If it weren't for players coming back from injuries, this might be a pretty boring spring training for the Tigers.
Much of the spring focus will be on how SS Carlos Guillen and RF Magglio Ordonez rebound from their respective right and left knee surgeries. The shortstop had his ACL repaired, and the outfielder went through two cartilage repairs last summer.
The pitching rotation is pretty much set, the bullpen has one spot that's semi-open, the bench is largely pre-ordained and the lineup will be locked in once the uncertainties surrounding the wounded knees are cleared up.
The only mystery of the spring will probably be which five of the club's six outfielders make the trip from Lakeland to Detroit in April.
Which shows you just how far things have come as manager Alan Trammell enters his third year at the helm of the storied American League franchise.
"A couple years ago," LHP Mike Maroth said, "pretty much every spot was open. It's pretty much a whole different atmosphere."
"I like it," Trammell said. "I don't want to get ahead, but I look forward to the times when we don't have to bring as many players and we don't have to have four split-squad games, those kinds of things."
One nice subplot could be brought about if veteran 3B Dean Palmer is able to make an effective comeback from, in essence, four years away from being a regular.
Even that wouldn't be a problem, though, because Detroit would merely switch Brandon Inge (What? Again?) from third base to center field and let the Tigers do something creative with Alex Sanchez -- trade him.
Inge enters the spring as one of only two new regulars on the team -- and he was the regular at the position when last season ended anyway. The other, of course, is Ordonez.
The addition of Ordonez bumped Bobby Higginson from right field, possibly to the bench or another organization.
Trammell has already said he'll go with 11 pitchers, not 12, leaving 14 position spots open. Vance Wilson will back up catcher Ivan Rodriguez, and Ramon Martinez and Jason Smith will be utility infielders -- meaning just two extra outfielders will be carried.
Monroe was tentatively due to dislodge Higginson even before the arrival of Ordonez. Now he'll battle White for the left-field job, with Higginson also a possibility despite conceding an edge in power to the other two.
Higginson's large contract might work against his being kept as an extra, but his ability to get on base as a left-handed hitter -- one of just two on the probable bench -- counters that. His experience is also a plus factor.
Trammell, for his part, wants to postpone the outfield decision as long as possible.
"I'm not going to get into that yet," he said. "We talked last year about expectations being higher, so guys will have to go out and perform. We have some depth, that's how I'm looking at it.
"A trade is always possible, but I don't want to make it sound like that's where we are leaning."
Too many questions yet to be answered.
WHERE, WHEN: Joker Marchant Stadium, Lakeland, Fla. First exhibition game March 2 vs. Florida Southern College, first exhibition game against major league opponent March 3 at Clearwater vs. Philadelphia.
WHO'S IN CHARGE: Manager Alan Trammell (third season as manager, hit .285 over 20 seasons as Detroit's shortstop), pitching coach Bob Cluck, bench coach Kirk Gibson, hitting coach Bruce Fields, third-base coach Juan Samuel, first-base coach Mick Kelleher, bullpen coach Lance Parrish.
TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: RHP Jeremy Bonderman is poised for a breakout season in the Tigers' rotation. He went 6-19 two years ago as a 19-year-old and improved to 11-13 last season, including a 5-3 record and 2.32 ERA over his last nine starts. He has improved his changeup to go with a superior fastball and an explosive slider. Narrowing his focus to each single pitch late last year seemed to help. His peers recognize him as an emerging star; soon the public will, too.
TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: RHP Troy Percival is being counted on to be his old self without his old stuff. If hitters start sitting on his changeup and he doesn't have enough of a fastball left to make them pay, the former fearsome Anaheim closer could be looking at the beginning of the end. More frequent physical breakdowns could be a sign that age is taking its toll. Had a sterling second half of 2004 despite diminished fastball, so maybe there's gas still left in the tank although some signs are ominous.
