Five spring training questions for Tigers

It’s hard to believe but after Friday, the Detroit Tigers will have just 14 spring games left before they head north to start the regular season.

While a lot of things were already settled before spring training started, there are a few more issues to be decided in the last two weeks.

1) Who will be the Tigers’ closer?

When the Tigers decided that Jose Valverde would not return this season, that left the closer’s job open. Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said that rookie Bruce Rondon would be given every opportunity to win the job in spring training.

So far, the results have been mixed. On Thursday, Rondon threw a 1-2-3 ninth inning, albeit with a 9-1 lead. Overall, in seven appearances, Rondon is 1-1 with a 4.05 ERA and a .321 opponents’ average against and a rather large 2.10 WHIP. The five walks in 6 2/3 innings is also an issue.

“I thought my slider was the best that it has been all spring,” Rondon said through a translator to “I felt very confident with that pitch, and the catcher gave me the pitch I wanted to throw and it made it even better.”

The Tigers could go with a closer-by-committee with Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit, Brayan Villarreal and Al Alburquerque.

2) Who will be the Tigers’ fifth starter?

The battle for the fifth starter’s job is between veteran Rick Porcello and second-year pitcher Drew Smyly. At 24, Porcello is just six months older than Smyly.

The competition is bringing out the best in both pitchers.

Porcello is 2-1 with a 2.08 ERA, .208 opponents’ average against and 0.77 WHIP.  Most impressively, Porcello has 14 strikeouts — more than any other Tiger, including Justin Verlander — and no walks.

Smyly is 3-0 with a 1.46 ERA, .190 opponents’ average against and 0.81 WHIP. Smyly has seven strikeouts and two walks.

“They all deserve to start at the major league level,” Dombrowski told reporters in Lakeland. “Six of them aren’t going to start for us. So either one goes to the bullpen or one goes to Triple-A, if you don’t make a move.”

Although the Tigers have had trade discussions with the Texas Rangers about Porcello, it might not be wise to trade him when the starting depth isn’t as strong at Triple-A Toledo.

3) Who will be the extra outfielder?

Dombrowski said Wednesday that Andy Dirks had won the left field job when he announced the release of Brennan Boesch.

So the question becomes, who will be Dirks’ back-up?

The candidates are Quintin Berry, Jeff Kobernus, Avisail Garcia, Nick Castellanos and Don Kelly.

Berry and Kobernus both have speed. Kobernus has one advantage in that he’s right-handed but Berry has the other advantage in the fact that he can also play center and Kobernus has never played the outfield in the minors.

Castellanos seems destined for Triple-A despite his .381 average because he needs to play every day, especially since he’s not a natural outfielder either.

Garcia did well for the Tigers in the playoffs but that was in right field, where he has played most of his career.

Kelly is an intriguing option simply because of his versatility. He can play every position, including catcher. He has also pitched in the big leagues, although he’s not a pitcher.

4) Who will be in the bullpen?

There are several bullpen jobs already solidified aside from closer but there is a spot in the bullpen available.

Left-hander Darin Downs leads the pack with a 1.00 ERA, nine strikeouts and three walks in nine innings.

Right-hander Luis Marte has a 3.38 ERA with three strikeouts and one walk in eight innings.

Right-hander Jose Ortega is 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA, two strikeouts and no walks in five innings.

Left-hander Kyle Lobstein is a Rule 5 player so if he doesn’t remain on the big league club, the Tigers have to offer him back to Tampa Bay. so far this spring, he’ 0-1 with a 6.23 ERA, seven strikeouts and two walks in 8 2/3 innings.

Righty Luke Putkonen also has a 6.23 ERA with 10 strikeouts and five walks in 8 2/3 innings.

Duane Below might be pitching himself out of the mix with an 11.57 ERA, five strikeouts and three walks in seven innings.

5) Who will be the 25th player to make the team?

The Tigers will also have to make a decision on the 25th player.

Perhaps they want an extra infielder like Danny Worth or a player that could play multiple positions like Kelly.

“Every year, it’s been coming in and battling for a spot,” Kelly told “Just go out there and compete, do as well as you can and try to make it a tough decision.”
Or they could opt to keep one of the Rule 5 guys like Kobernus or Lobstein.

The next two weeks could be very interesting.