"I'm probably more shocked than Tim Byrdak, if you want to know the truth," Leyland said Wednesday morning. "That was a no-brainer that he was on this club."
That's how suddenly Byrdak's struggles became an issue for a Tigers staff that had other relief spots up for grabs.
Byrdak had been counted on as part of the Tigers' bullpen mix, teaming up with Bobby Seay to form Detroit's lefty combo for the middle to late innings. The tandem essentially replaced free agent Jamie Walker last year by holding left-handed hitters to a combined .195 batting average.
Moreover, Byrdak proved effective against right-handers, too, after the Tigers purchased his contract from Triple-A Toledo in May. All totaled, he struck out 49 batters over 45 innings, compiled a 3.20 ERA and allowed just three home runs.
What put his role into question, though, was an off-and-on struggle to find his command, and it reached a breaking point over the past week. He allowed six runs on six hits in one inning against the Nationals last Tuesday, gave up two runs on two hits and two walks five days later, then could not retire any of the five batters he faced Tuesday night against Houston.
Four batters walked, including two on four pitches, and another singled as a three-run Tigers lead vanished in the ninth inning. Eventually, Leyland went to right-hander Francis Beltran to finish the inning.
After the game, Leyland said that he believed the problems were coming down to pressing. He suggested that Byrdak might be looking for the result of the pitch before he throws the pitch itself.
The totals on the spring for Byrdak were 15 runs allowed on 21 hits, with nine walks and nine strikeouts in 10 innings of work, covering 10 appearances.
When Leyland said after Tuesday's game that Byrdak was on the team, the manager believed it. It wasn't until after the game that he discussed the matter with Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski.
"He was on the team," Leyland said. "This was not even a question coming into Spring Training. And for whatever reasons, he's having some problems right now."
Dombrowski and Leyland agreed to sleep on it, Leyland said, but they had to make a final decision on him Wednesday morning.
"We thought we had something, and I'm not sure that we didn't," Leyland said. "But I just couldn't put him on this team at this time. I'm sorry. I just couldn't do it."
The challenge now is to figure out who to put on the team in his place by Opening Day. The Tigers already had one spot they were trying to fill between Yorman Bazardo and Aquilino Lopez, and this move gives them two openings with those two relievers still in camp. However, it's not as simple as doing the math.
Asked whether he would like to have a second left-hander, Leyland said, "I'd like it a lot."
Both Bazardo and Lopez, however, are right-handers. And there are no clear lefty options internally. Clay Rapada made an impression on Leyland late last season and early in camp, but he has pitched in just one game this spring due to shoulder tendinitis. He's not pitching now, only throwing off of flat ground while he starts over in his rehab. At this point, it appears likely he won't be ready to pitch in a game anywhere when the season opens.
Macay McBride was a lefty in the Tigers' bullpen last summer after coming over from Atlanta, but team officials have said all along that they want him to work as a starter in Triple-A Toledo. That thought has not changed.
That leaves the trade market and waivers, where left-handed relievers who are out of options are going to get a look. For teams that open the season on Monday, Wednesday was the day to put players on waivers if they are to be moved before rosters are set.
Among the lefty arms around baseball who are out of options are Atlanta's Royce Ring, who could make the Braves' roster to open the season and then be placed on waivers once John Smoltz comes off the disabled list, and San Francisco's Erick Threets. Veteran southpaws Mike Stanton and Steve Kline are also in uncertain situations, but both have hefty contracts.
Whatever the Tigers do, between two bullpen spots and the final positional opening, it's likely the Tigers won't have their roster set when they leave Florida on Thursday night for two exhibition games in Houston this weekend.
It says something about the challenges the Tigers have faced in their bullpen this spring that one decision they have made is to give Denny Bautista, once viewed as a long shot coming into camp, the first shot at filling in for Fernando Rodney as the eighth-inning setup man.
"I have no idea how that's going to play out," Leyland said. "I don't know if he'll throw it in the ocean. The stuff is there to get hitters from both sides out. He's got an excellent curveball, an excellent slider and a very good fastball. That's three plus pitches. It's just a matter of his command and throwing to spots. If he can do that, at some point, he could be a closer for somebody, I suppose."