--RHP Ugueth Urbina's mother, Maura Villarreal, who was kidnapped and held captive for five months, was rescued by Venezuelan police from an abandoned campground in remote mountains in the southern part of the country. Urbina missed the last month of the season in 2004 after his mother was kidnapped on Sept. 1.
--RF Bobby Higginson wasn't surprised Detroit made a move to bring in a power-hitting outfielder this winter, the Magglio Ordonez signing probably displacing him from the Tigers' starting lineup.
"With the way I played the last two seasons," he said, "they had to make some type of move. I wasn't surprised at all. Once they signed (reliever Troy) Percival and everybody else shot us down, you knew they'd try to sign somebody.
"Hockey isn't playing, so (owner Mike Ilitch) has money to spend. You have to do something to get this team going in the right direction -- and they did. Offensively, Maggs is a tremendous player, and it's a great signing for this organization."
Higginson, 34, is in the last year of a four-year contract that his numbers have failed to justify. Two of those seasons were marked by hamstring problems that the outfielder believes produced some bad hitting habits as he tried to play through it.
"I don't know about 30 home runs and 100 RBI, but I still play pretty good defense and my on-base percentage (.353 last year) is always up there pretty good.
"I've been pretty fortunate to make a lot of money in this game. After this season, even if I stay here and they didn't want me back, I feel pretty comfortable I'd be able to find a job somewhere."
Injuries are part of the game, and Higginson noted that CF Alex Sanchez and Ordonez both missed considerable time last year because they were hurt.
"I told Tram I'm not worried about it," Higginson said of his situation. "We've been so bad around here for so long. Now we're finally starting to accumulate players a little bit. We'll be able to make trades and get guys that might start turning it around. Whatever part of it I can be, I'd like to be a part of it.
"Don't get me wrong. I'm not going to be happy sitting on the bench watching 162 games. It's been awhile since I've been in this situation, but it's not something I'm worried about or scared of."
As a 10-and-5 player, Higginson controls where he could go in a trade -- not, however, whether he gets released.
--2B Fernando Vina has not told the Tigers he'll be coming to spring training this year.
"I think he'll be going back to Detroit at some point to see the doctors," manager Alan Trammell said, "but he's not in the plans. There has been no indication he's getting better."
Vina signed a two-year, $6 million deal last winter but appeared in only 29 games before suffering a severe hamstring pull. He discovered a torn patella tendon on his kneecap trying to rehabilitate and missed the remainder of the season.
Vina was given the option of having surgery that might end his career or trying to let the knee heal on its own. He chose the latter but has made little progress thus far.
Detroit will put him on the disabled list at the start of the season and collect insurance on his contract.
--Manager Alan Trammell enters spring training expecting to keep just six relievers to go with his five starters.
"That's 100 percent," he said. "I don't expect us to need a 12th."
Free agent RHP Troy Percival enters the spring as the new closer with last year's stopper, RHP Ugueth Urbina, tentatively set as the setup man. Ahead of them are RHP Kyle Farnsworth, LHP Jamie Walker, RHP Fernando Rodney and RHP Gary Knotts.
The faces could change, even if the numbers won't. A sore arm might appear or Detroit might decide to trade Urbina to a team in need of a closer that is willing to pay a high price.
--Detroit announced on Wednesday (Feb. 16) that it had signed five more players to contract, bringing the total to 27 of its 40.
Wise was designated for assignment Feb. 7, cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A Toledo. He was invited to major league spring training.
--SS Carlos Guillen knows he'll be eased into action in an effort to avoid straining his surgically repaired right ACL.
Guillen has been working out at Detroit's spring training base for a month and is eager to begin although he's accepting the fact he won't play much until the season gets close to starting.
He said he likes the things Detroit has done between seasons -- and he lobbied fellow Venezuelan RF Magglio Ordonez to join the team.
Guillen said he told Ordonez, "They're trying to get better. The front office wants to bring in good guys. But nobody wants to come here. They're scared about the city or something."
