hander Clay Rapada.

Right-hander Fernando Rodney, without the pressure of being the nominated closer, has quietly put together a solid spring -- a sharp contrast to last year, when shoulder tendinitis kept him from throwing a single exhibition inning.

Right-hander Brandon Lyon hasn't been spectacular, but he has shown he can at least open the season as the successor to retired right-hander Todd Jones as the Tigers' closer. Rodney is likely to get some save opportunities, as would Zumaya if he's healthy. Non-roster right-hander Juan Rincon has looked solid in his bid to make the roster, while rookie right-hander Casey Fien throws strikes effectively and without fear, endearing him to his manager.

Right-hander Freddy Dolsi looks to be an alternative if necessary and right-hander Scott Williamson has been in and out, although his fastball seems to be better than in recent seasons.

"We've got so much to follow with our pitching; it's kept it very, very interesting," Leyland said. "It keeps you on your toes every minute of every day.

"We're going to have to put it all together at the end, but I like our team a lot, to be honest with you. If Bonderman and Zumaya and some of those guys aren't healthy, I won't like it as much."

He will have seven spots to fill, but it appears there are enough people who can pitch to fill them.

--RHP Joel Zumaya is out indefinitely because of shoulder soreness. He is expected to begin the season on the disabled list.

--DH Gary Sheffield doesn't have to prove himself in the spring -- yet. That doesn't mean he doesn't take the fact he had only one slovenly single in his first 16 exhibition game at-bats seriously. Sheffield worked hard with hitting coach Lloyd McClendon to make an adjustment that allowed him to hit two home runs on March 11. "He has his hands up higher to start with, so he can take the bat right to the ball," manager Jim Leyland said, a fact Sheffield noticed in video comparisons dating back to early 2007. Sheffield said he had dropped his hands to compensate for shoulder pain after injuring himself in an outfield collision with 2B Placido Polanco in mid-2007. He had failed to return to his old style after the pain left him late last season. "I felt something was wrong, something was off," Sheffield said. "I wasn't squaring up on balls like I would like to. I want to be capable of hitting the ball out every time. When I took that first swing, it felt good. My head was on the pitch. That set the tone. But I can't sit back and say, 'It's there now.' I've got to perfect it. And the way to do that is repetition, to have your hands right on every swing. But I was surprised at the comfort I felt with this right away."

--RHP Justin Verlander said a softer landing is making his fastball harder to hit. The fact it's messing up his control a tad isn't a big concern. "I kind of got caught in-between," he said. "I've been working on landing softer and not as stiff on my front leg. It's different. If you're gonna change anything, you've got to be consistent in repeating it. But it has cleared my body up, freed me up. The ball was jumping out of my hand the best it has in a long time." Walks and high pitch counts have been a concern since last season but Verlander feels getting rid of a stiff leg finish, detected through watching video, will solve that. "I feel real good about him," manager Jim Leyland said. "I'm not worried about him at all. He threw the ball very well (in his last start). It's a project and a process. He's got plenty of time to get that worked out."

--LF Marcus Thames could be out of action until mid-week after straining an abdominal muscle in Detroit's March 10 game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Thames made a running catch late in the game and wrenched the muscle as he tried to make a quick throw. Manager Jim Leyland said Thames probably will be out a week, noting there was no significant damage. Thames will be Detroit's backup left fielder, DH and top power pinch-hitter this season.

--C Matt Treanor was expected to return to action early this week after missing time related to sports hernia surgery he underwent Oct. 2 in Philadelphia. "It's real tight with some soreness," said Treanor, examined March 9 after experiencing the discomfort while catching. "If it responds to treatment by the weekend, we will amp it up to resume activity," Treanor said. "Or we will take the next step, whatever that might be." Treanor will serve as the backup to C Gerald Laird this season.

--RHP Juan Rincon is making a strong bid for a spot on Detroit's staff as a non-roster invitee. Rincon had allowed only two hits in his first six spring innings, all scoreless. More important, Rincon was showing a much better slider with a fastball that looked more like the one he was throwing during his good seasons with Minnesota. Rincon fell off two years ago and pitched for three organizations last season before becoming a free agent and signing with Detroit.

--3B Yurendell De Caster, hero of the Netherlands' second upset of the Dominican Republic in the WBC, is a Detroit farmhand who has yet to make an appearance of any kind with the Tigers' organization. De Caster played third and hit cleanup and his hard-hit ground ball (ruled an error) to first produced the winning run in the 11th inning of a 2-1 victory that eliminated the heavily favored Dominicans from the tournament. De Caster has yet to report to the Tigers after the native of Curacao signed with Detroit on Dec. 23. De Caster is expected to compete for a roster spot with Triple-A Toledo or Double-A Erie.

--RHP Zach Miner's status hasn't changed. He needs to prepare himself to start or relieve with the Tigers. Miner allowed three runs to St. Louis on seven hits over three innings. His ERA after his first 10 spring innings was 9.00. Manager Jim Leyland said Miner "needs to prepare himself for relief. When I say that, I'm not tipping a hand here. We think he can start and do a decent job. He hasn't shown, for sure, that he can relieve as effective as he should. He needs to do that. That's not any indication that he's not going to be the fifth starter. He's got to learn how to make the adjustment to pitch out of the bullpen." Miner played high school ball at Palm Beach Gardens and was working in front of family and friends when he pitched against St. Louis. "You are going to have days when you go out there and you just don't feel good, and it's everything you can do not to get knocked out in the third," Miner said. "Then the days you do feel good and don't take advantage of it. That's the worst. That's kind of how I felt." Miner said he will be disappointed if he does not start but will accept going to the bullpen. "I'm just hoping to have some good outings here at the end," he said.

--LHP Macay McBride felt stiff warming up for a "B" game stint and was told to rest his arm for a week. McBride is about 11 months removed from Tommy John surgery but examination showed there was no new problem. "I feel like when I get over this hump, everything's going to be great," said McBride, a longshot to make the Tigers at this point. McBride has thrown two scoreless innings in Grapefruit League games. He may open the season on the disabled list.

--LHP Fu-Te Ni has rejoined the Tigers after pitching for Chinese Taipei during the World Baseball Classic. Ni worked an inning early last week for Detroit and may make other appearances but is expected at this point to open the season in the minors, probably at the Double-A level.

--INF Ramon Santiago is likely to get more starts than in previous years with Detroit, according to his manager. "He'll have more playing time at shortstop than you think," Jim Leyland said, noting that Adam Everett is still the regular. "(Santiago is) a nice player. He's improved his hitting. He has a nice, accurate arm. He's a switch-hitter, which means on days Everett doesn't play he throws another left-hand (bat) in there. He's a good fit for us."

BY THE NUMBERS: 66,163 -- Single-game tickets sold March 7, third-highest total in the 10-year history of Comerica Park, when they went on sale for the first time this year. Detroit sold 177,000 last year and 76,000 the year before. Tickets for Opening Day, April 10, against the Texas Rangers, sold out within the first hour, said Ron Colangelo, vice president of communications for the Tigers. "It has been a challenge selling season tickets but they are picking up," Colangelo said.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're going to have to put it all together at the end, but I like our team a lot, to be honest with you. If (RHP Jeremy) Bonderman and (RHP Joel) Zumaya and some of those guys aren't healthy, I won't like it as much." -- Manager Jim Leyland on the competition for spots on his 12-man pitching staff.

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