Posted: Saturday January 26, 2013 5:28 PM

Leyland, Tigers must find new closer in bullpen

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DETROIT (AP) - Jim Leyland freely admits that at least one role on his pennant-winning team is very much up in the air.

The Detroit Tigers let free-agent closer Jose Valverde go after he struggled toward the end of last season, leaving that spot open for any number of candidates. With spring training less than three weeks away, Leyland realizes he'll have some major decisions to make with his bullpen, but the veteran manager isn't shying away from discussing it.

"I'm concerned about it, to be honest with you, but it's certainly not a panic mode,'' Leyland said. "I think we have some people there that can do it.''

The Tigers were at Comerica Park on Saturday, where the field was coated with snow. The appearance was part of their TigerFest event, and there is plenty of interest among fans in who will take over as the closer. General manager Dave Dombrowski was taking questions when a member of the audience asked him about Brian Wilson, the talented reliever who is recovering from elbow surgery and was not offered a contract by the San Francisco Giants.

"Remember, he wants to be a closer,'' Dombrowski said. "We're really not in that position to be able to make him that promise at this time. He's still coming back from an injury.''

Detroit hasn't added anyone who would be considered a definite candidate to close games this season, and right now the Tigers sound as though they're ready to let 22-year-old right-hander Bruce Rondon compete for the job. Rondon has never pitched in the big leagues, but he had a 1.53 ERA across three levels in the minors last year.

Leyland plans to spend some time getting to know Rondon during spring training, and he's particularly interested to see how the youngster bounces back from adversity. Rondon struck out 66 hitters in 53 innings last year, but he also walked 26.

"He's a very bright kid, and I can't wait to see what he's got in spring training,'' catcher Alex Avila said.

If Rondon doesn't win the job outright, Leyland is willing to close games by committee. When Valverde faltered toward the end of last season, left-hander Phil Coke was able to fill in during the playoffs.

Detroit has depth in relief, including Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel - and even lesser-known candidates with high strikeout rates such as Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal.

"I'm not afraid to mix and match. I think I can do that pretty good,'' Leyland said. "This is a real sensitive subject. We have guys that can close a game, but I'm not sure - other than potentially Rondon - whether we have guys that can close every game.''

Detroit returns the core of a team that won the American League pennant last year, and there are a number of roles that are "etched in stone,'' as Leyland likes to say. That includes every position except left field, as well as the top four spots in the starting rotation.

It does appear as though there could be a competition for the fifth starter's spot between Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly, but Porcello has plenty of experience and Smyly began last year in the rotation.

So the issues Leyland has to resolve are obvious - and fairly limited. That doesn't mean Detroit will cruise this year, of course. The Tigers were expected by many to win the AL Central easily in 2012, but they didn't overtake the Chicago White Sox until late in the season.

There may be moments this year when fans will again be disillusioned with Leyland's team - but it's a long season.

"It's not going to be easy,'' Leyland said. "They're going to fire me about five times again this summer, but I don't mind second-guessing. I think that's healthy.''

NOTES: Leyland said DH Victor Martinez is "ready to go'' after missing last season with a knee injury. But the Tigers don't want to raise expectations too much. "He's perfectly healthy, but when you haven't seen a pitch at 98 mph for the whole year, you don't know how long it's going to take to get readjusted,'' Leyland said.

 
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