Guillen's season ended in early September at 97 RBI. His emergence as an offensive and defensive force was one of the main reasons for Detroit's improvement last season.
"Everybody in this room has one goal -- win one game at a time," Guillen said. "We know we're going to lose some games, but we're going to play hard. We've got the people who can put up some numbers. If you put it together, you're going to win a lot of games.
"The goal is to find a way to win, to learn how to win. That's the goal. To compete is not the goal."
BY THE NUMBERS: 11 -- Consecutive losing seasons by the Tigers entering the 2005 season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I want to get on the field first before I answer that. I'm confident, but I want to get out there and do it. We haven't finished .500 in 12 years. I want to go out there and do it on the field. I'm not going to make any bold predictions." -- Detroit manager Alan Trammell on whether his club can finally get back over .500 again.
Team spirits were lifted by the late winter signing of free agent RF Magglio Ordonez and subsequent addition via trade of RHP Kyle Farnsworth to bolster the bullpen. Both moves were signals management is committed to ending a string of sub-.500 seasons that dates to 1993 and that it would make additional moves during the season if called for. The offense was vastly improved a year ago and should be at least as good this year. The staff lacks a veteran ace but has talented young pitchers (RHP Jeremy Bonderman plus LHPs Wilfredo Ledezma and Nate Robertson) as well as an older one (RHP Jason Johnson) who potentially could emerge. Adding Ordonez means Detroit must subtract an outfielder at some point. Obtaining Farnsworth strengthens a bullpen that was already made stronger by the addition of free agent closer RHP Troy Percival. Farnsworth typifies the type of pitcher favored by GM Dave Dombrowski -- someone who throws so hard he overpowers his mistakes. Coughing up leads in the seventh and eighth innings a year ago kept the Tigers from reaching .500. There's a general "can do" feeling as the club tries to see if it can challenge for first place in the modest AL Central.
ARRIVALS: RHP Kyle Farnsworth (trade with Chicago Cubs), RF Magglio Ordonez (free agent from Chicago White Sox), C Vance Wilson (trade with New York Mets), INF Ramon Martinez (free agent from Chicago Cubs), RHP Troy Percival (free agent from Anaheim), RHP Colby Lewis (waiver claim from Texas), OF Byron Gettis (waiver claim from Kansas City).
DEPARTURES: RHP Roberto Novoa (trade to Chicago Cubs), RHP Al Levine ($100,000 buyout of club option), RHP Esteban Yan (elected free agency, club declined arbitration, signed two-year $3 million deal with Anaheim).
--LHP Mike Maroth (11-13, 4.31 ERA) is the senior member of the staff in terms of Detroit service. Effective when he works inside and out with his fastball. Ability to mix and spot other pitches makes him effective. Rebounded nicely from 21-loss 2003 season.
--RHP Jason Johnson (8-15, 5.13 ERA) battled a blister problem early in the season and then had his third straight subpar second half, causing management to question his strenuous workout through the whole year. He's agreed to taper off this year, and Detroit hopes this will help him live up to expectations when it signed him as a free agent from Baltimore last winter.
--RHP Jeremy Bonderman (11-13, 4.89 ERA) could be poised to become the staff ace. Narrowed his focus the last third of last season and posted impressive 2.32 ERA over final nine starts. Can't hold runners at first -- but who cares if nobody gets there? Lots of strikeouts, few hits allowed. Improved his changeup last year but will work on sharpening it some more this spring.
--LHP Nate Robertson (12-10, 4.90 ERA) got off to an impressive start last year and was among the league strikeout leaders through two months after just squeaking into the rotation at the end of spring training. Faded in the second half, but management attributes that to the strain of going through his first full season in the majors. Above average fastball and good slider make him tough to hit.
--LHP Wilfredo Ledezma showed in the last three months of the season Detroit was right to make him a Rule 5 choice from the Boston organization before the 2003 season. Fastball, curve, changeup and control all above average. Dominated at Double-A level, then 4-3, 4.39 ERA in 15 games (8 starts) with Detroit before being shut down when he hit innings limit for the season.
