The Tigers might be dreaming if they think they can catch Minnesota in the AL Central this season, but for the first time in more than a decade it is a dream rooted in reality.
A top-grade veteran starting pitcher could be all that's standing between the Tigers and Twins (and the rest of the division) but if Detroit can hang in there through the All-Star break, management might be able to pry that pitcher loose from a team dropping out of contention.
The Tigers, who haven't finished above .500 since 1993, entered spring training with high hopes of improving on last year's 72 victories (up from 43 in 2003) and very little has happened to dissuade them from believing that 80-90 wins -- or more -- this year is not unreasonable.
Right-hander Jason Johnson has had such a mediocre spring he may be bumped from his Opening Day start. No. 5 starter Wilfredo Ledezma, a lefty, has been hot and cold but Detroit expects both to contribute. The in-between starters have been very good.
Righty Jeremy Bonderman looks poised to become the staff ace, while left-handers Mike Maroth and Nate Robertson have been solid. The rotation is not championship caliber, but seems to be moving in that direction.
Maroth would likely pitch the opener if Johnson flops in his last spring start.
Right fielder Magglio Ordonez's left knee has become a non-issue. Shortstop Carlos Guillen (right knee ACL surgery) might have to be babied through the first 30 days but he looks relatively healthy, too. Second baseman Omar Infante's sore right shoulder might be an early season problem but the Tigers expect that to disappear in time.
The release of center fielder Alex Sanchez meant Detroit feels it is close enough to the top where defense becomes a high priority.
This is a team that should score runs. It has two career .300 hitters and a handful of others who have reached that level at least once.
Moving Craig Monroe to center, at least for most of the games, could give the Tigers an outfield that will average 20-30 home runs and 90-100 RBI. Monroe may have to spell left fielder Rondell White, having a terrific spring, and Ordonez at the corners on occasion but that could allow gifted defensive CF Nook Logan to slide in. He may be a home-park platoon player.
Bullpen depth remains a strength, with manager Alan Trammell hoping the presence of right-handers Kyle Farnsworth, Ugueth Urbina and Troy Percival will let Detroit play a lot of six-inning games. The front of the bullpen will feature lefty Jamie Walker, righty Franklyn German and either righties Gary Knotts or Fernando Rodney.
Early February additions of Ordonez (free agent) and Farnsworth (trade) turned what could have been a downer spring into a 'can do' atmosphere entering the season. The stated offseason goals of adding a big outfield bat, greatly improving the bullpen and upgrading third base or center field appear to have been largely met.
Whether that's enough to get Detroit close to first place in the AL Central will be answered as the season unfolds.
PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: RHP Jeremy Bonderman has been superlative in spring training, even while using the early part to hone his changeup. After two straight seasons of improvement, the 22-year-old could emerge to become the staff leader.
ON THE DECLINE: RHP Jason Johnson has had four straight dismal second halves and hasn't performed well this spring. He could be looking at the backside of his career.
--OF Bobby Higginson is facing the end of his 10-year career with the Tigers.
"If they're going to do something," Higginson said in the wake of rumors he was on the verge of being released, "I hope it's sooner rather than later. You shouldn't have to read stuff in the papers. You would hope they'd be more professional and come to you."
Higginson was hitting .129 as late as Thursday (March 24) but was looking better at the plate during the weekend, possibly serving as a showcase for interested teams.
"Now I'm looking as if I'm playing for other clubs," said Higginson, who snapped an 0-for-15 streak with a single on Friday (March 25), then hit a double and a two-run home run the next day. "I still have to go out there and play well for scouts that are in the stands looking maybe to fill an outfield spot."
Higginson is the last remaining Detroit player that took the field in a game managed by Sparky Anderson.
"I have a little bit of an attitude now," he said. "Maybe it was gone for a little while, but this has kind of set me off a little bit.
"This is the time I usually start swinging the bat good anyway, with a week or 10 days to go. I'm just trying to show I can still play. I've never really doubted it, but some people around here might have."
The departure of Higginson would open up a roster spot that could be filled by either Marcus Thames, who performed well as a fifth outfielder last season; DeWayne Wise, who bats left-handed and can play center field; or infielder Dean Palmer. OF Alexis Gomez was also a possibility.
Giarratano hit .325 in 17 spring games to take advantage of SS Carlos Guillen's measured recuperation from ACL knee surgery. He had not played above Class A before this season and will open the season at Double-A Erie.
