It's a good time to be a minor-leaguer in the Tigers' system -- they're going to get plenty of playing time this spring as manager Jim Leyland tries to get to the start of the regular season with no injuries to his starters.
The Tigers have an incredibly deep lineup, so deep a Hall of Fame-bound catcher (Ivan Rodriguez) will bat ninth most of the time. Largely veterans, Leyland simply wants them to get their one or two at-bats per game in and then let them do the rest of their work at their own pace.
Rotation members will be brought along gently -- but not so lazily that they won't be ready to go seven innings by Opening Day.
Leyland's biggest questions concern the bench and the bullpen.
Will he be able to find enough at-bats to keep Brandon Inge relatively happy? Can Inge be content for one year to play all over the field? Will Inge resist the organizational urge to line him up as the successor to Rodriguez?
And what about Vance Wilson? Will he be able to throw anybody out after missing 2007 because of Tommy John surgery? The interested observer in the questions about Inge and Wilson is utility man Ryan Raburn, who might wind up in the minors for one more season if both are healthy and ready to go. Detroit also might decide to peddle outfielder/first baseman Marcus Thames and keep Raburn because of his versatility.
The bullpen was made shaky when a box landed on Joel Zumaya's right shoulder, requiring surgery to repair the AC joint. Zumaya might be able to return by midseason, but the surgery is so rare there's little track record for predicting where his fastball will be at that time.
Meantime, Detroit brings back a veteran bullpen but also one light on the rocket-throwers the organization prefers. The Tigers' relievers are competent but not spectacular. Many of them are also out of options, so the Tigers face the problem of trying to put 10 cans on a seven-can shelf.
Lefties Tim Byrdak and Bobby Seay are assured of jobs, as are right-handers Todd Jones (the closer) and Fernando Rodney. Right-handers Jason Grilli and Zach Miner have track records, and the club wants to keep right-hander Yorman Bazardo in case it needs a starter at some point.
That leaves a lot of pitchers, such as Francisco Cruceta and Denny Bautista, looking for a trade or injury to crack the door open for them.
Leyland also must plot out his rotation. It would seem his young no-hit prodigy, right-hander Justin Verlander, would be in line for his first Opening Day start, but Leyland might opt to go with veteran left-hander Dontrelle Willis.
Having three lefties in the rotation means Detroit will have to back-to-back two of them. Leyland will look at the matchups for the first week or so to decide that, but he also likes to slot a soft-tosser such as Kenny Rogers in front of or behind a hard-throwing right-hander. Rogers might wind up at the back of the rotation to set up Verlander.
Leyland also will tinker with his batting order in the spring to see whether he likes DH Gary Sheffield or third baseman Miguel Cabrera batting in front of right fielder Magglio Ordonez. The other will hit behind the defending AL batting champion.
Left fielder Jacque Jones will bat eighth because Leyland won't want him coming up ahead of his left-handed hitting leadoff man, center fielder Curtis Granderson.
WHERE, WHEN: Joker Marchant Stadium, Lakeland, Fla. First exhibition games are Feb. 26 against Florida Southern and Feb. 27 against New York Mets.
TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: UT Brandon Inge was a major disappointment at the plate last season and is being written off as just a spare part or due to be traded. But Inge understands a good offensive season will boost his value to other teams or put him in line to take a regular job from somebody else on Detroit's roster. A good start is key because if that happens, manager Jim Leyland will find ways to work him into the lineup.
TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: LHP Kenny Rogers is going to lose his race against age one of these seasons, and this could be the year Father Time catches up with the athletic 43-year-old. A blood clot requiring surgery and a sore elbow limited Rogers to token starts in 2007 and the Tigers could be rolling the dice by counting on him to be their fifth starter this year. It should be noted RF Magglio Ordonez and CF Curtis Granderson can both be expected to come down off career years but still have respectable seasons.
AUTHORITY FIGURES: Manager Jim Leyland has guided Detroit to a 183-141 record in his two seasons with the Tigers. Leyland is a no-nonsense nice guy, if there can be such a thing, who commands the respect of his players and is known for getting the most from his teams. Pitching coach Chuck Hernandez is part of a returning staff that is strong on teaching and includes hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, third base coach Gene Lamont, first base coach Andy Van Slyke, infield coach Rafael Belliard and bullpen coach Jeff Jones.
