Meet the 2004 Tiger Hitters

Haven't been following the Tigers since spring training kicked off 6 weeks ago? Still want to know how this year's Tiger squad will be shaping up when the first pitch is thrown Monday at 1:05? Well read on, to get all the info you need on the 2004 Detroit Tigers.

First, the Opening Day lineup . . .

Batting leadoff, Centerfielder, #19, Alex Sanchez
The Tigers acquired Sanchez in the middle of last season for a pair of minor leaguers, after the Brewers grew tired of Sanchez and his lapses in the field and poor attitude in the clubhouse. However, Sanchez seemed to straighten out (with the help of bench coach Kirk Gibson), and now the Tigers feel like they have a budding star. His defense in Center is adequate, but his speed on the base paths is incredible. However, for Sanchez to become a bonafide leadoff hitter, he'll need to work on taking pitches and increasing his on-base percentage.

Batting second, Second Baseman, #10, Fernando Vina
The first offseason signing the Tigers made, Vina got the ball rolling, so-to-speak. Warren Morris wasn't particularly bad last season for the Tigers, however, Vina brings much improved range as well as clubhouse leadership to the squad this season. The Tigers don't expect Vina to perform at the All Star level he once did – they just hope his skills haven't deteriorated to the point where he won't be able to help the club out in the 2-hole. His performance at the plate from spring indicates he should be just fine, sporting a .315 average.

Batting third, Catcher, #7, Ivan Rodriguez
The biggest free agent signing in Tiger history, Rodriguez's credentials need no mention. Rodriguez has already had an impact, taking pressure off the younger players in the lineup as well as helping develop the pitching staff. Rodriguez didn't have a great spring offensively, but his bat should come around. His power numbers might go down a bit from his past performances, but there's no reason to believe he still won't be one of the top offensive Catchers in the game.

Batting cleanup, the Designated Hitter, #25, Dmitri Young
‘Da Meat Hook' (as he has become affectionately referred to) led the Tigers in every offensive category in 2003. In a better lineup, he would have had 100 RBI easily. As it is now, Young will focus primarily on his performance at the plate, although he'll probably get an occasional start at First Base and in the Outfield. Like Rodriguez, Young also had a quiet spring, but as a notorious slow starter, this shouldn't be of much concern. With the improvement of the lineup in front of him, as well as better protection behind him, Young could very well produce numbers that surpass last year's (.297/28 HR/85 RBI) in every category.

Batting fifth, Left Fielder, #24, Rondell White
Another one of the Tigers' free agent signings, the switch-hitting White made his first All Star appearance in 2003. A very professional ballplayer, White has always produced when on the field; the only problem for him has been staying on the field. He has a weak throwing arm in the field, but is otherwise solid defensively. White had an excellent spring, with a slugging percentage of .690. White should provide excellent protection for Young in the lineup – as long as he can stay in it.

Batting sixth, First Baseman, #12, Carlos Pena
Pena has had a season and a half as a Tiger, but has yet to really impress despite his highly-regarded potential when he was acquired as the centerpiece of the Jeff Weaver trade in 2002. Pena may finally be ready to turn the corner, as he looked like a new player in spring training (evidenced by his team-leading 5 Home Runs). Pena is solid defensively, and although he didn't show it in 2003, should return to form this year. It's now put-up or shut-up time for Pena – don't be surprised if he has a breakout season.

Batting seventh, Shortstop, #9, Carlos Guillen
Yet another offseason acquisition, Guillen came over in a trade for last year's Shortstop Ramon Santiago. While Guillen makes about 10 times what Santiago did, he's always excellent in the field, and can easily hold his own at the plate. Like many of the other offseason additions, Guillen's biggest problem has always been staying healthy. Guillen had an excellent spring, and brings defense that the Tigers haven't seen at the position in many years.

Batting eighth, Right Fielder, #4, Bobby Higginson
The one constant in the Tiger lineup despite all the changes around him, Higginson is hoping to bounce back after a pair of unimpressive seasons. The Tigers are hopeful that renewed enthusiasm in the club as well as a lower position in the batting order (with less pressure) should bring about a much-improved Higginson in 2004. Higginson has always been solid in the field with one the of the best Outfield arms in the game, the Tigers just need his bat to come around.

Batting ninth, Third Baseman, #31, Eric Munson
Last spring training, Munson was the surprise of camp – emerging as the team's starting Third Baseman after making the move to the position in the offseason – an incredible feat for someone typically regarded as a poor defensive player. Munson had a tough spring in the field, but he improved (both in the field and at the plate) as the spring progressed, and appears ready to build on his rookie year in 2003 which was cut short by a fractured thumb (despite only 313 AB's, he hit 18 Home Runs – which projects to 30 with a full season of work at the plate).

And the bench . . .
The Tigers will start the year with 5 guys on the bench (although that number could change when pitchers Fernando Rodney and Ugueth Urbina join the team). Much this spring has been made of Brandon Inge, and his shift to playing other positions (namely Third and Centerfield, although he also got work in at Shortstop and Second Base). While Inge will be available at other positions, he'll still remain the Tigers' backup Catcher – as Mike DiFelice was let go in the final cuts of spring training. While Rodriguez will see the majority of starts, expect to see Inge get a start a week, just to help keep Rodriguez fresh throughout the season. And while Inge might see a bit of work at other positions, expect most of the extra playing time in the field to go to the other backups.

Much has been made of the injury history of Guillen and Vina up the middle, which is a main reason why the Tigers elected to keep Omar Infante up with the big league club as opposed to sending him to AAA Toledo to play everyday. Manager Alan Trammell hopes that by giving the guys rest periodically throughout the year, it'll help them stay healthier – while also getting at bats to the still-raw Infante.

And while the youngster Infante will be responsible for backing up the veterans up the middle, the veteran Greg Norton will be the principal backup to the Tigers young corner Infield combo of Munson and Pena. Norton, an excellent pinch hitter, will be used mainly as such, although could see an occasional start to spell Munson, especially against lefties (who Munson struggles against).

And despite an excellent season in 2003, Craig Monroe found himself on the outside looking in with regards to the Tiger outfield situation. However, all is not lost for Monroe, who should see plenty of time backing up White and Higginson – especially when left-handers are in the lineup as Monroe had an incredible .968 OPS against them in 2003. If Higginson's struggles continue, Monroe could see his playing time increase even more as the season progresses.

The final member of the Tiger bench is a bit of a surprise, as Rule V pick Chris Shelton looked like he would part of the numbers crunch. However, because of Shelton's incredible potential as a hitter, the Tigers will attempt to carry him on the 25-man roster all season – despite his lack of a true position. He might not see a lot of at bats, but as long as the Tigers continue to believe he'll develop into an incredible big league hitter, they'll try to find a spot for him.

So, the casual fan wants to know, is this group going to be better than the version from 2003? Answer: without a doubt. The offseason improvements range from notable to incredible – they upgraded 4 positions and expect improvement from youngsters at another 3 spots. Throw in the fact that Dmitri Young already had an excellent year, and this group appears to be much improved. While they won't be the Red Sox from 2003, this group should emerge as a middle-of-the-pack team offensively, could be even better than average if the youngsters all perform above expectations. 2003 was a nightmare, but 2004 should have no issues of shutouts and lack of run support – this group is going to score some runs.

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