Tigers News & Notes: 3/22

After weeks of concern as the Tigers ran out players up the middle that were not Omar Infante or Carlos Guillen, both appeared in the field for the Tigers in Florida on Sunday, bringing optimism that both will be at full strength come Opening Day in two weeks. Plus, how is the roster shaking out as we close in on April 4th?

Manager Alan Trammell was feeling a whole lot better Sunday after his double play combination was back together for the first time this season.

SS Carlos Guillen made his first defensive start of the season and his partner, 2B Omar Infante, appeared on the field for the second day in a row as both recuperate from injuries.

Guillen has been making satisfactory comeback from right knee ACL surgery last September. Infante was slow recovering from a sore throwing shoulder suffered while playing winter ball.

Infante's slow progress had his manager wondering whether the disabled list might not be a good place for the second baseman to begin the season. Guillen was not as much of a concern.

Trammell wanted to see both on the field at the same time for at least a week before the start of the regular season, but he was careful not to rush either one.

"I don't want to lose someone for an extended period of time," he said.

The Tigers had no problem starting either INF Ramon Martinez or INF Jason Smith at second in place of Infante -- and, in fact, both might see a day or two of action a week in relief of Guillen and Infante during the first month of the season.

Guillen still has lateral movement trouble but said he's improving rapidly, especially during the weekend.

Infante felt his progress accelerating during the weekend, too. He was given the OK by trainer Kevin Rand to make a cameo appearance Saturday.

--3B/1B Dean Palmer got two more hits Saturday (March 19) in an emergency start at first base (1B Carlos Pena had back spasms) and was robbed of an extra-base RBI blow by Atlanta CF Andruw Jones on another well-struck ball.

He suffered a setback Sunday (March 20) when he strained a bicep muscle swinging at a pitch, the severity of which was not immediately known.

"He's certainly showing he can play," manager Alan Trammell said of his 36-year-old corner infielder, who has played just 87 games since 2000 because of neck and shoulder injuries. "Absolutely, I do see a major league player.

"I guess if you look at it, he probably is (a long shot to make the roster). But I don't know how this is all going to shake out. This guy's got big-time power, and when he hits it, there's no doubt about it.

"He's proved to me that he can still play. There's no doubt. The question is, 'Where does it all fit in?' I can't answer that."

"I have the same feeling, that I can still play," Palmer said. "Coming down here, I had to prove a lot to a lot of people, including myself. To get some of that respect back is good. I'm not sure if anyone around here expected a whole lot. I don't know what I was expecting. But at least I'm making it interesting, making them have to make a decision."

Palmer could make the club but will have to force someone off the roster to do so.

"I see a guy who recognizes the role that he's playing," Trammell said, "that he is more conscious now of a good stroke, which I think is smart. I think it's the right approach for Dean right now. If it's a role of limited (at-bats), that's the best stroke to have. I give him credit. The power's still there, but I see the guy really working on using the middle of the field, which is evident in the hits that he's got. I think it's smart."

--CF Alex Sanchez wasn't able to show the Tigers the kind of improvement in his outfield defense they were looking for, so Detroit shocked him by giving him his unconditional release March 15. Sanchez signed with Tampa Bay later in the week.

"Defensively, we felt he wasn't going to be a championship player for us," manager Alan Trammell said. "There comes a time when you shouldn't have to repeat everything."

Sanchez, who days earlier had been reunited with his mother and brother from Cuba for the first time in 11 years, made two errors in six games, but the last was symbolic of his shortcomings. The Tigers were asking him to play more shallow in center field, and he dropped a short flyball in a game two days before he was cut.

"After a couple of years," president/CEO/GM Dave Dombrowski said, "he was not up to the level we would like. Center field is a very important position defensively. Throws have got to be made. Balls have got to be caught. It's not a forgiving position."

Sanchez didn't walk much (25 times in 726 at-bats), nor did he score enough runs (84 in 180 games) for a speedy leadoff hitter with exceptional bunting ability. His base-stealing ratio was also low, just above 50 percent.

"Walks didn't bother me as much as the lack of runs scored," Dombrowski said.

OF Craig Monroe was the leading candidate to replace Sanchez with CF Nook Logan close behind. Non-roster center fielders DeWayne Wise and Alexis Gomez were also going to get a look.

"We'll let it play out," Trammell said. "I'm not going to tell you what I'm thinking because I want guys to go earn it.

"He may not be the prototypical center fielder," Dombrowski said of Monroe, "but we've seen Monroe run well. Sometimes, prototypical isn't the way to go. With Ordonez, Monroe and White, that's a lot of pop there.