"The other day I said he'd been the biggest surprise," Trammell said. "He did very well. I'd like to have kept him (in camp), but it's time."
--RHP Jason Johnson needs a decent start this week to cement his status as manager Alan Trammell's choice to start on Opening Day.
Johnson was pummeled for 10 hits and eight runs in 3 1/3 innings Friday (March 25) in his next-to-last spring start, plumping his ERA to 9.39. In his previous start, Johnson gave up four runs in three innings.
"I don't have anything to say," Johnson said as reporters approached in the clubhouse.
Trammell said he was "going to sleep on this and come back tomorrow and regroup."
"Obviously he has some problems we need to work out," pitching coach Bob Cluck said. "Usually at this time in the spring I give (Trammell) a list of a few options of how he wants to go against different teams the first two weeks of the season. "But anything could happen, whether it's rain or the weather in Detroit. We have to adjust along the way. I'll give him a list of 2-3 options, and he'll choose the one he wants. All we have now is just in pencil. We'll go from there."
--LHP Mike Maroth pitched Saturday (March 26) for Detroit's Triple-A affiliate and will do so again five days later to avoid having to face the Cleveland Indians both times.
Maroth was scheduled to make his first start of the season against Cleveland and Detroit doesn't want the Indians to see him this close to the opening of the season.
--RHP Fernando Rodney could open the season in the minors for Detroit because he still has an option remaining and because he's still struggling to throw a solid slider following last year's Tommy John surgery.
"He's been very effective in the innings he's thrown," manager Alan Trammell said. "It's not a role where you get a lot of innings. We'll get him some more, and hopefully at least one time of two innings. He's had an outstanding change-up, but I haven't seen many sliders. When you have Tommy John surgery, the breaking balls come back last."
--RHP Gary Knotts might be on the market as Detroit tries to decide which six of seven possible bullpen candidates to keep.
Knotts was 7-6 with a 5.25 ERA last year while working as a reliever and starter. He gave up two unearned runs in four innings in a March 24 start and showed good control.
The Tigers can't send Knotts to the minors without asking waivers on him because he is out of options. He would probably be claimed if waived.
Knotts is competing against RHP Franklyn German, who is also out of options and has been outstanding this spring, and RHP Fernando Rodney, who had Tommy John surgery last spring. Rodney has an option left and could be sent to the minors.
--RHP Jeremy Bonderman pitched five innings of one-hit ball March 23 to remain the most effective Detroit pitcher in camp.
"Wherever they put me, that's fine," Bonderman said. "By the end of this year, I'll earn the spot for next year. My focus is to do my job and next year, they won't have to worry about it."
"He put on a show, man," LF Rondell White said after Bonderman's one-hit performance. "They didn't have a chance. He could have had a no-hitter, if this was the regular season. He could win 20 games, with the stuff he's got."
"I'm talking Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan, Curt Schilling, those are the guys who've done it for years," Bonderman said. "Those are the ones I idolize. I look at the guys who did 10-15 years. I want to accomplish what they've done."
--Three pitchers were cut by the Tigers on March 21. RHP Chris Spurling, still on the comeback from Tommy John surgery a year ago, was sent to Triple-A Toledo. "He threw 93 (mph)," manager Alan Trammell said. "He's a guy we still like a lot. Being flat-out honest, we're being cautious with him. That's it. ... We want him to continue to get regular work and build it up."
--CF Craig Monroe is calling on other center fielders to get advice on how they play their position. Monroe had a long talk with St. Louis CF Jim Edmonds recently.
"I feel blessed to be around, to play against such great centerfielders and be able to pick their brains," Monroe said. "I think I would be doing myself an injustice if I didn't go up and introduce myself to those guys and be honest with them and say, 'Hey, the Tigers are talking about making a move and having me go from being a corner guy to center. I was just wondering if there is anything you would add to make this an easy transition, and also give me some insight into what makes you so good out there.'"
Monroe sought out Edmonds after Detroit released CF Alex Sanchez.
"He was a very open guy, and I wasn't really surprised, because he's a class guy," Monroe said. "He told me some things that I feel like I need to hold onto."
--SS Carlos Guillen and 2B Omar Infante have settled manager Alan Trammell's mind by getting into the infield for the last two weeks of spring training.
"It felt pretty good," Guillen said. "I'm trying to get my confidence back. I feel like I can do almost everything. That's why I wanted to play a little bit because I want to be out there."
