Few serious questions face manager Jim Leyland as Detroit heads into its 75th spring training at Lakeland, Fla.
Who will play second base, at least until Carlos Guillen is ready to take over, probably is the biggest problem the Tigers' manager faces. Identifying backup plans for the rotation and left-handedness in the bullpen are back-burner type questions, unless someone gets hurt right away.
Leyland will spend the spring determining who sits in the last seat on the bench, developing Don Kelly as a viable emergency catcher and looking to see how much defense will hurt his team this season.
General manager Dave Dombrowski has acknowledged the Tigers will be a good team this year, barring catastrophic injuries, so Leyland's job is to tugboat the ship out of the harbor this spring and make sure the lookouts are watching for icebergs to avoid any Titanic-type disasters.
Medical types have warned Leyland not to expect Guillen to be fully operational until some point in April, or perhaps May.
Guillen tentatively has been cleared to play exhibition games, but not until mid-March and this means he will stay behind when Detroit breaks camp so he can continue to test his left knee, which was repaired by micro-fracture surgery in September.
The second base job belongs to Guillen when he returns, but given his recent fragility, a viable backup has to be in place.
Will Rhymes, who offers an intriguing blend of speed and decent-enough defense (but no power) and Scott Sizemore, who flubbed a shot at the job last year, will be evaluated this spring as Leyland decides which one gets more playing time and whether one or both make the opening day roster.
The presence of Ramon Santiago, the primary backup shortstop, means Leyland has leeway to keep only one of the two if he needs an extra roster spot.
Detroit's rotation is set, at least until pitches are thrown, but Plan B consists of hoping nothing happens to Plan A. None of the hot young minor league prospects are deemed major league ready; if they were, Brad Penny would not have been signed.
The conversion of Phil Coke from late-inning reliever to starter leaves the Tigers with only Brad Thomas and Daniel Schlereth as bullpen southpaws. Emergency help must be identified because Thomas is best suited for early relief and Schlereth, who has late-inning stuff, needs to display major league control for more than the two months it was shown last season.
Austin Jackson showed last season he can cover his position and half of left and right fields as well. He will have to because returning Magglio Ordonez is 37 and coming off a broken right ankle. Left fielder Ryan Raburn has speed and a good arm, but makes folks cringe at times with his outfield play.
Leyland can use Kelly as a defensive replacement but always in the back of his mind is the fact the utility player must be kept available in case he needs to catch.
Clete Thomas, whose season was shortened by injury last year, isn't written about much, but he's a quality defender with an excellent arm who can play all three outfield spots and hits left-handed well.
Thomas might fit the club's needs better than Brennan Boesch and Casper Wells, who both would be better off getting regular playing time somewhere than seeing spot outfield duty and being the designated hitter when Victor Martinez is catching.
Some believe Jhonny Peralta's lack of range at shortstop will hurt, but there is some compensation with the presence of Brandon Inge at third and Santiago on the bench. Outfield defense and second base are probably higher on the priority watch list.
Strong pitching, a respectable offense and not losing any key players to injury were key factors in Detroit reaching the World Series in 2006. The organization hopes those same factors will make the Tigers a post-season presence in 2011.
--LHP Phil Coke returns to starting with empathy for what relief pitchers go through. "I know what that feels like on both ends," Coke said as pitchers and catchers began reporting for spring training. "I feel like it's absolutely my job to go out there and eat up as many innings as possible. That way, we have our three beasts in the back of the bullpen come out there and handle business like it's nothing. The last thing I want to do is put these guys in a position where they have to clean up a mess that I made, when I know that I'm better than that. I take that personally, because I failed them. I failed the team, because I didn't handle my business." Coke came up through the minors as a starter but was sent to the bullpen when the New York Yankees brought him up because that's where the need was. Detroit talked about shifting him back to the rotation last spring but its greater need was also in the bullpen. Now the Tigers need a lefty in their rotation. He started the last game of last season but didn't make it through the second inning (five outs, 40 pitches). "You want a guy that's going to go out there and just chew up innings, because it makes it so you as a bullpen guy have peace of mind that I don't have to have my hand resting on the panic button," Coke said. "When that phone rings in the first inning, and the starter's at like 40 pitches in the first inning, that's what we don't need. We don't need that negative feeling."
