His preference was clear from that day in December when the Tigers signed Anibal Sanchez to a free-agent contract.

"You can't have six starters," said Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers front-office steward whose inclination to stick Drew Smyly into the rotation and trade Rick Porcello has been the worst-kept secret in front offices across the big leagues.

But the Tigers are dealing with new realities ahead of their April 1 opener against the Twins.

Dombrowski has been underwhelmed by trade talks as Porcello has morphed into one of most consistent pitchers.

Meanwhile, the Tigers are dealing with a discomforting surprise in their bullpen. They have no long reliever.

And that explains why another of management's previous firm stances — no bullpen role for Porcello or Smyly — is softening as Smyly is inches closer to consideration as a long reliever and second left-hander.

"I'm not gonna touch that 'til I decide who our fifth starter is," manager Jim Leyland said Monday after the Tigers beat the Nationals, 5-1.

The front office's shifting thoughts have been a mirror image of five volatile weeks for the Tigers bullpen.

Hotshot closer candidate Bruce Rondon had so many early stumbles that he spent a week on the sidelines working on mechanics that have since put him on steadier ground.

Rondon had another strong inning Monday (one inning, no hits, one walk, two strikeouts) and is in the mix, if not the front-runner, for an Opening Day turn as closer.

Now, though, the Tigers are uneasy about an opposite-end bullpen job: long reliever.