--CF Curtis Granderson, not even eligible for arbitration this year, has agreed to a five-year deal worth at least $30.25 million. "When you have a player of Curtis' ability and the type of person he is who represents you so well both on and off the field," GM Dave Dombrowski said, "it's an honor to have him as a member of our organization. He's one of the top young players in the game, and we're thrilled that he wanted to remain a Tiger into his free agency years." Granderson, soon to be 27, will earn $1 million this season and then get incremental raises to $10 million for 2012, the first year he would be eligible for free agency. The club has a $13 million option for 2013 (with a $2 million buyout) that could become $14 million for All-Star team incentives or $15 million for top-five MVP balloting finishes. Last year he became only the second player in major league history to have more than 30 doubles, 20 home runs, 20 triples and 20 stolen bases. "As I see it, there's always something to improve upon," Granderson said. "Right now, it's going to be in addressing how to hit left-handed pitchers more consistently and continue to cut down my strikeouts. But moving into 2009, I'm sure there will be another list of things to improve upon. I still have a long ways to go. I'll just try my best not to press too much."
--RHP Armando Galarraga was obtained by Detroit on Feb. 5 in a trade with Texas for minor league OF Michael Hernandez. Galarraga, 26, was designated for assignment by the Rangers on Jan. 25 to make room for RHP Jason Jennings. Last season he pitched three games for the Rangers but mainly was in Class AA with Frisco, where he went 9-6 with a 4.02 ERA in 23 games. Galarraga has one minor league option left and figures to pitch at the Class AAA level for Detroit this year. "Galarraga is a prospect with a quality arm," Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski said. "His acquisition adds depth to our roster, and he is a pitcher we feel will be able to help our club in the future."
--3B Miguel Cabrera and his agent, Fernando Cuza, are expected to begin talks early next month to see if details of a long-term contract can be worked out. Cabrera hasn't played a game with Detroit but already has a good feel for what it's like from several fellow Venezuelans on the team. If a deal happens, it likely will be for terms approaching the eight-year, $140 million contract the Tigers offered Juan Gonzalez in 2000, a deal that, fortunately for Detroit, was rejected. Early estimations are the two sides will be dickering over a five-year extension to his current one-year pact for a total of more than $100 million or six years for about $125 million.
--LHP Dontrelle Willis will rebound from his poor 2007 season, says Tigers scout Mike Russell, who recommended Detroit obtain him from Florida in the deal for 3B Miguel Cabrera. Willis has seen his ERA erode for two straight years, but Russell told the Detroit News it wasn't because the quality of his pitches was declining, except for location at times. "Everybody kept talking about his stuff (quality of pitches) being down, but I never saw that," Russell said. "He had some days, I'm sure, where he was a little like, say, Justin Verlander, in that every pitcher has times when he doesn't have his 'A' game. But when I saw him, his stuff was good. His problem was two-fold: He pitched behind in the count too many times and got into fastball counts. And I wouldn't want to make excuses for him, but he was also supported by the worst fielding team in the big leagues last year (.977 fielding percentage). You take that combination of pitching behind too often and having poor play behind him -- not all the time, but a lot of times -- and his pitch counts would rise early in the game. He still got his 30-plus starts and his 200 innings (35 starts, 205 1/3 innings), but I think the other stuff took a toll on him. His location was not nearly as good last year. He was a little off as far as being able to pitch inside (to right-handed hitters). Last year, he was more middle-out, much more than he had normally been."
--Only one of the Tigers' games this season will not be televised (Aug. 2 at Tampa Bay), but only a handful will be available for viewing over free TV. Detroit's cable outlet, Fox Sports Network, will televise 151 games plus four spring training games. Eight games are scheduled for viewing on the national Fox Saturday game of the week schedule, and two are on the ESPN Sunday night schedule. The four spring training telecasts on FSN Detroit will be March 17 against Cincinnati, March 21 against Toronto, March 23 against Cleveland and March 27 against Philadelphia. All four games are 1:05 starts, but the games on March 17 and 27 will be reshown on FSN the same night at 7. A March 18 spring training game against Washington is scheduled as an ESPN telecast.
--SS Brent Dlugach, who made a favorable impression in spring training but had to miss most of last season with shoulder surgery, probably won't be able to participate in spring training this year until the end of March. However, Detroit officials believe he should be ready to play games by early May at the latest. Detroit hopes he can be the shortstop for Class AAA Toledo this year.
--RF Magglio Ordonez can't be expected to repeat his .363 AL batting championship average this season, but there shouldn't be too much falloff. Ordonez enters 2008 with a .311 career batting average, ninth best among active players. Two of his teammates are close to him. 3B Miguel Cabrera is just ahead at .313, and 2B Placido is 13th at .305.
