LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers' search for a right-handed-hitting fourth outfielder was just whittled down to the point that Matt Tuiasosopo's best competition probably isn't in their camp, as Detroit returned Rule 5 pick Jeff Kobernus to the Nationals on Saturday.
"We didn't say we have the job filled yet," manager Jim Leyland said after the move. "We just think that we can fill the job. No final decision has been made. We're comfortable we can fill that job."
Officially, that was the extent of the Tigers' outlook on the role. Both Leyland and team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said they determined Kobernus wasn't going to make the 25-man roster, and after talks with the Nationals, they couldn't work out a trade. Clearly, however, Tuiasosopo had moved ahead.
"There were a lot of things we saw that we liked about him," Dombrowski said in announcing the move. "We just have somebody ahead of him, is what it comes down to."
The move came just hours after Leyland all but ruled out Avisail Garcia winning a job on the Opening Day roster.
"I think it would be fair to say the timing of [Garcia's right heel] injury probably put a little bit of a damper on him," Leyland said Saturday morning. "He's probably not going to get enough time [before the end of camp]."
That would leave Tuiasosopo as the only extra outfielder in camp who bats right-handed. The Tigers still have a week left in camp to scan the trade market and waiver wire for options from other teams, a move that might not come until the last minute.
"No final decisions," Dombrowski said. "We still can make moves, but we just didn't see [Kobernus] making our club at this point."
As a Rule 5 pick, the Tigers couldn't send Kobernus to the Minor Leagues without offering him back to the Nationals first for $25,000, half the money the Tigers paid to acquire him out of the Rule 5 Draft back in December.
Kobernus looked like he had a great chance to make the team two weeks ago, getting off to a torrid start at the plate. Since then, his batting average has plummeted -- and his playing time in turn -- amidst a 1-for-16 slump. He ends camp at 11-for-50 (.220) with two triples, no homers, three RBIs, five walks and seven strikeouts. He went 0-for-2 on stolen-base attempts.
Tuiasosopo, meanwhile, continued his late spring charge with two solid at-bats against lefty Andy Pettitte on Saturday, including a walk and a solidly hit lineout to center, before adding an RBI single through the middle off right-handed reliever Cody Eppley.
"He did all right," Leyland said. "I thought he had a good at-bat off of Pettitte the first time, when he walked."
The decision on Kobernus has ramifications for the other open bench spot. The Tigers drafted Kobernus in December as a potential speed option on their bench, similar to the role Quintin Berry filled at times last season when he wasn't starting. Though the Tigers consider Tuiasosopo a decent runner and a good athlete, it's difficult to envision him as a late-inning pinch-runner. If Detroit is still making speed a priority, Berry's chances of making the Opening Day roster might have just increased.
Kobernus was one of two Rule 5 Draft picks in Tigers camp. The other, left-hander Kyle Lobstein, is still in camp, though his struggles appear to make him a long shot to crack the Opening Day roster.
Rondon's command off against Yankees
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Bruce Rondon had shown steady progress over the last couple weeks since working with pitching coach Jeff Jones to improve his mechanics. Command-wise, though, Rondon's inning of work Saturday looked more like his early spring struggles.
Rondon fell behind Yankees outfielder Ben Francisco, challenged him with a fastball on a 3-1 count and watched Francisco line it over the left-field fence for a two-run home run in the eighth inning. He didn't walk anyone, but he gave up two other hits and spiked a slider in the dirt for a wild pitch that advanced a runner.
More important than results, Rondon struggled to locate his secondary pitches to get hitters to wave at it until the end of his inning, when he induced a Chris Stewart groundout and fanned Melky Mesa. Both outs came on sliders, and they came after Jones made a mound visit to tell him to calm down.
"I think [teammates] had already talked to him about stuff like that, being able to get a secondary pitch over for strike one, things of that nature," manager Jim Leyland said. "I know Jonesy's talked to him about it. I'm sure he's very aware of it. Would today stick out even more? It might be a reminder. I don't know that it would stick out more."
Leyland said Rondon's secondary pitches have been inconsistent.
"There have been some outings where he's executed a good breaking ball," Leyland said, "and some outings where the breaking ball was OK, but it wasn't tempting enough. It's been a good swing-and-miss pitch in some outings, and there have also been outings where it really wasn't a threat because it wasn't close."
Rondon said through a translator that he considers his slider his second-best pitch. He also throws a changeup in the upper 80s to complement a fastball that hits 100 mph at least once an outing. He said he mixed his pitches more after they were hitting his fastball.
Leyland has shied away from questions about Rondon's readiness, and true to form, he hesitated when asked if he felt like Rondon was ready to be a full-time closer.
"I'm not willing to give my opinion just yet, because I don't know the answer," he said.
Hunter showcases HR-robbing skills for Tigers
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers have watched Torii Hunter take away home runs for years. Saturday was their first chance to see him do it for them rather than against them, and his first homer robbery in a Detroit uniform was a memorable one.
Hunter had a chance to time a jump when Yankees infielder Kevin Youkilis lofted a ball heading into the wind to right field during the third inning. He not only timed it well, he was able to scale the right-field fence to get his glove over the top and make the grab.
"I thought the way the conditions were today that it was going to blow out," manager Jim Leyland said. "Under normal conditions, it would not have been that close. Today, the ball was flying out.
"I've seen that before. I saw him rob one of my former players in the All-Star Game. He took one away from [Barry] Bonds."
Dirks remains out due to swollen knee
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Andy Dirks wasn't ready to return to left field on Saturday. The swelling in his right knee, which he banged into the fence at Joker Marchant Stadium on Tuesday, was still too much to get much flexibility out of it.
He's hopeful of playing sometime in the next couple days, hopeful enough to make the long overnight bus trip to Port St. Lucie and Jupiter on Sunday and Monday despite the knee soreness.
"It feels better," Dirks said Saturday morning. "I just have to get all the swelling out of it."
Matt Tuiasosopo started in Dirks' place in left field for the second straight day.
• The roster competitions that the Tigers were anticipating heading down to the end of camp might not make it that long. They might not even make it to the Tigers' last home game of the spring.
"I would like to be cut down by Thursday morning," Leyland said. "But I don't know if we will or not, so don't hold me to that."
Leyland said he doesn't have many decisions left to think about other than his last bullpen spot, which could depend on the fifth-starter competition.
• Leyland continues to be impressed by the work of left-hander Darin Downs, who allowed a hit and fanned two in a scoreless inning Saturday. That makes it 12 1/3 innings of one-run ball with 13 strikeouts so far this spring for the reliever.
"He's a guy that came into camp this year and said, 'I'm just going to come in and do my job,'" Leyland said.