In his first season with Toledo, manager Phil Nevin will have several players taking the field for him who were with him in Double-A in 2010. At various points last year, Nevin saw John Murrian, Rawley Bishop, Cale Iorg, Andy Dirks, Adam Wilk, Duane Below, Andy Oliver, Charlie Furbush, and Zach Simons on his roster.
Those players will combine with a strong group of players returning to Triple-A for another go-round, and will likely give the ‘Hens a great chance to compete in 2011.
Starting behind the dish, Toledo's catchers will be in flux throughout the start of the season. Originally slated to have Omir Santos and Max St. Pierre as the team's regular catchers, the ‘Hens will now open the season with John Murrian and Jeff Kunkel behind the plate.
Santos will start the season on the 7-day disabled list with an injured foot, while St. Pierre will open the year on the Temporary Inactive List as he deals with an issue away from the field.
Murrian saw action at two levels in 2010, starting the year at Lakeland and heading up to Erie after coming back from a wrist/hand injury. With less than half a season of Double-A ball under his belt, Murrian admits the assignment is a little surprising.
"I was a little surprised when they told me I was going to Toledo," said Murrian by phone on Monday. "I thought I was going to Erie, but I'm excited for this opportunity. It doesn't change much. The game is the same, and I just have to go out and play how I'm capable of playing."
Around the infield, Toledo will have a very impressive core of players, highlighted by four players who have previously been ranked inside TigsTown's Top 20 prospects.
First baseman Ryan Strieby may finally be healthy after over two years dealing with a stubborn wrist injury. If he is back to full health in 2011, Strieby has a good chance to be the massive power hitting force the middle of the ‘Hens lineup needs.
"If the wrist is fixed, he could make some noise this year," noted one AL scout.
The offensively oriented Sizemore will man second base every day in Toledo to start the season, as he looks to put himself in position for a call to Detroit when the team needs him.
Worth is slated to be the team's primary third baseman, though he will likely move around the diamond and also see time at shortstop and second base as the need arises.
"Those two guys should be in the big leagues," said a veteran scout emphatically. "The fact that they're not is shocking to me. They're big league players, period."
The best defender on the infield will be shortstop Cale Iorg, a consensus 70-grade defender among scouts. Iorg is widely known as an all-glove prospect, though his bat showed some life in a late season stint with Toledo last year, and continued to show life in the Arizona Fall League.
Added to the 40-man roster during the off-season, the ultra-athletic Iorg hit .278 with three doubles and a home run in just 18 at-bats with the Tigers in spring training.
"I really think the rust of the Mission is finally wearing off," said Iorg. "I just have to remember the changes I've made without thinking about them too much, and then go out there play hard, and have fun."
Backing up on the infield will be minor league veterans Scott Thorman and Argenis Diaz. Thorman is looking to resurrect his stock as a solid minor league bat, and he should see time at designated hitter, first base, and third base. Diaz is another slick fielder, and he should see some time at both up the middle infield positions.
Rounding out the offense, the outfield will be highlighted by a prospect that created plenty of buzz throughout the off-season and spring training.
Andy Dirks was red hot after his promotion to Triple-A last season, and he continued that right on through the Dominican Winter League season and spring training in big league camp. Dirks can do a little bit of everything and he should be a consistent spark in the Toledo lineup.
Clete Thomas will join Dirks in the outfield on a daily basis as he looks to make it all the way back from Tommy John surgery that kept him out for most of the 2010 season.
Thomas will return to Toledo as the same outstanding defender he has been in the past, with the organization hoping he can become a more consistent offensive performer. He should see time in Detroit at some point this season.
Filling the last outfield spot and the reserve role will be veterans Timo Perez and Clay Timpner. Perez is a name many Toledo fans will now, as he hit .309 and .302 in stints with the club in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
Timpner earned his spot on the club with a solid showing in minor league camp, and he gets his first crack at Triple-A this year on the heels of a .290/.346/.372 line with Richmond in the Eastern League in 2010.
For all the acclaim that may be heaped on the ‘Hens offense this year, the pitching is at least as exciting, if not more.
The rotation will have the unusual circumstance of four left-handers on Opening Day. TigsTown's number two prospect, Andy Oliver will get the first start of the season.
"I think he's capable of this challenge," said pitching coach AJ Sager. "He's got good stuff, he's got big league experience, and frankly, he's earned it."
Oliver may not be in Toledo very long, as he is likely to be the first in line for a call to Detroit should someone in the rotation falter or the need for a sixth starter arise.
Duane Below and Charlie Furbush were both tacked onto the 40-man roster in the off-season, and both spend time in big league camp this spring. Both Furbush and Below are Tommy John surgery survivors who the Tigers could call on for another lefty in the Major Leagues.
The final left-hander, Adam Wilk, was all be locked into the Erie rotation until an outstanding run in Major League spring training vaulted him onto the big league radar. Wilk turned in an impressive scoreless streak during spring training, and he remained in competition for a bullpen job until the bitter end.
The final member of the rotation will be right-hander Thad Weber who started three games for the ‘Hens in 2010, posting a 1.64 ERA and a 2-1 record.
"I don't like to set expectation," said Wilk, "but this group of starters can be very good. There is a lot of experience with this group and being able to bring an abundance of experience into the season is awesome."
As is always the case in Triple-A the bullpen is full of guys who are knocking on the big league door, and could find themselves moving up and down throughout the year.
Two minor league veterans will have middle relief roles in the pen, as left-hander Ramon Garcia put together a strong spring after re-signing as a minor league free agent, and Chris Oxspring impressed the Tigers during the Australian Summer League, to earn a minor league deal and non-roster invitation to spring training.
Both players have the ability to go multiple innings, and they could see time in the rotation if Nevin needs a spot start at some point this year.
The most familiar name in the bullpen will be right-handed setup man Robbie Weinhardt. Though to be in serious competition for a big league job, Weinhardt was optioned to Toledo late in spring training, and he will look to continue improving his consistency to get another Major League opportunity.
Originally in direct competition with Weinhardt for a bullpen slot in Detroit, Albert Alburquerque was sent to Toledo with one goal in mind; get innings and get ready for the big leagues.
"[He's] a guy that we know needs some innings," said Saiger. "He's got really good stuff, and like a lot of guys in that category we're looking for the consistency to continue to develop. We're going to try to get him some innings, whether that's the sixth and seventh, or the eighth and ninth, it doesn't matter right now."
Rounding out the bullpen, the ‘Hens will have three returning players in right-handers Brendan Wise and Zach Simons, and left-hander Fu-Te Ni.
Wise was ailing at the end of camp but is slated to be ready to go in the first couple games of the regular season. If he's not ready to go, he may be forced to join Jose Ortega on the 7-day DL. Ortega hit the DL on Sunday, causing the Tigers to promote Simons from Double-A Erie.
Ni's return to form was evident throughout spring training, as the left-handed import was back to his old tricks of being a solid lefty specialist who will probably help the big club at some point this year.
No matter how you slice it, the Mudhens are stacked with a roster capable of contending for an International League championship. The deciding factor may just be how long they can keep the lineup together this year. No matter what, this is a team that's ready to show fans a good time in 2011!
"If spring training is any indication," commented Iorg, "then those fans that come out to see us play will see a group of guys that like to have fun, play hard, and always give everything they have."