Championship run takes a hit on Detroit Tigers

By Rob Parker - Sports Columnist
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LAKELAND, Fla. - It's official. Tigers fans can panic.

It's not an overreaction to the news Thursday that rookie closer hopeful Bruce Rondon was optioned to Triple-A Toledo by the Tigers.

It's reality when a championship-caliber team is trying to win the title in a fashion few ever have: bullpen by committee.

It hardly ever works.

Let's face it. The Tigers had high hopes that Rondon was going to be the answer in the closer role this season with his 100 m.p.h. fastball.

Truth be told, the 22-year-old kid was handed the job when he arrived in spring training.

Always a no-no when you messing with a kid that hadn't pitched in the majors yet. It should have had to be earned.

And Rondon, a right-hander, just didn't do it. In 13 spring training games, Rondon was 2-1 with a chubby 5.84 ERA. He also had nine walks and 10 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings of work.

"The kid did not do one thing wrong," Tigers' manager Jim Leyland said. "What we evaluated was that he wasn't quite ready to do it today or April 1 here."

It's the reason the Tigers didn't go out in the offseason and sign a veteran closer to help capture a Fall Classic for the first time since 1984.

Had the put up the cash they could have had stud Rafael Soriano. Instead, the free-agent signed with Washington.

The idea that the Tigers wouldn't even bring the kid north and give him that opportunity in the first month tells you they just didn't trust Rondon.

And that's just not good enough to make a team out of spring training, especially a team most have going back to the World Series for a second straight season.

Good luck.

The Tigers are now going to try to close big games with different pitchers at the end almost every other night.

With Rondon out of the picture, the Tigers will lean on Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke, Al Alburquerque and Octavio Dotel. All are fine relievers, but the closer role is a different animal and takes a special person to pitch under that kind of pressure.

Leyland understands the Tigers will be under the microscope all season, especially if this idea goes south.

"I'll tell everybody ahead of time, this is going to be tough," Leyland said. "It'll beĀ  second-guesser's delight, a second-guesser's heaven."

Leyland is totally right.

This team went cheap is a spot that you usually can't.

No one can blame them for not resigning Jose Valverde. He wasn't good last year after back-to-back stellar seasons.

Of course, Tigers' starters have confidence in the bullpen. Then again, what are they suppose to say? The season starts on Monday and Mariano Rivera isn't walking into the Tigers' clubhouse in Minnesota.

"You can win with a closer," starter Max Scherzer said. "You have to have a good bullpen and we have that."

Still, before you think the Tigers are a shoo-in despite not having a closer, remember the American League will not be that easy to conquer.

Not for the Tigers, not for any team. Simply put, the AL is much better than a year ago.

"We're a very capable team," Leyland said. "But there's a bunch of capable teams in the American League this year.

"Don't sell anybody short because it's going to be a dogfight. I can promise you that."

The Tigers, who swept the Yankees in the ALCS to get to World Series, improved. They not only got DH Victor Martinez back, who missed all of last season with a left knee injury, but also signed free-agent Torii Hunter to play right field. "Detroit got better, if you believe that," Yankees' ace CC Sabathia said. "Torii makes their defense that much better."

The Tigers -- who have the last two AL MVPs in Miguel Cabrera last year and Justin Verlander in 2011 -- will have to earn the division this year.

"I'm not saying the Royals are going to beat the Tigers," Yankees' TV broadcaster Ken Singleton said. "They're not, or be up there with the White Sox. But they'll be closer. And who knows what's going to happen injury-wise with teams. A lot of things can happen between April and October."

Especially in this American League. No one is a lock, especially a team without a closer to seal the deal.