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12/10/09 3:59 PM EST

Zumaya could be ready to close

Tigers considering in-house options with free-agent defections

INDIANAPOLIS -- Joel Zumaya once seemed like the Tigers' closer of destiny, a young, intense fastballer who seemed next to impossible to hit. Three years, several injuries and a couple surgeries later, it's conceivable that destiny might finally give him his chance.

When former Tigers setup man Brandon Lyon provided a surprise to baseball's Winter Meetings by agreeing to a three-year, $15 million contract with the Houston Astros, the ripple effect through the rest of the reliever market provided a cold dose of reality to Detroit's hopes of adding a veteran closer. The Tigers have been reluctant to sign any relievers to any multiyear contracts.

"He got a three-year deal, and we're very happy for him," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "We liked him, but we weren't prepared to do that. We appreciate what he did for us, because he did a very good job. They told us where we were. We understood, but we weren't willing to go three years for him."

Fellow free agent Fernando Rodney was once expected to draw more interest and a better contract than Lyon, and he's drawing interest from the Phillies. He's still on the market, but the way the market is going, Dombrowski admitted Wednesday it's "probably a long shot" that they can bring Rodney back to Detroit.

"I think there's probably enough of a market for him that he's going to take a multiyear deal and get some pretty large dollars somewhere else," Dombrowski said. "We're not prepared to go with what they're asking that at this point."

Other options have been falling, too. Michigan native J.J. Putz was reportedly nearing a deal to join the White Sox. The Tigers have been linked in reports to former Cubs closer Kevin Gregg, but so have several other clubs.

The reliever glut that allowed the Tigers to sign Lyon as a free agent to a one-year deal isn't nearly as stocked going into this year's holiday season. Dombrowski indicated that he's perfectly willing to wait for a match, but it might not come.

All the while, whenever Dombrowski has been asked about the closer role, he readily points out that the Marlins have done just fine replacing closers from their own collection of young relievers. Whether the general manager wants it or not, he might just get a chance to follow that track.

"Maybe we won't do anything. I don't know," Dombrowski said. "I'm not so sure that somebody on our staff can't close. We have a couple candidates. We'll wait and see and play it out. We're not rushing into doing something unless something falls on our laps."

Under that scenario, Zumaya could conceivably get his chance. For all the ups and downs the past few years, he's the most prepared of any of the Tigers relievers to slot into the ninth-inning spot.

"If he's healthy and he remains healthy, the answer to that is yes," Dombrowski said. "But he has to do that. He's got enough experience at this time. He's been around long enough. We all know he has good enough stuff. He hasn't pitched the ninth inning on a regular basis by any means, but do I think he has a chance to do it? Yes."

Zumaya, whose 2009 season ended with surgery in August to remove a bone shard from a stress fracture in his right shoulder, wrapped up the rehab portion of his offseason workouts last month. He's now on a regular offseason training program, something he hasn't been able to do in at least a couple years, and he's on schedule to report to Spring Training early and ramp up his throwing.

That doesn't make him the picture of health, but it's his best offseason situation since right after his breakout rookie campaign in 2006. Back then, he was the unquestioned successor to Todd Jones.

He just turned 25 years old last month, and he's actually a few months younger than new Tigers starter Max Scherzer. Still, the injuries have given his career the feel of a grizzled veteran. The missed time hasn't allowed him the chance to pitch in as many of the late-inning situations that would've established him long by now, and the Tigers figure it'll never give him the same shoulder strength he had in 2006.

"He's never going to have a 100-percent shoulder," Dombrowski said. "It's just not going to happen. He had major surgery in his shoulder, and so it's not going to be 100 percent. So they have said that everything will be fine, but you still have to see it."

Still, if he's healthy, he has more time in clutch situations in the big leagues than either of the Tigers' potential future closers, Ryan Perry and Daniel Schlereth. His health at this point is enough to create quite a bit of optimism among team officials.

It may not matter if the Tigers end up signing Gregg or another veteran reliever. But if they have to turn to their current relievers, Zumaya might be ready to answer.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.