First off, despite their initial struggles, this is a completely different Spring Training than that of last season. Last year some players tried to talk a good game, but deep down everyone knew the club just didn't have what it takes to compete at the major league level. Career minor leaguers like Warren Morris, Danny Klassen and Kevin Witt were seeing extended playing time at the major league level. Minor leaguers that weren't ready for the bigs were handed starting jobs right from the get-go. This year is quite different; these guys expect to be able to compete night in and night out. Manager Alan Trammell will no longer sit back when the team shows signs of struggling - he's determined to turn this team into a real ballclub.
And that all started with the addition of Ivan Rodriguez. Whether Rodriguez gets back to hitting .300 with 30 homers is irrelevant, he'll still be a good everyday player for the Tigers - and more importantly, his work ethic is rubbing off on the younger players who really went about last season without leadership.
One player of note who seems to have been helped by the Rodriguez signing is First Baseman Carlos Pena. Pena, from all indications, looks like a different player than last season - evidenced by his initial power to start the year - a player that can reach the lofty goals set for him when he was one of the top minor leaguers in all of baseball. It's hard to say whether the improvement can be attributed to the addition of Rodriguez, the adjustment in his swing, his move to the bottom of the batting order, Pena marrying in the offseason, or maybe even the Tigers refusing to negotiate with Pena on a contract and simply renewing his deal from last year (typically viewed as a slap in the face for an everyday player); but whatever it is, the Tigers might finally have the All Star First Baseman that they thought they acquired for Jeff Weaver back in 2002.
The Tigers ERA leader from last season was RHP Nate Cornejo. The issue with Cornejo however was his pathetic K/9 IP ratio (2.13). However, Cornejo has worked on improving that - adding a split-finger fastball in the offseason that could help give him the 'out-pitch' he lacked in 2003. No one expects Cornejo to become an All Star, but a couple more Strikeouts a game will definitely be a huge aid to Cornejo - allowing him the ability to work himself out of jams instead of relying on his defense to make a play.
Competition for the fifth spot has already appeared to have been narrowed down to LHP Nate Robertson and non-roster invitee RHP Esteban Yan. The others originally in competition for the spot - RHP's Ariel Prieto and Shane Loux - have not been impressive and were already considered long shots from the outset. Robertson allowed a 2-run Home Run in his most recent outing - on a 2-seam fastball that he's been developing and now plans on ditching for the time being. Unless the Tigers make a pitching acquisition in the next couple of weeks - expect Robertson to nab the fifth spot. If Yan continues to pitch well, he could very well stick as the team's long reliever.
And while on relief, the man that considers himself the Tigers' closer had a rough outing against the Blue Jays, losing a 4-run lead and not even being able to finish out the inning. Matt Anderson may have been a great closer if he could still throw 100 MPH, however, it doesn't appear that his velocity will return anytime soon - and a 94 MPH fastball just isn't the same. His lack of a good second pitch makes it even more difficult to believe he'll ever reclaim his job as the man finishing games for the Tigers.
As far as backups are concerned - the man receiving the most press by far is Catcher Brandon Inge. Inge is a media darling, every member of the press wants to see him succeed and stick with the club. He's solid defensively behind the plate and appears that he can be so at Third Base as well. However, unless Inge really looks to show that he'll be able to be a good hitter off the bench - don't expect him to be a Tiger much longer. There isn't much trade market for the converted Shortstop, so the Tigers might be forced to try and send him back to Toledo and hope he clears waivers. If he doesn't, it will just be another member of the Randy Smith hype-generating machine that never evolved into the type of player the Tigers projected.
Of the Tigers new additions, it appears SS Carlos Guillen could very well be the most beneficial (Rodriguez aside). Either he's made some offseason adjustments to improve his quickness, or Tiger fans have just been so used to the Deivi Cruz era that his ability to make plays deep in the hole is amazing. He's not an All Star or a Gold Glover, but he's better than anything the Tigers have seen since the days their manager was roaming the field.
Trammell is also slowly beginning to realize he could very well have a difficult decision on his hands when the final cuts come around. Cody Ross has shown he's fully recovered from his knee injury, Craig Monroe continues to show the ability to hit the cover off the ball, and Bobby Higginson has yet to get a hit in Spring Training. He's a fan-favorite with a big contract, but can Trammell really keep him in the lineup almost every day when he has two other players showing promise to produce far better than he can. Ross can be kept in Toledo temporarily, but the front-office won't let him waste away down there forever. Don't be surprised if Monroe and Higginson enter some type of platoon this season - with Monroe seeing playing time any time there's a lefty starting against the Tigers (as it should be considering his .968 OPS against left handers last season). It's unfortunate, but we could be seeing Higginson's final days as a Tiger this upcoming season - bringing to end a career with so much promise highlighted by nothing but bad teams.