Detroit angled for a top-tier veteran starting pitcher to lead this promising but inexperienced staff, but RHP Carl Pavano opted for the New York Yankees. The organization expects Bonderman and Ledezma to eventually become the power pitcher leaders coveted by GM Dave Dombrowski -- but at least publicly is saying it expects that to happen in 2006, not 2005. It's a little like the situation of teen golf prodigy Michelle Wie -- the ingredients appear to be there, it's just a matter of waiting for experience and maturity.
--RHP Gary Knotts (7-6, 5.25 ERA) was serviceable as a swing man last year and could serve in the same role this season. He was noticeably better as a starter in September. His breaking ball determines how good he is. Should be an attractive long relief option.
--LHP Jamie Walker has entrenched himself as a versatile reliever, signing a one-year deal with an option for a second this offseason. His numbers (3-4-1, 3.20 ERA) would be even better if the Tigers didn't have to overuse him. Detroit has never been able to limit his use to one or two (left-handed) batters because it has never been able to give him any complementary left-side help.
--RHP Kyle Farnsworth (4-5, 4.73 ERA in 72 games) worked the last six seasons for the Chicago Cubs and will give Detroit someone it can use anywhere from early to late in a game. Needs to calm down his emotions, smooth out his erratic results and refine his slider -- but showing his 100 mph heater to a new league ought to be worth something.
--RHP Fernando Rodney missed last season with elbow ligament transplant surgery and reportedly is ready to throw without restrictions. He had a job clinched in spring training last year until the sore elbow eliminated him. Ticketed for seventh inning most of the time. Might not make the club if it decides, as expected, to go with six relievers early and his elbow isn't ready.
--RHP Ugueth Urbina (4-6, 4.50 ERA with 21 saves in 24 chances) will earn $4 million this season to be Detroit's setup man after a season in which he was one of handful of major league pitchers to hold opposing batters to less than a .200 average whether they hit left- or right-handed. Trade candidate -- but probably not if the Tigers don't think they have a reliable replacement, and almost certainly not now that the club sees itself as an AL Central contender. Could return to closer duty if RHP Troy Percival falters.
--RHP Troy Percival (2-3, 2.90 with 33 saves for Anaheim) enters the season as Detroit's anointed closer after signing a big two-year free agent deal. Age and health are becoming issues, but he was solid down the stretch for Anaheim last season. Might need to be babied to be effective, but the presence of RHP Ugueth Urbina, solid as Detroit's closer last year, permits this.
Shoring up the bullpen was the No. 1 front office priority after last season, and GM Dave Dombrowski thinks the additions of RHPs Troy Percival and Kyle Farnsworth accomplishes this. It also remakes the Tigers' bullpen with the hard throwers Dombrowski likes. This lets manager Alan Trammell back last year's closer, RHP Ugueth Urbina, into the setup role to bolster a spot that was a major problem for the team last year. RHP Gary Knotts looks to be a solid early relief man -- if he's not needed to take the place of a starter. Farnsworth can get key outs early, set up or close as needed; adding him means the Tigers can feel more secure about going with six relievers. Lack of left-handed help for LHP Jamie Walker led to his being overworked last year, and it remains to be seen if having harder-throwing right-handers this year can compensate for lack of a second lefty. Counting on somebody coming back from elbow ligament transplant surgery is risky (note that RHP Danny Patterson tried to do so last year and is no longer on the team) but the Tigers are more or less counting on RHP Fernando Rodney to do so. It would seem the potential is there to be better, but the reverse is equally possible.
--CF Alex Sanchez is the best bunter in baseball (29 bunt singles), but his on-base percentage (held down by seven walks) is a drawback unless he hits .350. If he can read the papers, he knows his defense, on-base ability and baserunning skills are on trial this year. It will take some work, but he could easily turn his minuses into pluses. Definitely improved over the player he was with Milwaukee.
