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Willis, Bonderman, Robertson battling for rotation

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In the span of three days, Dontrelle Willis, Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson will all have stepped on the mound at the start of a game with a spot in the rotation on the line. Two of those starts came mere hours apart Thursday when Willis pitched against the Blue Jays in the afternoon and Bonderman started against the Nationals in the evening.

Neither pitcher said unequivocally the job is theirs and theirs alone. Willis found himself in trouble and reverted to his walking ways, allowing three of them while lasting just four innings. On the bright side, he did give up just a run. Bonderman's appearance was hardly different. He pitched into the fifth inning, walked two and gave up a pair of runs. One was unearned, as the Tigers defense didn't help him greatly.

And of course, we have Robertson -- the most consistent and successful of the trio in spring games -- set to start Saturday.

This all adds up to a real tough decision to make. It's a decision that may be made soon, too. Manager Jim Leyland told the media he expected he'd have his 25-man roster set by the time the team boards its plane for the final exhibition tuneups in Milwaukee.

And just to complicate matters a bit, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has told the media Bonderman is in position to be the team's fourth starter, though Leyland wasn't ready to go that far yet. MLB.com's Jason Beck quotes:

"I can honestly tell you right now we don't know what the rotation is," Leyland said after the game. "You can make a case [for all of them]. They've all been OK. None of them have really spit the bit. They know what they need to do."

In last night's recap post, Trysdor touched on what I've been wondering lately:

Ultimately, I think the 4-5 battle is close enough that we need to look at who would work the best coming out of the pen and decide on that criteria.

The reason is this: All three pitchers have pitched well enough to remain with the organization, and more specifically, one the 25-man roster. There has been nothing to indicate any of the three could be placed on the disabled list. And there's little reason to believe anyone should be released or could be traded.

When you tie in the fact Zach Miner may not be able to start the season with the team and Bobby Seay definitely won't, what you've got is a recipe for the rotation loser to be the long relief man for the team.

I've got no horses in this race. I honestly don't care about how it shakes out, or think it matters greatly. Having a pair of lefties in the rotation wouldn't be the worst thing. Having Bonderman back in the rotation wouldn't, either.

Of the three, I think Willis makes the most sense in the pen. He'd be pretty happy about that and he'd have the opportunity to contribute. And the manager could give him a quick yank if he didn't have his command. And I'm not going to pretend spring stats suddenly matter, but he does seem to get his fair share of ground balls and has limited opponents to no home runs.

On the other hand, Bonderman makes some sense in the pen too, with his limited repertoire or pitches.

The real losers here are probably right-hander Eddie Bonine, who will end up biding his time in Triple-A Toledo, and left-hander Brad Thomas, who has had a solid but unspectacular spring.

If I had to predict how things play out right now, I'd say Bonderman and Robertson are in the rotation, and Willis is in the bullpen. He'll have the opportunity to earn his keep while Miner and Seay remain on the disabled list. Then the Tigers will have to make a decision.

On a related note, Leyland told the media the candidates for 25th man are infielders Don Kelly and Jeff Larish, and outfielder Clete Thomas. So you can erase infielder Brent Dlugach and outfielder Wilkin Ramirez from your possibilities list.

I still think Kelly earns it. But Kelly and Thomas both left Thursday's games with injuries.

In other notes: