Tiger News & Notes - 10/12

Want to hear the inside scoop on one of the Tigers players? Want to read some quotes coming out of the Tiger clubhouse over the past few days? Want to know which wounded Tigers are close to making their return to the big league club? Want a good statistic about the Tigers? Find out all this and more inside!

Improving the league's worst offense was the priority for the Tigers after last season. This year, the bullpen and defense will be the two chief targets for improvement.

Detroit also will have to decide what to do about center field, third base and possibly adding to its rotation.

While there is some sentiment for going after a top free-agent starting pitcher, the rotation wasn't a glaring weakness of Detroit in 2004.

In fact, some believe that, given another year, RHP Jeremy Bonderman and LHP Wilfredo Ledezma will emerge as dominating starters for Detroit. Considering how much it would cost for a starting pitcher who wouldn't be enough to put them in the World Series, the Tigers might decide to spread that money around and try to solve a couple more pressing problems.

The Tigers have to decide who plays third base, Eric Munson or Brandon Inge -- or some free agent.

Munson had a terrific home run ratio (19 in 321 at-bats) but made far too many errors for a team looking to cut down on mistakes. Moreover, the Tigers must pay him at least $1.2 million next year.

Inge is the favorite to play third for Detroit next year, except that it would rob the Tigers of their best multi-position player and backup catcher.

Going after a premier third baseman (there are a few on the market) would let Detroit choose between letting Inge roam or giving him the starting center-field job for a season should it decide not to offer CF Alex Sanchez a contract or arbitration. Letting Sanchez go would rob Detroit of the best bunter in baseball and a .322 hitter -- even if he did bat only 40 times after July 7.

The bullpen is the area of primary concern because of so many blown saves and so many leads squandered in the middle innings.

Detroit holds a $4 million option on closer RHP Ugueth Urbina it almost certainly will exercise. His absence in September (his mother was kidnapped in Venezuela) put an exclamation point on the relief staff's vulnerability. Shoring that up is probably the No. 1 target, although there is a dearth of free-agent possibilities.

Detroit might end up trading an outfielder for bullpen help. Or it might wait until clubs decide not to offer some of their relief pitchers arbitration or a new contract.

The Tigers wanted more punch at the corner outfield positions, too. It could mean RF Bobby Higginson, who will make $8.85 million next year, will turn into an expensive platoon player and pinch-hitter.

OF Rondell White should be back although he would bring some help if traded, and OF Craig Monroe appears destined to be the regular right fielder next season.

Detroit made strides last year between seasons by signing 2B Fernando Vina (whose career might be over because of a bad patella tendon), White and RHP Al Levine and getting SS Carlos Guillen in a trade. Guillen hit 20 home runs and drove in 97 runs, nearly a club record, and was sidelined in early September by a knee injury that required his second ACL surgery since 1999.

Signing C Ivan Rodriguez was a stroke of genius, which became apparent early in the season, and the catcher urged Detroit to sign free agent Urbina, who became the staff saves leader. Vina's injury gave INF Omar Infante an opportunity, and he played so well he's being listed as the starting second baseman next year whether Vina comes back or not.

Detroit will make several moves, including one or two higher-priced additions. Owner Mike Ilitch has said he won't operate by a budget.

--The Tigers have extended manager Alan Trammell's contract by one year, exercising the option they held on his services for the 2006 season. Detroit, bolstered by an influx of players, notched a 29-game improvement with 72 victories this season, the second with Trammell as manager. It was the second-largest year-to-year improvement in club history.

--Detroit claimed RHP Colby Lewis of Texas off the waiver wire, the club announced Friday (Oct. 8). It's a gamble of sorts. The reason the Rangers tried to sneak him through waivers is because the 25-year-old underwent right rotator cuff surgery following his last start of the season April 17. Colby made three starts this year for Texas, going 1-1 with a 4.11 ERA, striking out 11 in 15 1/3 innings. He started 26 games for Texas in 2003, winning 10 games to become the seventh rookie Texas pitcher to reach double digits in wins in one year. Overall, he was 10-9 with a 7.30 ERA. Lewis was the 38th overall choice in the 1999 draft by Texas. The claiming left the Detroit winter roster at 38.

--3B Eric Munson couldn't have chosen a better time to get hurt than the last game of the season. Munson changed direction on a popup Oct. 3 and had to come out with a sore right leg. Examination the following day revealed two torn muscles in his right calf. Surgery was not required, but recovery time will be 8-12 weeks.

Detroit faces a major decision on Munson this winter. His original major league contract, signed after he was the third overall pick in the 1999 draft, expires. But because he earned $1.5 million this year, the Tigers can cut his pay by only 20 percent.

His defense regressed this year after a better-than-expected rookie season at third in 2003. However, he did hit 19 home runs in limited playing time despite a .212 batting average. By year's end, he had lost his job as a starter to Brandon Inge.

--RHPs Craig Dingman and John Ennis elected to become free agents Oct. 5 after clearing waivers and being outrighted to Toledo.

Ennis will turn 25 years old on Oct. 17. He posted an 8.44 ERA in 16 innings, allowing 20 hits and five walks against 13 strikeouts. Dingman, 30, went 2-2 with a 6.75 ERA, allowing 33 hits and 22 walks in 29 1/3 innings.

It's possible Dingman and Ennis will sign minor league contracts with Toledo and attend spring training with the Tigers as non-roster invitees.

BY THE NUMBERS: 539 -- Extra-base hits by Detroit this season, seven away from the team record.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We want anything we can get. But this is a good start. This is a new Detroit Tigers team. It's going to be a very interesting offseason. If they want me to speak to players, I'd be more than happy to do it. I'm going to be here three more years, so I'd like to see a superstar here to be part of my team. As long as we bring in some new faces, we're going to be fine." -- C Ivan Rodriguez of the Tigers, volunteering to be part of the recruiting effort for free agents in the offseason.

Reshaping of the 40-man roster has already begun with Detroit trimming two relievers and claiming an injured starter, giving it two open spots for the addition of minor leaguers who need protection from the Rule 5 draft process. Following the end of more than two decades of poor drafting, the Tigers are on the verge of having to make some tough decisions in that regard. The Tigers need outfield help, but third base could be the strength of the free-agent market.

STARTING ROTATION: Starting pitching is not Detroit's primary area of offseason concern although the Tigers might target one additional rotation member if the opportunity presents itself. Their starters posted a 3.71 ERA over Detroit's final 14 games. Three members appeared to wear down a little at season's end, but RHP Jeremy Bonderman and LHP Wilfredo Ledezma finished strong.

--RHP Jason Johnson (8-15, 5.13, but was 0-7, 7.13 after recording his only post-All-Star game win July 29) did not live up to the hope he would be the staff ace when he signed a two-year, $7 million contract prior to the season. However, he nearly reached 200 innings, and that helped bullpen-challenged team. Needs to rediscover his curve.

--RHP Jeremy Bonderman (11-13, 4.89, but was 5-3, 2.32 for his last nine starts) was frequently spectacular after being told to ignore all the advice he was being fed and just concentrate on one pitch at a time. Threw two shutouts in his finishing streak and showed the makings of being a top starter. Refinement of changeup will help.

--LHP Wilfredo Ledezma (4-3, 4.39) dominated the Eastern League, then showed in the majors he learned a lot from being a Rule 5 choice with the Tigers in 2003. Expected to win a starting spot in the spring and eventually grow into a staff leader with excellent fastball, sharp curve and top-flight changeup.

--LHP Mike Maroth (11-13, 4.31, 59 walks in 217 innings) rebounded nicely from his 21-loss 2003 season. Missed a chance to finish above .500 when his team was only able to score seven runs for him over his last six starts. However, he was 6-6, 3.55 over his last 15 starts when he rediscovered working inside.

--LHP Nate Robertson (12-10, 4.90, 155 strikeouts, 66 walks in 196 2/3 innings) was a staff leader early in the season but wore down in the last six starts (0-3, 7.36) of what was essentially his rookie season. Fastball in the low 90s with life, good changeup and breaking ball indicate good things ahead.