--SS Carlos Guillen hit .336 in 220 at-bats in the second spot last season but is also a viable option for the No. 6 position because he hit .396 in limited appearances there. Coming off September knee surgery and won't be pushed in the spring. A close second to teammate C Ivan Rodriguez for club MVP in 2004.
--C Ivan Rodriguez had a highlight-reel June, hitting .500, but a cooler post-All-Star period has manager Alan Trammell thinking he'll rest him more during the early part of the season. Some think his numbers (.334-19-86) will decline as he approaches his mid-30s, but his history suggests not. Instantly became the face of the team and its MVP when he arrived. Pencil in backup C Vance Wilson once or twice a week.
--RF Magglio Ordonez has a big contract -- but it's commensurate with his large upside. He has bona fide 30 home run, 100 RBI credentials -- if healthy. He'll be babied through the spring until his surgically repaired knee is up to speed.
--DH Dmitri Young is accepting the move from fourth to fifth in the lineup with the acquisition of RF Magglio Ordonez. Missed time with a broken ankle and wasn't 100 percent all year (18 home runs, 60 RBI in 104 games) but remains a team leader with his attitude and ability to produce.
--LF Rondell White/Craig Monroe will fight for playing time in left. Monroe can spot start at all three outfield positions and had good power numbers the last part of the year. White has had knee or ankle problems nearly ever year and might benefit from the presence of Monroe.
--1B Carlos Pena hit .300 after the All-Star break and finally showed the kind of offensive consistency the Tigers hoped for when they acquired him from Oakland 2 1/2 years ago. Still strikes out too much but achieved a breakthrough by bringing his walks up to equal the whiffs; the improved patience at the plate makes him a better hitter.
--2B Omar Infante is a dangerous hitter to have near the bottom of the lineup. Infante plays a solid defensive second base and has good gap power. Can be expected to improve as he matures. Could also play shortstop at the major league level.
--3B Brandon Inge hit near .300 when he didn't catch last year and that, along with his Gold Glove potential at the position, landed him the third base job this year when Detroit was unable to sign a major power player for the position. Inge should hit 15-20 home runs and drive in 70-80, even at the bottom of the order. His speed and on-base percentage (.340) make him a viable leadoff alternative and an excellent No. 9 presence. Was deadly with the bases loaded last year.
Manager Alan Trammell used a variety of lineups last season and will probably do so again because of a plan to rest C Ivan Rodriguez 1-2 days per week and the uncertainty of three players coming off injuries -- SS Carlos Guillen, LF Rondell White and RF Magglio Ordonez. DH Dmitri Young will probably see some cleanup duty while 2B Omar Infante could hit second with Guillen hitting third or sixth. Detroit might not show much patience with CF Alex Sanchez if he fails to enhance the weak areas of his game; the presence of Craig Monroe in the majors and CF Curtis Granderson at Triple-A could provide Trammell with alternatives. Trammell, like his mentor Sparky Anderson, likes to give his bench as much playing time as he can.
--INF Ramon Martinez was signed as a free agent from the Cubs to provide a solid right-handed hitting middle infield reserve. Martinez hit .246 in more than 100 games for the Cubs last season but figures to fall far short of that type of usage with the Tigers unless someone gets hurt. Capable defender at all the infield spots.
--INF Jason Smith did a solid job as a middle infield reserve when brought up by Detroit last May. Shows occasional power and line-drive gap hitting ability, although his hitting tailed off in September when his playing time went up. Provides decent defense, is a sound baserunner and can bunt.
--OF Bobby Higginson will probably open the season on the bench unless a giant spring lets him beat out the White/Monroe combo in left field or RF Magglio Ordonez's knee doesn't hold up. He could also be released in favor of OF Marcus Thames -- unlikely at this point because he provides a learned left-handed hitter off the bench.
--OF Rondell White/Craig Monroe figure to share time in left, initially, with one of them available for pinch-hitting and spot duty. Both have the potential to provide Detroit with lower order power. Monroe would have been the right fielder had Detroit not signed Ordonez.