"If Monroe ends up the center fielder, I don't know how many clubs will have the offensive aspect that we can put together in the outfield," said Dombrowski. "His speed may not allow him to catch a few balls that someone else may, but fundamentally he will play well, and if there are a half-dozen balls that fall during the season that someone else may have gotten, I will grant you that.

"But what other center fielder might hit 25 homers and knock in 90, and then does that justify those six balls not being caught? In my estimation, yes. You win more games that way."

Monroe, 28, led AL outfielders with 11 errors last year but none came in his 27 games in center.

Detroit paid Sanchez $220,000 of his $1.35 million salary by releasing him early in spring training. The bill later in the week would have been $330,000. Money was not the factor, however.

--2B Fernando Vina, facing the end of his career, was placed on the 60-day disabled list March 15.

Vina played just 29 games for Detroit before suffering a hamstring pull. While he was rehabbing that injury, he developed a partially torn patella tendon in his knee.

He declined unpromising surgery in favor of rest and rehabilitation but had not made any progress and was unable to report for spring training. Placing Vina on the disabled list allowed Detroit to recoup part of his salary through insurance.

The Tigers did not regret signing Vina to a two-year, $6 million deal because it started a cascade of free agent signings that included LF Rondell White, C Ivan Rodriguez and RHP Ugueth Urbina, all of whom helped Detroit advance from 119 losses to 79 wins in the span of one season.

--A total of 16 players were sent to minor league camp by Detroit on March 15, reducing the number of Tigers in camp to 44.

RHPs Kenny Baugh and Mark Woodyard were sent to Triple-A Toledo along with 2B Ryan Raburn and 1B/C Chris Shelton plus Ofs Byron Gettis and Curtis Granderson. RHP Preston Larrison was sent to Double-A Erie and RHP Justin Verlander to Class A Lakeland.

Assigned to minor league camp were LHP Mike Bynum, RHPs Nelson Cruz, Andrew Good and Matt Roney, Cs Brandon Harper, Mike Rabelo and Maxim St. Pierre plus 3B Jack Hannahan.

--RHP Troy Percival worked two innings of a game March 15, his first outing longer than one inning in six years. Percival volunteered to go the extra three outs of a 2-2 tie with Toronto just to show he could do it.

"My guess would be he would do it," manager Alan Trammell said when asked if he could foresee Percival working two innings when the season starts. "Whether we would want to, I don't think we're at that point yet."

BY THE NUMBERS: 84 -- Runs scored last season by the recently waived CF Alex Sanchez, who spent the vast majority of his 180 games with Detroit batting out of the leadoff spot.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Defensively, we felt he wasn't going to be a championship player for us. There comes a time when you shouldn't have to repeat everything." -- Manager Alan Trammell of the Tigers citing one of the reasons his team released CF Alex Sanchez.

Detroit's front office is pinning its hopes on its starting pitching, which looked good in early spring outings. RHP Jeremy Bonderman has a chance to be the dominant pitcher the club believes he will be in 2006 -- but in 2005. LHPs Nate Robertson, Mike Maroth and Wilfredo Ledezma back up Bonderman with RHP Jason Johnson hoping to provide the veteran leadership.

RF Magglio Ordonez (cartilage) has shown little effect of his two knee surgeries last, season but SS Carlos Guillen (ACL) is being brought along much more slowly. Sore right shoulder of 2B Omar Infante was the only early concern. Release of regular CF Alex Sanchez was a surprise but also a message to the rest of the team that defense is a major priority and that management wants to contend right now.

The offense was vastly improved a year ago and could make another step up if Ordonez continues to show good health. Late winter additions of Ordonez for the middle of the lineup and RHP Kyle Farnsworth for the bullpen bolstered team morale and indicated management was serious about ending a string of sub-.500 seasons that dates to 1993, as well as signaling it would make additional moves during the season if required.

Rescue of RHP Ugueth Urbina's mother in Venezuela brought the former closer back to the team in good sprits and he appeared at ease with the move back to setup man in front of new 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: CF Alex Sanchez (released, signed with Tampa Bay), 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) worked hard in the offseason to cure the blister problem that bothered him early last year. Having a solid spring. Agreed to ratchet down his strenuous in-season workout program in hopes it would prevent a fourth straight second-half fade this summer. Detroit hopes this will help him live up to expectations when it signed him as a free agent from Baltimore last winter. Named Opening Day starter by his manager.

--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) just snuck into the rotation at the end of spring training last year and was among the AL strikeout leaders for a couple of months. Robertson faded in the second half and went winless in September. Management attributed that to throwing too many pitches, plus the strain of going through his first full season in the majors. Robertson has an above-average fastball and excellent slider, making him tough to hit. Robertson was asked in the spring to concentrate on getting outs in three pitches instead of five or six.