BULLPEN: Long and middle relief were a problem early in the season, but failure to hold late-inning leads contributed to 10-game slide in the standings the last five weeks. Changes will be made, with one or two possibly coming from within and the rest probably coming after salary dumps by other teams.

--RHP Ugueth Urbina (closer, 4-6, 4.50, 21-for-24 in saves, 56 strikeouts in 54 innings) missed the last month of the season when he returned to Venezuela to deal with the kidnapping of his mother. Isn't quite as dominating as he once was but still very reliable. Has a $4 million option the Tigers are almost certain to exercise.

--RHP Gary Knotts (7-6, 5.25, 15 starts and 2-for-2 in saves) appeared to mature as a pitcher late in the season. Looked upon as a long man right now and might give his manager reason to have a quick hook next year. Provides insurance as a starter, too, winning his last two as the fill-in for LHP Wilfredo Ledezma. Control of curve has made him effective.

--LHP Jamie Walker (3-4, 3.20, limited left-handers to .197 BA) worked 70 games, and that's maybe a little too much. As the lone lefty in the bullpen much of the season, he often had to face an extra hitter or three. Looking for a two-year deal and will probably get it.

--RHP Al Levine (3-4, 4.58) began poorly but finished with a 2.95 ERA for his last 36 appearances, so the Tigers might pick up his $1.1 million option. Worked career-high 65 games and has been in at least 50 each of his last six seasons.

--RHP Esteban Yan (3-6, 3.83, 7 saves in 17 chances) is eligible for free agency, but Detroit hopes to get him signed before then. Flourished in long and middle relief after the All-Star game but faltered when thrust into closer's role by absence of RHP Ugueth Urbina.

--LHP Steve Colyer (1-0, 6.47) did the job in nine of his final 10 appearances, mostly facing one or two hitters, with little of the control problems that bothered him in first two stints with the Tigers. Upper-90s fastball, excellent curve and out of options, he'll get a long look in the spring.

--RHP Franklyn German (1-0, 7,36) has repeatedly failed trials with Detroit because of control issues (11 walks in 14 2/3 innings this season). Has worked on changing where he ends his delivery, though, and showed sharp improvement his last two outs. Last chance with the Tigers because he's out of options.

CATCHING: With a 10-time All-Star behind the plate, where's the problem? The problem is finding a quality backup because Detroit believes Ivan Rodriguez will need 1-2 days off per week next year to maintain his high production. Injuries in the second half contributed to lower output.

--C Ivan Rodriguez (.334, 19 HR, 86 RBI, .983 OPS) caught 135 games with sore hip flexor, prompting second-half falloff. Reached career milestones of 250 HR, 1,000 RBI. The plan is to give him 1-2 days off per week next year to keep nagging injuries under control.

--UTIL Brandon Inge (.287, 13 HR, 64 RBI) started 34 games behind the plate and 58 at third base. Might have the best release of any catcher in baseball but developed into superb multi-position player and probably won't catch much next season.

INFIELD: The only unsettled spot for next season is third base, and Detroit could decide to give that spot to UT Brandon Inge. Hall of Fame former Tiger Al Kaline said Inge could be an immediate Gold Glove winner at third.

--1B Carlos Pena (.241, 27 HR, 82 RBI) finally figured it out over the last two months of the season, ranking among the league leaders in walks while hitting nearly .300. Showed consistent hitting approach in that stretch; his success seemed to settle his fielding, too.

--2B Omar Infante (.264, 16 HR, 65 RBI) emerged as a budding star after taking over when 2B Fernando Vina went down in May. Had to bat leadoff a lot after the All-Star break (he should be hitting sixth or seventh because he can drive the ball) and seemed to wear down the last 30 days except for a short spike when he returned to short following the injury to SS Carlos Guillen. Excellent glove and hands, too.

--SS Carlos Guillen (.318, 20 HR, 97 RBI, .921 OPS) enjoyed a career year after coming to Detroit from Seattle in exchange for two minor leaguers. Saw his bid to set a Detroit record for RBI as a shortstop stopped by right knee injury requiring ACL surgery (second time since 1999). Signed a four-year deal early in the season and should pay dividends all four years.