--C Vance Wilson was obtained from the Mets to let Detroit give C Ivan Rodriguez a day or two off per week. He is a proven hitter at the major league level and a better-than-average defender with a strong arm.
Detroit's bench limitations became acute late last season when an injury took SS Carlos Guillen from the lineup and the ineffectiveness of 3B Eric Munson put UT Brandon Inge into the lineup full-time. Outfield production from the regulars was substandard, but reserve outfielders were solid. The Smith/Martinez infield combo gives the Tigers a left-right option for late inning maneuvering, while Wilson provides the team the solid backup catcher it has sought for years.
TOP ROOKIES: CF Curtis Granderson (.240 in 9 games with Detroit after .301-21-94 for Double-A Erie) is the only true rookie with a shot to make Detroit's roster -- and the earliest that figures to be possible is midseason. DH/1B/C Chris Shelton (.196-1-3 with Detroit, but .339-0-7 in 18 Triple-A rehab games) isn't a true rookie since he spent last season on Detroit's roster as a Rule 5 choice, but his 46 at-bats in 27 games don't constitute a whole lot of major league experience. Shelton, who hit .404 in the Arizona Fall League, will open the season at Triple-A but could create space for himself with a good start, especially if the Tigers need a bat. RHP Kyle Sleeth (4-4, 6.30 in 13 Double-A starts after 3-4, 3.67 in nine high Class A starts for Lakeland) was on the fast track after Detroit made him its top choice in the 2003 draft, but an inability to keep pitches down really hurt at Double-A Erie and the Tigers decided they needed to remake his delivery. Sleeth's weapons are good enough, though, to where good minor league numbers could bring him up late in the year.
SPRING FOCUS: Most of the attention will be on Detroit's injured, new and aged. RF Magglio Ordonez's left knee will get a long look after being repaired twice last season, costing him a long-term offer from anybody but Detroit. Ordonez will be brought along slowly in hopes he'll be ready for the grind of daily play when the games count. SS Carlos Guillen is coming back from September knee surgery, too, and also won't play a lot in the spring. OF Rondell White had knee and ankle problems, and CF Alex Sanchez needs improve his weak areas and avoid his leg ailments to stay ahead of the competition. RHP Fernando Rodney isn't even a year removed from right elbow ligament surgery, yet he's close to a roster spot -- if healthy. RHP Troy Percival will be observed to find out the best way of keeping him off the disabled list, where he spent much of the first half of last season. Percival's age could be a factor in his effectiveness, too, and if he's not able to do the job the Detroit bullpen will be tested. Bringing in RHP Kyle Farnsworth from the Cubs gives the bullpen some depth and options. The addition of Ordonez gives the Tigers an extra outfielder, so someone will be weeded out. There is competition for the left field job between incumbent Rondell White, OF Craig Monroe and OF Bobby Higginson, dislodged from right by Ordonez. The young starting rotation will be monitored, as well, since Detroit failed to pick up a veteran ace to lead it.
MEDICAL WATCH: RF Magglio Ordonez (knee surgery) has been given clearance to resume baseball activities but will be used sparsely in spring games. RHP Colby Lewis (rotator cuff surgery in mid-April) hopes to be ready to pitch in the spring but will probably open in the minors and be brought back slowly. SS Carlos Guillen (right knee ACL surgery Sept. 28) is reportedly ready to play but won't be overused during spring training. CF Alex Sanchez (right quadriceps) will be ready for spring training. 2B Fernando Vina (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; not going to be ready for spring training or Opening Day). RHP Nate Cornejo (right shoulder labrum surgery) is off the 40-man roster and will be brought along slowly in the spring. RHP Fernando Rodney (right elbow ligament transplant) is throwing and reportedly has been cleared for full duty. RHP Chris Spurling (right elbow ligament transplant) is throwing again and hopes to compete for a job in the spring.