AL Central: Tigers look tough, but who's the closer?
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The White Sox, Royals, Indians and Twins are going to show up and play this season, but none of the AL Central entrants are being given much of a chance to prevent the Tigers from winning their third straight division title.
On paper, Detroit is clearly the most talented team.
You can make a pretty strong case for the Tigers having baseball's best hitter — Miguel Cabrera — and best pitcher — Justin Verlander.
Detroit has a fearsome No. 2 starter in Max Scherzer and a slugging first baseman in Prince Fielder.
The Tigers also welcome back designated hitter Victor Martinez, a proven run producer who sat out the entire 2012 season with a knee injury.
And ... veteran right fielder Torii Hunter was brought in to shore up the porous defense.
It's not looking too good for the rest of the division, there's little doubt about that, but Detroit does have a major flaw at the moment:
Who is the closer?
Heading into spring training, flame-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon was the consensus choice to pitch the ninth inning for the Tigers.
With a fastball clocked as high as 103 mph, the 22-year-old Rondon racked up 29 saves and struck out 66 in 52 innings last year while pitching for Class A Lakeland, AA Erie and AAA Toledo.
As Rondon is finding out this spring, closing at the major-league level is a much tougher deal, even during the exhibition season.
According to the Detroit Free Press, Rondon is being pulled out of Grapefruit League action after allowing 3 earned runs on 5 hits and 5 walks over 32⁄3 innings.
The 6-foot-3, 255-pounder is currently getting a crash course on pitching mechanics, leaving the Tigers with a gaping hole at the back of their bullpen.
"We saw a couple of things on tape that he is doing differently than last year," Detroit pitching coach Jeff Jones told the Free Press.
Rondon's spring struggles have sparked rumors the Tigers are interested in bringing back former closer Jose Valverde.
After going 49-for-49 in save opportunities in 2011, Valverde successfully closed out 35 games for Detroit last year before melting down in the playoffs with 9 runs allowed in 22⁄3 innings.
That cost Valverde his job with the Tigers, and the 34-year-old reliever is still trying to catch on with another major-league team.
According to manager Jim Leyland, Valverde is not returning to Detroit.
"I thought everyone knew we weren't bringing Jose Valverde back when we didn't sign him," Leyland said. "If we were going to bring Jose Valverde back, we would have made a run to try to sign him."
The Tigers aren't the only AL Central team with closer worries.
The Indians' Chris Perez was diagnosed with a strained muscle in his throwing (right) shoulder late last week and might not be ready for Cleveland's April 2 season opener against the Blue Jays.
The flamboyant Perez ranked fourth in the AL with 39 saves last season.
Perez felt pain in his shoulder while pitching in a Cactus League game against the Royals last Tuesday.
"I think that if this was regular season, I could have managed it," Perez told Cleveland reporters. "But this is spring training. It's early. We're playing this a lot slower than we would if it was July and we were in the middle of the race."
Shoulder discomfort is never a good thing, no matter what time of the year.
If Perez is still sidelined when the regular season starts, ace setup man Vinnie Pestano is likely to pitch the ninth inning.
"C.P. is our closer," Pestano told reporters. "Until it's a clear-cut decision that he can't go, then we'll cross that bridge."
Since taking over as Twins manager in 2002, Ron Gardenhire has won six AL Central titles.
But in each of the past two years, Minnesota has finished last in the division while losing a combined 195 games.
That has led to natural speculation that Gardenhire is on his way out in the Twin Cities.
"I've got a contract for this year," Gardenhire told the Associated Press in the Twins' training camp. "That's all I know. And I have a job to do and I'm getting paid to do it. The Twins have been very, very good to me, so I'm not going to complain."
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