--2B Scott Sizemore said his left ankle is much better this year than it was when he muffed his opportunity to be Detroit's starting second baseman last season. Sizemore, who last year was coming off a broken ankle suffered in the Arizona Fall League in 2009, reported this year even before pitchers and catchers to begin taking groundballs. "No comparison," roving minor league infield instructor Kevin Bradshaw said as he hit balls at Sizemore and several other young infielders. "I don't know if I could put a percentage on it, but people will see the real Scott Sizemore this season. It's fun to watch him work. He looks like he's in the best shape I've ever seen him." Sizemore doesn't want to use his injury as an excuse for last season but he does offer it was a reason. "I was definitely healthy enough," he said, "but 100 percent? Definitely not. You don't want to make excuses, but to come back from an injury like that takes time. I've never been a five-tool player, so I needed as much time in the weight room, and on the field, as possible. But I couldn't get as much as would have been ideal. And, unfortunately, I couldn't bring as much to the plate. I feel 10 times better than I did last year. With my ankle last season, it was tough to get down low on a ball. And when you can't get low, your hands can't get into position. I couldn't cut. I just was not as good on ground balls as I should have been."
--2B Carlos Guillen is not going to be pushed to return too early from microfracture surgery of his left knee in September. "If something happens where he is not (ready), we feel comfortable with the guys we have," general manager Dave Dombrowski said of Detroit's second base situation entering spring training. "They're not the guys carrying our club, they're more the supplementary-type players. They supplement the stars like (Miguel) Cabrera, (Victor) Martinez, (Magglio) Ordonez, (Jhonny) Peralta and (Austin) Jackson." Guillen has been green-lighted to play exhibition games in mid-March but that won't give him enough time to be ready for everyday play. "Let's see when Carlos is ready, how he moves," Dombrowski said. "When he's ready, he'll play second base." Will Rhymes and Scott Sizemore will split second base until Guillen comes into the mix.
--DH/C Victor Martinez probably will catch Detroit's season opener if CC Sabathia starts for the New York Yankees, as anticipated, but after that will have to adapt to mostly being a designated hitter. Martinez has 34 games of experience as a designated hitter in his nine years in the majors but is expected to double that in his first three months with Detroit. He will catch mostly against left-handed pitchers. "I just want to win," Martinez said when he signed with Detroit as a free agent. "I came here to win a World Series and anything I can do to get this team better, I'm willing to do it. If they want me to DH, I will be the DH. If they want me to be behind the plate, I will be behind the plate. I'm just hungry to win." Martinez has started 797 games of his 1,004-game career at catcher.
--RHP Joel Zumaya said he feels great and expects to be ready for the start of the season. "I think I'm gonna be on that team on Opening Day," said Zumaya, who has been working out at Detroit's spring training site for a month as he comes back from the fractured elbow tip that shortened his fourth season in a row. The June 28 injury looked more serious than it could have been when Zumaya threw a 3-and-2 fastball to Minnesota LF Delmon Young, then fell to the ground in agony. "I don't know how a baseball bat to the elbow feels, but if I could imagine it, that's how my elbow felt," Zumaya said. "I never felt a blow like that." He had a screw inserted to pin the bone in place. "It's a screw that can get pulled out if I have any pain," Zumaya said. "The first toss, I thought I'd feel a little pain in the elbow. But nothing. I've proclaimed myself 'China Doll' because I've been hurt so often. I want that healthy year, too. Last year, it was heading that way." Zumaya was 2-1 with a save and a 2.58 ERA at the time of his injury.
--LF Ryan Raburn, like teammate RHP Justin Verlander, wants to avoid a slow start this year. Verlander usually shakes off the rust by May, but Raburn's problems linger into June or July. Rayburn has a .213 average in April, .207 in May but .291 in the second half of the season. "Sometimes I think I try to do a little too much at the beginning," he said last year. "But you can look at video all you want, and if you don't feel it, you won't trust it. It's easy to say don't try to do too much. It's easier to say than to have your body do it. But it's something I have to figure out, that's for sure. I've never been a cold-weather guy. I don't know why. But it's part of playing up here. You just have to figure out how to do it." He needs to get hot while it's cold this year to keep a hold on the job of regular left fielder he's been given entering the season.
BY THE NUMBERS: 1 -- Tigers game not scheduled to be seen on television in Detroit this season. All other Tigers' games will be seen on Fox Sports Detroit or Fox Sports Detroit Plus (152 cable games) or the Fox Saturday game of the week (nine games). The only game not available on local Detroit television is the 4 p.m. Sept. 17 game at Oakland, which can't be shown because it conflicts with the national game of the week.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is gonna be a fun ride. We just have to keep this team healthy." -- DH/C Victor Martinez, commenting on his first season with the Tigers.