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While Rodney Returns, Lopez... Stretches Out?

I have to admit, I didn't think we'd ever see Fernando Rodney pitch for the Detroit Tigers again. When a guy has to stop throwing sessions short because of pain in his shoulder, and makes appointments to see Dr. James Andrews, his pitching career begins to take on the faint burning smell of toast. Yet Rodney kept at his rehabilitation. Six minutes of throwing here, another pain-free day of long toss there. And the Tigers held out hope, though Jim Leyland acted as if he didn't dare depend on someone who might not come back.

But Rodney really is coming back (complete with some coaching tweaks), joining the team tonight in San Francisco. And Joel Zumaya isn't far behind him. Just as the Tigers are playing their best baseball of the year and appear ready to turn their season around, the two relievers that made their bullpen so dominating in 2006 are returning. If Rodney and Zumaya are capable of pitching as they once did, is there any other team in baseball that's going to add relievers of such caliber in mid-season?

With news of Rodney's return imminent, the question became who would have to go? BYB reader Matt astutely observed that Freddy Dolsi would probably draw the short straw, based on his inexperience and remaining minor league options. The general reaction to that was "What? Are you nuts? He's the Tigers' best reliever right now!" But it made sense, given that Zumaya and Rodney were likely to take over the late-inning set-up roles, while Dolsi would be better served by getting innings in the minors, rather than pitch mop-up duty.

Apparently, however, the Tigers agreed that Dolsi is pitching too well in relief to send down right now. Or they're placing more of a priority on trying to rebuild their starting pitching depth. In a rather surprising move, Detroit is sending Aquilino Lopez back to Toledo, in order to stretch himself out with more innings and become a starting pitcher for the organization.

What does that say about the depth in the minor league system right now? Virgil Vazquez hasn't been very good this year (4-6, 5.08), and Jordan Tata has plummeted all the way down to Lakeland (he ain't down there for no rehab assignment). Macay McBride was injured before the season, and Yorman Bazardo (1-3, 5.17) isn't throwing like someone who wants to get a call back up to the bigs. The Tigers already called up the one guy they could, when Eddie Bonine came up for his start on Saturday. And though he got a win, it wasn't exactly a dazzling performance.

Making Lopez a starter is a curious move, considering that Casey Fossum and Zach Miner both have more recent experience as starters. (Both Billfer and Lee point out that Lopez last pitched as a starter in 2002, with Triple-A Tacoma.) But he has pitched well in longer outings this season, including a four-inning stint in early April that would've been one of the Tigers' best starts of the year had Lopez actually started the game. It looks like we'll be seeing him get those starts with Detroit pretty soon.