BY THE NUMBERS: 0 -- Rookies expected to stick with Detroit coming out of spring training. The Tigers' top prospect, RHP Rick Porcello, has yet to throw a pitch in a professional game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm going to get what I enjoy, and if it happens to be an extra value meal from McDonald's, so be it. I'm a real big friend of the dollar menu." -- CF Curtis Granderson, who addressed the media with a double cheeseburger off the dollar menu on the day he agreed to a new five-year, $30.25 million deal with Detroit.
This is a team embracing the monster expectations created by the stunning offseason deal with Florida that brought 3B Miguel Cabrera and LHP Dontrelle Willis to Detroit in return for its top two prospects. The lineup is loaded and the rotation could be formidable. The only weak spots are the bullpen and, possibly, the bench. Biggest decisions figure to be the last one or two bullpen spots and which of three players -- Brandon Inge, Vance Wilson and Ryan Raburn -- will fill two seats on the bench. This is a team built for the postseason, and not making a long run would be a major disappointment.
ARRIVALS: SS Edgar Renteria (trade with Braves), OF Jacque Jones (trade with Cubs), RHP Denny Bautista (trade with Rockies), 3B Miguel Cabrera (trade with Marlins), LHP Dontrelle Willis (trade with Marlins), OF Freddy Guzman (trade with Rangers), RHP Armando Galarraga (trade with Rangers).
DEPARTURES: RHP Jair Jurrjens (traded to Braves), INF Omar Infante (traded to Cubs), RHP Jose Capellan (traded to Rockies), LHP Andrew Miller (traded to Marlins), CF Cameron Maybin (traded to Marlins), C Mike Rabelo (traded to Marlins), 1B Chris Shelton (traded to Rangers), RHP Chad Durbin (non-tendered free agent, signed with Phillies), 1B Sean Casey (free agent, signed with Red Sox).
SPRING FOCUS: The Tigers have perhaps the best top-to-bottom lineup in baseball, so deep it will have a certain Hall of Famer (C Ivan Rodriguez) batting ninth, so the idea will be to get through spring training without losing any of its regulars to a long-term injury. Pitchers will need to be ready to go seven innings right from the beginning because of questionable depth in the bullpen. Something to watch will be the competition for the last bullpen spot or two because several candidates are veterans who are out of options; look for one or more to be traded for prospects before the season begins.
1. RHP Justin Verlander
2. LHP Dontrelle Willis
3. RHP Jeremy Bonderman
4. LHP Nate Robertson
5. LHP Kenny Rogers
Three lefties in the rotation is a luxury few teams possess, especially three who have the potential to win 15 games apiece. Manager Jim Leyland is known to use off days to reconfigure his rotation, creating favorable matchups down the road and giving his starters extra rest. Injuries caused a lot of missed starts by rotation members last season, and Leyland will be holding his breath it doesn't happen again because there is little ready help in the minors.
RHP Todd Jones (closer)
RHP Fernando Rodney
LHP Bobby Seay
RHP Jason Grilli
RHP Zach Miner
LHP Tim Byrdak
RHP Yorman Bazardo
This bullpen could be good, but it would be emphatically good if it had RHP Joel Zumaya, out until at least midseason for the second consecutive year, this time because of an offseason right shoulder injury that required surgery. Manager Jim Leyland will go inning-by-inning now whereas he would have used Zumaya as a shut-down guy for up to nine outs if necessary. Bazardo is out of options and is the best current option as a replacement starter, so he'll probably beat out RHP Francisco Cruceta and RHP Denny Bautista for the last spot.
1. CF Curtis Granderson
2. 2B Placido Polanco
3. DH Gary Sheffield
4. RF Magglio Ordonez
5. 3B Miguel Cabrera
6. 1B Carlos Guillen
7. SS Edgar Renteria
8. LF Jacque Jones
9. C Ivan Rodriguez
When you have a guy like Rodriguez batting ninth, you have a strong lineup. There will be some tinkering, which manager Jim Leyland likes to do, such as sitting Granderson against certain lefties and possibly flip-flopping Sheffield and Cabrera. Jones will be replaced by OF/1B Marcus Thames when a lefty is on the mound against Detroit.
UT Brandon Inge
OF/1B Marcus Thames
SS Ramon Santiago
C Vance Wilson or UT Ryan Raburn