--3B Eric Munson (.212, 19 HR, 49 RBI) started the most games at third last year but really wasn't the starter from about the All-Star break on. Had the highest home run percentage on the team (321 ABs), but the Tigers might have to cut him loose and risk having him come back to haunt them -- the major league contract he signed as the third overall draft choice in 1999 is expiring and the minimum $1.2 million Detroit would pay him to sit on the bench next year might be too much.

--INF Jason Smith (.239, 5 HR, 19 RBI) provided some solid backup at second, third and short. Hit well in spurts, has decent speed and laid down two perfect suicide-squeeze bunts in September. His return could hinge on how the club decides to utilize Brandon Inge, however.

--2B Fernando Vina (.226, 0 HR, 7 RBI) saw his season, and possibly his career, end in May with a torn hamstring and partially torn patella tendon in his kneecap. Declined surgery and hopes rehab will let him resume playing in the spring. On back end of two-year deal, but manager Alan Trammell has already announced Omar Infante will be the starter at second in the spring.

OUTFIELD: Muddled is the best word to describe the Tigers' outfield. RF Bobby Higginson is in the last year of an over-market contract, the first three of which were mediocre as his career is on the decline. There's uncertainty about who will play center and more punch from the corner spots is mandated, so an import or trade is likely.

--LF Rondell White (.270, 19 HR, 67 RBI) provided solid help in the first half but his injury history showed up in the second, limiting him to a typical 121-game season. Solid clubhouse citizen (earned the nickname "Rock"), he's expected to be around for the last half of his two-year contract although inclusion in a trade is a possibility.

--OF Craig Monroe (.293, 18 HR, 72 RBI) did the bulk of his power work in the final two months (.319, 16 HR, 47 RBI in 66 games) and figures to open in right or even center next season. Has gone from journeyman to regular status in two years.

--RF Bobby Higginson (.246, 12 HR, 64 RBI) is providing part-timer production for superstar pay ($8.85 million). Some think Detroit will eat his contract -- and it might -- but he is still valuable on defense and knows how to work pitchers. Look for him to be a part-time player and pinch-hitter next year.

--CF Alex Sanchez (.322, 2 HR, 26 RBI, 19-for-32 in stolen bases) emerged as the finest bunter in recent baseball history, but with only 40 at-bats after July 7 and due for arbitration he could be finished as a Tiger. However, with no replacement in sight, Detroit might elect to overlook his defensive deficiencies, sign him and try to trade him at some point next season.

--OF Marcus Thames (.255, 10 HR, 33 RBI) gave Detroit some surprising production after an 0-for-20 beginning as he followed a track laid down by Craig Monroe last season. Not as good defensively as Monroe but might be a useful fourth outfielder to somebody.

DESIGNATED HITTER: A spot of strength for the Tigers, who could fill the slot any number of ways should they so choose.

--DH Dmitri Young (.272, 18 HR, 60 RBI) missed two months right off the top with a broken leg and was bothered by nagging injuries after the All-Star break. Had a strong September and provides insurance in left, at first and at third. Could see more field time next year.

MEDICAL WATCH: RHP Colby Lewis (rotator cuff surgery in mid-April) hopes to be ready to pitch again by spring training but realistically will be brought along slowly. SS Carlos Guillen (right knee ACL surgery ACL Sept. 28) has a recovery time of 4-6 months that could have him ready for spring training, but the Tigers will be careful in hopes he'll be OK for Opening Day. CF Alex Sanchez (15-day DL Aug. 9, right quadriceps) batted just 40 times after July 7 because of hamstring and quad injuries, but arbitration eligibility could mean he won't be offered a 2005 contract. 2B Fernando Vina (60-day DL, right hamstring, 2/3-torn left patella tendon) declined surgery, which was iffy as far as a recovery, and is facing the end of his career; will attempt a comeback in the spring. RHP Nate Cornejo (60-day DL, right shoulder surgery, labrum) is out until spring and will be brought back slowly. RHP Fernando Rodney (right elbow ligament transplant surgery, 60-day DL) has begun throwing lightly and hopes to be ready during spring training. RHP Chris Spurling (right elbow ligament transplant surgery, 60-day DL) is throwing again and hopes to be OK for spring training.

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