Speculation city: Leyland says that only one bullpen slot is up for grabs

Leon Halip

Jim Leyland says that he already has six relievers in mind for the Opening Day roster, with one slot still an open competition. Who's in, who's out, and should we read too far into this?

Jim Leyland dropped a bit of a news bomb on the media in Lakeland today, saying that six of the seven bullpen slots are already occupied with one more up for grabs. Commence the overreactions... now:

Before we get too far, let's count out the locks: Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit, and Octavio Dotel will all head north with the team. Bruce Rondon is a near-lock for that fourth spot given all the hype he has received from the Tigers brass over the past four months.

There is likely another lefty holding the fifth spot, presumably for a LOOGY role. The only question that remains is whether that lefty is Duane Below, Darin Downs, or Drew Smyly. Based on the results that they produced in 2012 (bullpen splits are below), I would venture a guess that Downs is the leader in this department. Left-handers hit .171/.237/.171 off of him last year in 38 plate appearances. In the minor leagues, Downs was 0-2 with a 2.25 ERA for Triple-A Toledo. He struck out 33 batters in 29 1/3 innings.

W/L IP ERA FIP xFIP H K BB
Below 2-1 43.2 3.92
Downs 2-1 20.2 3.48 3.24 3.82 18 20 9
Smyly 0-0 4.1 8.31 5.17 6.19 4 6 7

It's worth mentioning that Smyly was 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA in four postseason appearances last year, so I don't think that he's the ticking time bomb that the stats in the table suggest (the 4 1/3 innings pitched is also a big hint). Lefties hit .224/.283/.388 off of Smyly last year, but keep in mind that Drew will fill more of a long relief role if he starts the year in the Tigers bullpen. Right-handed hitters fared better against Smyly, hitting .258/.321/.438.

Below's splits against left-handed hitters were awful, frankly. They hit .304/.309/.418 off of Below in 82 plate appearances. Below would also probably fill more of a long relief role in the bullpen, but I'm thinking he's a distant third option at this point. Expect him to start the year in the rotation in Toledo.

Now that we've covered five of the six "guaranteed" slots, let's try to project the last two. Al Alburquerque has a leg up on Brayan Villarreal, Luke Putkonen, and Luis Marte for that sixth slot, but I don't know if I would call him a "lock" at this point.

W/L IP ERA FIP xFIP H K BB
Alburquerque 0-0 13.1 0.68 2.19 2.97 6 18 8
Villarreal 3-5 54.2 2.63 2.98 3.96 38 66 28
Putkonen 0-2 16.0 3.94 3.34 4.72 19 10 8
Marte 1-0 22.1 2.82 5.06 4.97 19 19 9

Alburquerque's 6-1 record and 1.87 ERA/2.08 FIP/2.78 xFIP 2011 season gives him the edge here, and the return of his high strikeout rate in limited innings in 2012 is very promising.

Villarreal could transition himself from "option" to "lock" very quickly if he figures out how to stop walking left-handed hitters. Lefties hit just .190 off of him last year, but still got on base at a .360 clip thanks to 19 walks in just 88 plate appearances.

And then there are the dark horses for that last spot. I'd peg Putkonen and Marte into this group as well, joining Melvin Mercedes, Kyle Lobstein, Jose Ortega. There is always the outside shot that a non-roster invitee makes the list, but I wouldn't suggest that any of them are close at this point.

W/L IP ERA FIP xFIP H K BB
Mercedes (A) 0-3 64.1 2.80 3.64 - 54 43 23
Lobstein (AA)* 8-7 144.0 4.06 3.97 - 140 129 69
Ortega (AAA) 5-8 62.2 5.74 4.40 - 76 68 51

*Lobstein started 27 games for Double-A Montgomery last year.

It's always a good idea to take anything said during Spring Training with a grain of salt, but Leyland has been brutally honest with the media in all other aspects so far this year. Additionally, with at least four of the bullpen spots cemented before Spring Training even began, Leyland's comments aren't as outrageous as the 140 character limit above would lead us to believe.That said, this type of speculation is what makes Spring Training so fun.

So what do you think? Who's heading north with the big club and who gets red-tagged?

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