--LHP Wilfredo Ledezma justified his selection as a 2003 Rule 5 draft pick from the Boston Red Sox. 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. Only a disastrous spring could keep him out of the rotation.

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) is valuable because he can start and relieve effectively. He was noticeably better as a starter in September. His breaking ball determines how effective he is. Out of options but needs a good spring because he's being pushed by RHP Franklyn German, who has a higher ceiling and is also out of options.

--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. Recovered rapidly after an early spring setback and grew increasingly sharp with each appearance. Had a job clinched in spring training last year until the sore elbow eliminated him. One option: Detroit has three relief candidates who are out of options and Rodney has one left, which could come into play as cutdown time approaches.

--RHP Ugueth Urbina (4-6, 4.50 ERA; 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 remains a possibility but if it happens it won't be due to dissatisfaction over being moved from closer to setup man because the rescuing of his mother seemed to push those concerns into the background. Urbina gives Detroit depth at the end of the bullpen, especially if something happens to RHP Troy Percival, and no move is anticipated until the team shows it can't be an AL Central contender.

--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.

Detroit will go with six relievers to start the season. Shoring up the bullpen was the No. 1 front office priority after last season and GM Dave Dombrowski feels the additions of RHPs Troy Percival and Kyle Farnsworth accomplishes this, as well as remaking the group into the kind of hard throwers the GM likes. This lets manager Alan Trammell back last year's closer, RHP Ugueth Urbina, into the setup role that was such a 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 harder throwing RHPs this year can compensate for lack of a second lefty this year. 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 felt early in the spring that RHP Fernando Rodney was doing so.

--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 70-8. His speed and on-base percentage (.340) make him a viable leadoff man after originally being figured as a second leadoff man at the No. 9 spot. Was deadly with the bases loaded last year.

--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. Still wearing a brace after September right knee ACL surgery and doesn't show full lateral movement yet. Made his spring defensive debut Mar. 20. A close second to teammate C Ivan Rodriguez for club MVP.

--C Ivan Rodriguez had a highlight 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. Reported to camp minus 22 pounds from last season. 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, with early results showing he very nearly is. Reported early and immediately began participating in full workouts, with only precautionary idle time. Not wearing a brace on his repaired left knee and hit a home run in his second spring at-bat. Won't play many exhibition games until mid-March.

--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 can spot start at all three outfield positions and had good power numbers the last part of the year. He has had knee or ankle problems nearly every year.

--CF Craig Monroe will probably get the bulk of the playing time in center, but also figures to see duty at the corners. Has improved steadily over the last two seasons and management feels he'll hit 30 home runs and reach 90-100 RBI with regular play. Could hit for average, too.

--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. Sore throwing shoulder, not believed to be serious, delayed his spring fielding debut until Saturday (March 19).

Manager Alan Trammell used a variety of lineups last season and will probably do so again due to a plan to rest C Ivan Rodriguez 1-2 days per week and the uncertain health of his injured middle infielders, SS Guillen (knee) and 2B Infante (shoulder). DH Young will probably see some cleanup duty. CF Nook Logan, if he sticks, could see extensive spot duty with CF Craig Monroe shifting to left and right to rest the corner outfielders. OF Bobby Higginson could figure in the mix, too, if he survives spring training. 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.

--CF Nook Logan provides a superior defensive late-inning alternative and, as one of the fastest players in the majors, a game-breaking late-inning pinch-running threat. Switch-batter has improved his game from the left side and is working on his bunting. Should see more action at home than on the road because of Comerica Park's spacious center field.

--OF Bobby Higginson has not had a good spring and might not make the Opening Day roster. If he does, he will open the season on the bench as a left-handed pinch-hitting or platoon option. Could get some at-bats for the corner outfielders, who will require days off. Good pinch-hitter because he works the count and can draw walks.

--OF Bobby Higginson has not had a good spring and might not make the Opening Day roster. If he does, he will open the season on the bench as a left-handed pinch-hitting or platoon option. Could get some at-bats for the corner outfielders, who will require days off. Good pinch-hitter because he works the count and can draw walks.

--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.

MEDICAL WATCH: 2B Omar Infante (sore right shoulder) was slow to improve, keeping him off the field until Saturday (March 19). RF Magglio Ordonez (left knee surgery) has looked good, playing five innings about five times a week. 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) reported early to work out but was wearing a right knee brace; lateral movement improved to the point where he made first start Mar. 20. 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. 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) got up to speed quickly and has looked solid through mid-March. RHP Chris Spurling (right elbow ligament transplant) is throwing well again but is destined to open in the minors.

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