TOLEDO, Ohio -- Seven years have passed since Jim Leyland came home for the first time as Tigers manager. He knows the reception he'll get when he comes back for the Tigers Winter Caravan. It's not going to be about a homecoming as much as how they can bring a title home.
He also knows the question he's going to face -- here and maybe everywhere else. The closer is the question that starts it all.
Leyland came ready.
"I'm excited about the [Bruce] Rondon situation," Leyland said Wednesday night at Fifth Third Field before the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens Fandemonium event. "That's obviously going to be a big topic. Let's face it. But in talking with [team president/general manager] Dave [Dombrowski] yesterday, everybody would like to be in a situation where you had a veteran closer who's been through the wars in the ninth inning. A lot of people disagree with that. I see on the computer once in a while, people say, 'Oh, that's not that big of a big deal.' But it is. And if you look at all the good teams, most of them all had good closers. Look at all the teams that won, they had closers.
"It's just going to be exciting. We'll just have to wait and see. But we're a real good team, there's no question about that."
To have the closer as the most serious question left isn't the worst sign for a team heading into Spring Training. For a contending team, though, it's a serious question, and Leyland sounded Wednesday like someone making it his priority to figure out what he has in Rondon.
He knows Rondon's triple-digit fastball, and he knows Rondon's strikeout stuff. The physical strengths, he knows. The mental side, how Rondon handles the pressure of closing, is Leyland's question.
It's the biggest question Leyland has faced at closer since 2009, when Fernando Rodney ended up beating out Brandon Lyon for the job after Lyon had a four-homer outing near the end of camp. However, Leyland has never gone into Spring Training with the Tigers with a closer having so much to prove and so little of a track record.
This situation harkens back to Leyland's previous stops as a manager. He learned from those.
"I learned that the most important part of being a good closer," Leyland said, "is the ability to turn the page. [Jose] Valverde didn't blow many, but when he did, he was able to turn the page, right there until the end, I think. ... I think that's the biggest thing. [If] you blow one, you need to be able to forget about it. Some of them can't do that for a while. Other guys are just calloused and they can do it right from the get-go. I'll just have to wait and see. I don't know much about this kid."
He plans on spending much of camp trying to figure him out.
"I've got a lot of patience," Leyland said. "We'll see how he looks. The one thing about Spring Training is I'm going to spend a lot of time with him. And I'm going to get a feel for what he's like -- in other words, if I think he's calloused enough to do this. Is he going to be able to turn the page if he blows one early in the season? Those are things you just don't know until they happen."
Leyland hopes to be able to ease Rondon into the role, and he isn't ruling out using someone else alongside him. In some ways, he set up the possibility of a bullpen by committee if he has to ease Rondon along.
"Hopefully he'll save a couple, and if he looks real good, save another one," Leyland said, "and if he looks a little fragile, maybe use someone else for a day and maybe break him in. It's tough to do that with a closer, but I think you just use common sense and play it by ear."
The Tigers have two days of stops in metro Detroit and across the state before thousands of fans brave the winter chill and hit Comerica Park for TigerFest on Saturday. Leyland expects to get the question several more times.
The answer should be the same. He can't know what to expect once camp rolls along. In Rondon's case, the one sure thing is what the radar gun will say.
"I don't know if he's going to throw it in the ocean," Leyland said, "but he's going to throw hard."