LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jim Leyland on Sunday talked about the go-to left-handed relief spot as a competition, and a relatively open one.
"Another lefty or possibly two would be a big key," the Tigers manager said. "Who that's going to be? I have no idea. That's why we talk about [Daniel] Schlereth a lot. We really like his stuff. How far has he come along, and this is a big spring for him."
Leyland could be partaking in a bit of Spring Training posturing, a gesture of fairness to the other lefties in camp like Brad Thomas, who himself could end up in a long relief role. Leyland saw what Schlereth did at the end of last season in 14 appearances, and club president/CEO Dave Dombrowski saw, too.
When asked last month who could fill the shoes of Phil Coke, who's now a starter, Dombrowski pointed to the 24-year-old Schlereth. Earlier this week, Leyland did the same.
"I think this Spring Training he's a guy where you look at him maybe a little bit more than somebody else to see if he takes those steps that he continues to take," Leyland said. "I think he smells it now."
Asked on Sunday what he felt his own standing was, Schlereth's response made "smelling it" seem a short sell.
"I didn't know it was a competition -- I just figured that it's mine to lose," he said. "I proved things last year. Hopefully they have enough confidence in me to go with me to go in there and lock down that role, which I know I'm capable of doing."
There's no doubt the Tigers will be extra reliant on their primary left-handed reliever this season, at least in the middle innings. Ideally, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde can nail down the eighth and ninth without needing assistance from a southpaw. That's a luxury.
Other teams, though, have more than one left-handed starter, and won't have to face lineups stacked with left-handed hitters almost day-in and day-out. Carrying four right-handed starters in the rotation means extra work in crucial situations.
"That sixth inning could become real important for a left-handed pitcher for us," Leyland said.
Atypical of his breed, Schlereth actually fared better in the Majors against right-handers (.244 average against) last season than he did left-handers (.310).
In 38 Triple-A appearances, the numbers were close: right-handers hit .225 off him, 17 points better than left-handers. Going into 2011, Schlereth said he has a plan to handle the American League Central's best from the left side of the plate.
"I just got to go out there and get outs, it doesn't matter who it is. It doesn't matter if it's [Jason] Kubel or [Joe] Mauer, [Justin] Morneau," Schlereth said. "I got some big guys out last year who were left-handed hitters. I know my plan with all those guys, and I just got to execute."
To Leyland, it'll take a bit better control for Schlereth to consistently shut the door.
"I'm talking about having a pitch to wipe out a left-handed hitter," Leyland said. "His breaking ball's pretty good, but also command of your fastball. If the truth be known, a lot of left-handed hitters against left-handed pitchers they sit on breaking ball now."
Schlereth was a head-turner in his end-of-season recall from Triple-A. Taking away his first outing that stint, he went 13 2/3 innings and allowed two runs on 10 hits while striking out 14.
Whether the job is most likely Schlereth's or not, the point Leyland seems to want to hammer home is that Schlereth has room to grow.
"I think his equipment's real good," Leyland said. "It's a matter of reining his skills."