February 11th, 2013
Cover the same manager with the same team long enough, and you get a comfort zone. Jim Leyland fits that — in his phrasing, in his points of emphasis, sometimes even in his thought process. And then, every so often, he changes things up to keep people on their toes.
The first surprise from Leyland on Monday as he prepared for his eighth spring training as Tigers manager was the iPad on his desk. He owns a laptop, so he wasn’t unplugged in the past, and he made a point a year or two ago to say he keeps up with this blog. Now, he’s mobile. He isn’t on Twitter, but that’s probably more of a choice than a technological limit.
The second surprise came a few minutes later, when Leyland referred to himself in the third person for the first time I can remember. If he has done it before, it was only in a quick one-liner.
“Some writers in baseball, numbers guys and everything, don’t believe in the closer. But Jim Leyland does,” he said.
He was following up on a question over how many options he has to close a game if Bruce Rondon doesn’t win the job outright, and the line got a laugh.
So did a line about Bruce Rondon’s 102-mph fastball: “I love 100 mph like everybody but the state troopers.”
The root of the discussion, of course, was whether the Tigers can trust a 22-year-old rookie to handle ninth-inning leads for a team with World Series expectations. On that, Leyland went to a far more familiar refrain about 10 minutes later.
“I like talent,” Leyland said. “I don’t give a care how old they are.”
If that sounds familiar, it should. From 2006:
“You take experience. I’ll take talent, and I’ll take my chances.”
That, of course, was the year Leyland and the Tigers put rookies Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya on the opening day roster. They ended up helping Detroit to its first postseason berth in 19 years, and its first World Series berth since 1984.
“I’ve taken a few kids since I’ve been here,” Leyland said. “They’ve turned out pretty good.”
Neither of these lines means Leyland has anointed Rondon as the closer. As Leyland said, “There’s nothing that’s etched in stone with our closer. We think he’s a viable candidate.”
It’s possible, too, that Rondon makes the team and doesn’t win the closer job.
At the same time, while Leyland believes Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit and Phil Coke can close a game, he admittedly isn’t sure they can be the closer. Rondon, he said, has the chance to fill that role. He isn’t a one-pitch pitcher, Leyland said, echoing a point Dave Dombrowski made on Sunday.
“Am I concerned about it? Yes. Am I excited about it? Probably moreso,” Leyland said. “I’m really looking forward to it. I like talent. I’m excited about it, I really am, and I know that I’ve got enough pieces to mix and match a little bit if I have to.”
Justin Verlander wanted to get in a couple of throwing sessions before deciding whether to take part in the World Baseball Classic. After getting an idea how his arm feels last week, he has decided not to take part.
“I don’t want to have to feel rushed to catch up to where I need to be,” Verlander said.
Verlander threw a couple bullpen sessions before leaving for Pebble Beach last week. He called Team USA manager Joe Torre after that and said he didn’t feel like he could get ready in time.
Verlander said last month that he was undecided about taking part. Games begin in early March, but rosters have to be set by February 20.
“I knew it was going to be a long shot the whole time,” Verlander said, “but I wanted to give it a shot.”
Coincidentally, Team USA added Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez on Saturday. They still have a roster spot open for another pitcher, so they could have added Verlander and Gonzalez both.