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Tigers need to work out kinks in bullpen

DETROIT -- Some managers say that it takes 40 games to know what kind of a team they have on their hands. Some say it takes 60 games.

But Jim Leyland, manager of the Tigers, did not need a big slice of the season to tell him about his team.

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"You guys told me Sparky [Anderson] told you 40 games," Leyland said to reporters on Wednesday. "I never really thought about that. I went into this season knowing that we've got a good team, knowing that we've got a couple of kinks we've got to work out. But I know we've got a good team."

But that, as he points out, is just the beginning. Only the competition of a long season proves the point of how good a team actually is.

"The issue is that it's all about winning, because everybody's got a good team," Leyland said. "Kansas City's got a good team. Minnesota's good. Minnesota went into Baltimore and beat them two out of three. Everybody's good. That's really not the issue with me. We've got a good team, but so do the other people we're playing. Look at the team we're playing today, [the Blue Jays]. They're loaded. This is about competition and playing good.

"We've got a good team, it's a matter of playing good. And some nights you can play good and still get beat. The competition is pretty stiff up here."

On paper the Tigers are as good as, or better than, anybody in the American League -- and this is not simply a carryover from winning the AL pennant in 2012.

The Tigers should be better this season than they were in 2012 because they get back designated hitter Victor Martinez, who missed last season after undergoing knee surgery. They have added Torii Hunter, "a two-way player" in Leyland's description, who is still a superior defensive outfielder and adds a dimension hitting second in the lineup. And their rotation, led by Justin Verlander, stacks up against the best in baseball.

One "kink" that needs to be worked out was on display on Wednesday. Speculation has been rampant about the identity of the Tigers' eventual closer, but the problem in this game was middle relief. The Tigers had a five-run lead over the Blue Jays but lost, 8-6. The centerpiece of the bullpen shortcomings was the work of Brayan Villarreal, who walked the only three batters he faced in what became a game-turning four-run seventh inning for Toronto.

"We didn't throw strikes out of the bullpen," Leyland said. "That pretty much sums it up."

Villarreal demonstrated last season that he has Major League stuff. The Tigers, in fact, have no shortage of relievers who are capable of pitching at this level. The issue, beyond throwing strikes, is when and how they will be used.

Plan A ended early when flame-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon was sent back to Triple-A for further seasoning. If a bullpen-by-committee now exists, first among equals in the selection of a closer would be Joaquin Benoit. Leyland likes Benoit's experience and believes that Benoit is versatile enough to consistently retire both right- and left-handed hitters.

But for anybody who wanted to predict exactly how the members of the Tigers' bullpen would be used, Leyland essentially said, forget about it, don't bother, and please don't try this at home, kids.

"It's safe for all of you guys to say just what I've been telling you all along -- I'm going to use anybody at any time," Leyland said. "So you might as well write that, and you can put it in your pipes and smoke it, because there's nothing else to do.

"There's no sense browbeating it. I'm going to use anybody at any time. You're wasting your time, and I'm wasting my time, because I know you don't know, because I don't know. You're liable to see anybody at any time. You can make up your mind on that.

"We're wasting our time here. We've got 12 pitchers, fellas, might as well use them all. That's what I'm trying to tell you. And you can have fun with it and the fans can have fun with it, and rightfully so, until the cows come home. But I don't have an answer for you. We've been talking about this for a month. It's getting old, to be honest with you, for you and me. Because I don't have the answer.

"If our starters do what they're capable of doing, this thing will mesh. And if they don't, it's not going to make any difference, because we won't win, anyway."

The bottom line changes so very often over 162 games. But eight games into this season, the Detroit bottom line is a team with power, run-production potential, depth in its lineup and a very strong rotation.

The Tigers, overall, are in better competitive shape than the vast majority of Major League teams, but there is no question that they have some bullpen issues/kinks that have yet to be resolved.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for

Detroit Tigers, Joaquin Benoit, Bruce Rondon, Brayan Villarreal