PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- With all the conversation surrounding the Tigers' open left-field spot -- and the players who have emerged as candidates -- manager Jim Leyland cautioned against allowing that decision to weigh too heavily.

"It's a small piece, but yet it's a big piece," Leyland said. "But whoever this guy is, it's not gonna be the guy that carries the team. The big guys carry the team. That's the way it's always been."

Avisail Garcia and Nick Castellanos -- both right-handed hitters who can complement lefties Andy Dirks, Quintin Berry and Brennan Boesch -- and Don Kelly are all possible candidates for the position.

Castellanos has impressed early this spring, having reached safely in nine of his last 11 plate appearances since he played all nine innings against the Phillies on Monday. Kelly is back with the club as a non-roster invitee after playing 119 and 113 games for the Tigers in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

"I know what Donny Kelly is," Leyland said. "I can close my eyes and I know what I've got in Donny Kelly. It's just a matter of whether he fits or not. Is he the best fit for our team? We'll see."

Leyland has said he feels comfortable with Dirks in left field most days, but would like to have a right-handed-hitting outfielder who can start when Detroit faces an especially tough southpaw. That's where Garcia, who impressed against lefties late last season, and Castellanos could come in.

"At the end of the day, this is pretty simple," Leyland said. "You can talk until the cows come home. I doubt very much that the guy that maybe comes up and helps in left field or is a utility guy, I doubt very much that is the difference whether the Tigers win or lose. This is all about the big guys. The big guys, that's your core. The big guys are gonna be the guys that carry you."

Dirks returns to lineup after intercostal strain

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Outfielder Andy Dirks returned to the Tigers lineup on Friday for the first time since Sunday, after missing most of the week with a left intercostal strain.

Dirks was slotted into the No. 2 spot in the batting order and played left field for 4 1/2 innings, before he was replaced by Nick Castellanos, who was originally scheduled to play left and bat fifth.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland said before the game that Dirks would not play the entire time. Dirks was feeling better early in the week, but Leyland said he wanted to make sure he had a clean bill of health before re-inserting him into the lineup.

"I just wait until they tell me they're ready to play," Leyland said. "I don't like talking on a day to day basis, like a guy's 70 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent, I don't want to discuss all that. So he's ready to go today and he's gonna play and hopefully he'll be healthy ever after."

After a 1-for-3 afternoon that included two strikeouts and a single to center, Dirks is now 1-for-6 in two games, with four strikeouts..

Closer candidate Rondon still learning on the job

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Reliever Bruce Rondon made his third Grapefruit League appearance on Friday, against the Mets, still demonstrating some command issues in a one-run inning, but also displaying the high velocity he's touted for, as well as a knack for tossing his off-speed stuff.

Rondon, Detroit's leading candidate to take over the closer's role this season, was charged with one earned run on two hits, one walk and one wild pitch while striking out one hitter in the fifth.

"He's learning a little bit of the art of pitching, as well," manager Jim Leyland said.

Rondon surrendered a leadoff single to Justin Turner before striking out Matt den Dekker with a slider to start the fifth inning. He got Jordany Valdespin to pop out to third, but then walked Ruben Tejada.

That brought up third baseman David Wright, who worked his way to a 2-0 count before pitching coach Jeff Jones made a visit to the mound. The following pitch, Wright laced an RBI single to left.

"He threw a couple good ones," Leyland said. "He'll have to put another thought in peoples' mind besides the fastball, because that's what he's known for and that's what he has and it's really good. But he has other secondary stuff, so he's gonna have to make them aware of that."

Rondon got the third out of the inning on the next pitch, getting Ike Davis to ground out to second base.

Overall, he threw 22 pitches, 12 for strikes, with his fastball velocity hovering in the mid-90s and topping out at 99 mph. Through three appearances this spring, Rondon has given up three hits and four walks while striking out five in 2 2/3 innings.

"Personally, he seems like he's in the right frame of mind," Tigers starter Justin Verlander said. "He seems like a confident man, and obviously that's good for the role he's trying to fill."