"I want to try to play every day," Infante said, "because I need to play and I need more at-bats."
BY THE NUMBERS: 185 -- Weight recently disclosed by C Ivan Rodriguez, who reported to spring training weighing 193 pounds -- 22 less than his poundage from last season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This organization was so good to me by supporting me when I needed it. But I want to close games. They don't need me here. I would rather go somewhere else where I could close." -- RHP Ugueth Urbina of the Tigers, who added he was "50-50" about remaining with Detroit because he felt the club was going to win its division.
It's been a very good spring training for Detroit with just minor problems remaining to be ironed out before the season begins. The Tigers need to get nominated opening day starter RHP Jason Johnson squared away (he's been awful) and they have to intensify the activity of their double play combination, SS Carlos Guillen (ACL knee surgery) and 2B Omar Infante (sore right shoulder) as the season approaches. Detroit needed to trim an outfielder and reliever to set its roster.
1. RHP Jeremy Bonderman
2. RHP Mike Maroth
3. LHP Jason Johnson
4. LHP Nate Robertson
5. LHP Wilfredo Ledezma
Johnson has shown little to indicate he's the No. 1 starter and so Bonderman will be bumped up. Ledezma was spotty until turning in a superlative six innings in his March 25 start and the other three have had very good springs. Detroit will ride these five until they fall down but there is help at Triple-A (RHP Andrew Good, for instance) unlike previous years.
--RHP Troy Percival (closer)
--RHP Ugueth Urbina
--RHP Kyle Farnsworth
--LHP Jamie Walker
--RHP Franklyn German
--RHP Gary Knotts
RHP Fernando Rodney, still struggling with his slider as he returns from Tommy John surgery, qualifies, but unless Knotts is traded he is likely to begin the season in the minors since he's the only one of the three (German, Knotts, Rodney) with an option remaining. This is the type of bullpen (hard-throwing) favored by GM Dave Dombrowski. RHP Chris Spurling is available at Triple-A if needed at some point.
1. 2B Omar Infante
2. SS Carlos Guillen
3. C Ivan Rodriguez
4. RF Magglio Ordonez
5. DH Dmitri Young
6. LF Rondell White
7. 1B Carlos Pena
8. CF Craig Monroe
9. 3B Brandon Inge
CF Nook Logan figures to see a good deal of playing time in view of White's history of leg and ankle injuries plus the need to give Ordonez a day or two off a week early in the season. Logan would hit leadoff in that case, with Infante sliding to ninth and Monroe taking over a corner outfield spot. The middle infielders likely will get time off, especially in cold weather, too. Even with daily flux, this lineup should generate runs. Manager Alan Trammell, like his mentor Sparky Anderson, likes to use his bench members once or twice a week.
--C Vance Wilson
--IF Ramon Martinez
--IF Jason Smith
--CF Nook Logan
--CF DeWayne Wise
OF Marcus Thames is even-up with Wise, but the latter might have an edge because he can play all three outfield spots plus he's a left-handed hitter. This is the most solid bench the Tigers have had in a long time. Logan could also be optioned to the minors in favor of Thames.
ROOKIE WATCH: SS Tony Giarratano hit more than .300 and impressed manager Alan Trammell, despite never having played above Class A going into the spring. He'll open the season at Double-A and won't appear in Detroit until September, barring a season-ending injury to SS Carlos Guillen. CF Curtis Granderson was among the early cuts but he would be the first outfielder called up if something happened to one of the regulars. RHP Justin Verlander, last June's No. 1 draft choice and No. 2 overall, pitched well in "B" games but won't pitch for the Tigers until 2006 at the earliest.
MEDICAL WATCH: 2B Omar Infante (sore right shoulder) is back in action but still not completely healthy. SS Carlos Guillen (right knee ACL surgery) still doesn't have full lateral movement but will be ready for the season. RF Magglio Ordonez (left knee surgery) has played sparingly and shows no lingering effects of his knee surgery. RHP Fernando Rodney (right elbow ligament transplant) shows a good fastball and great changeup but still is in search of his slider. 2B Fernando Vina (60-day DL; right hamstring, torn left patella tendon) did not report for spring training and likely is done as a player. RHP Colby Lewis (rotator cuff surgery last April) will probably open the season on the disabled list and be sent to the minors when ready to pitch again.