Bullpen committee could work again for Leyland
Tigers skipper has had success in the past without a primary closer
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jim Leyland knows he will have someone to get the 27th out in victories this season.
He just isn't sure who.
Leyland was a push-button manager the past three seasons. In the late innings, with the Tigers holding a lead, Leyland didn't hesitate.
The call went to closer Jose Valverde.
Valverde consistently answered, converting 110 of 118 save opportunities. He led the American League with 49 saves, 75 appearances and 70 games finished in 2011.
Valverde, however, is sitting home this spring, still waiting for his agent to work out a deal. Leyland, meanwhile, is looking at the late-inning alternatives for the defending AL champions.
There are interesting options, including 22-year-old Bruce Rondon, whose fastball can hit 100 mph, which was why he was on the fast track a year ago, pitching at Class A Lakeland, Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo.
Leyland, however, isn't sure he wants to immediately dump all of the pressures that come with being the closer on a team favored to win the division on Rondon right off the bat. So, for all the eyes that Rondon has opened, Leyland continues to think about the mixture of right-handers Joaquin Benoit, Al Alburquerque and Octavio Dotel, or lefty Phil Coke, in addition to Rondon.
The skipper has even uttered the world "committee" in discussing Detroit's closer situation.
"It doesn't intimidate me at all," Leyland said of a late-inning bullpen rotation. "It's not as much fun [as having a closer], but we have the talent to mix and match. We have a lot of weapons.
"It's not like I haven't done it before."
Not only has Leyland done it before, but he had success two decades ago in guiding Pittsburgh to three consecutive National League East titles.
With the Tigers last year, as well as 2006, and Florida in 1997, he had his late-inning go-to-guy while managing his teams to the postseason. Valverde earned 35 of the Tigers' 40 saves last year. Todd Jones had 37 of 46 in 2006. Robb Nen converted 35 of the 39 saves Florida registered in 1997.
But in Leyland's string of success with Pittsburgh from 1990-92, not once did a reliever earn even half the team's saves.
Bill Landrum led Pittsburgh with 13 of the team's 43 saves in 1990. Stan Belinda had eight, and six other Pirates pitchers had at least one.
Landrum led the team with 17 of the Pirates' 51 saves in 1991, and Stan Belinda had 16. Five other relievers had at least two.
And in 1992, Belinda led the Pirates by notching 18 of the team's 43 saves. Bob Patterson had nine, Roger Mason eight. Four others had at least one save.
"Even if you have a closer, there are days you have to try something different," said Leyland. "There are days you need to give a guy a blow, and you have to make sure you do that. The best advice I ever got was from Hoot Evers. He told me to not be afraid to lose one game.
"You might get the heck booed out of you if it's at home, but as a manager you've got to do what gives your team the best chance to win the most games. Sometimes you have to take that beating for a day. You start trying to please everyone, and next thing you know you've lost 10 in a row."
Besides, the talk of a bullpen-by-committee is often a discussion designed to ease some of the pressures on a pitcher, particularly a young arm, such as a Rondon.
"The equipment is there," Leyland said of Rondon.
But what about the emotions? How will Rondon handle a failure? He's had nothing but success in his limited professional career.
A year ago, Rondon had a composite line of 2-1 with a 1.53 ERA, 29 saves, 66 strikeouts, 32 hits and 26 walks in 53 innings in his jump from Lakeland to Erie to Toledo.
"What you want to see is what happens when the bright lights are on and there is a second deck to the stadiums," said Leyland, alluding to big league ballparks.
There's no reason to rush Rondon into the spotlight. Say, with Justin Verlander starting Opening Day, the Tigers carry a one-run lead into the ninth. Does Rondon, at the age of 22, get the call right away? Or would Leyland be better to ease Rondon into that role and turn to one of his veterans in the early stages?
That's what Dusty Baker did in Cincinnati last year with Aroldis Chapman.
"You want him to get his feet wet," said Baker. "You don't want to drown him."
Veteran lefty Sean Marshall opened the season as the Reds' closer, with Chapman also in the bullpen. In mid-May, Chapman began getting some late-inning opportunities. After a slow start, Chapman finished with 38 saves in 43 chances.
Remember the 1990 World Series champion Cincinnati Reds? They featured the Nasty Boys -- Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton -- in the bullpen. It's frequently referred to as bullpen committee par excellence. Was it really? Myers had 31 of the team's 50 saves. Dibble saved 11, and Charlton only had two, which was two fewer than Rick Mahler and the same number of saves as Tim Layana.
Every committee, after all, needs a chairman.
Myers was that guy in Cincinnati in 1990.
Rondon could well step into that role in Detroit in 2013.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.