Detroit Tigers Inside Pitch

Are the Tigers really just handing the third base job over to Brandon Inge, or might there be more to the story? Plus, who already knows where he'll be playing and hitting, and how has Ivan Rodriguez reacted to the new man at the helm?

If Brandon Inge is Detroit's third baseman, why is new manager Jim Leyland talking about having Dmitri Young play some games at third base?

It might be best seen as a motivational ploy, a way of keeping players from getting too comfortable. It also might be Leyland's way of telling Inge he can forget about playing 160 games this season.

"He's a young player that's a very versatile player," Leyland said. "We need to find out if he is the third baseman of the future for the Tigers. I like what he did. He did hit 16 home runs last year. He swings and misses too much. But we're not going to give up on Brandon Inge. We think he's a very talented player.

"That's not a criticism -- it's a fact. He swung and missed too much. We're going to work on that in spring training, where he puts the bat on the ball more often, takes a little bit more of a two-strike approach. If he can handle that, I think he'll be the Tiger third baseman."

Leyland saw the stats. Inge batted .333 in April, .294 in May and .236 after the All-Star break. But as a leadoff hitter for the Tigers, he had a .371 on-base percentage and was among the league leaders in pitches per at-bat.

Strikeouts were increasingly a problem for Inge, however. He whiffed 140 times, second most in the league, and in the second half he had only three more hits (66) than strikeouts.

In Young, Leyland saw a player who was way too heavy, and the manager successfully urged him to report to spring training carrying less weight. Part of that comes from the fact Young broke down shortly after former manager Alan Trammell had him sub for injured left fielder Rondell White.

With an excess of first basemen, designated hitters and left fielders, Leyland wants some flexibility to move them around so each can be rested. Young is adequate at third, and some sort of rotation among the excess players would keep the lineup productive.

"I would like to play him at third base some," Leyland said of Young. "I know you think I'm nuts. He's got good hands. I'd like to play him in left field. This guy can be a real key for us if he's willing to pay the price. Don't sell this guy short. This guy has talent and I like him. And I don't care what anybody else says."

And for Inge, a Gold Glove-caliber defender, less might just turn out to be more.

--2B Placido Polanco is the only fixture in new manager Jim Leyland's early lineup. Polanco will play second and hit second.

"He's a tremendous, solid major league player and a solid individual," Leyland said. "He's one of those guys that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle because managers take him for granted. A guy like him, if he's playing in New York, he'd be in the headlines every other day."

In Detroit, he'll just be in the lineup every day. For the first time in his major league career, which began in 1998 with St. Louis.

"Of course I'm excited," Polanco said. "It should have been like that every team I played on. It's good people expect a lot of things from me, and I'll be thinking of that."

--RHP Justin Verlander knows a starting job with the Tigers is on the line this spring.

"I'm going down there to prepare myself to win a spot on this team," said Verlander, who bought a home near Detroit's spring training base of Lakeland, Fla. "I want to make it easy for them."

Verlander was sensational in his first pro season, posting a 9-2 record and 1.67 ERA at high Class A Lakeland and a 2-0 mark with a 0.28 ERA in seven starts for Double-A Erie. He was brought up to Detroit twice for emergency starts and wasn't as successful (0-2, 7.15 ERA).

Scouts say Verlander will need to keep the ball down more and refine where he throws his pitches in order to succeed at the major league level.

--C Ivan Rodriguez is widely believed to not have been on the same page as manager Alan Trammell last year, but so far he says he's got a good read on new manager Jim Leyland.

"I think what he brings is attitude," Rodriguez said of his new manager. "I think he's a winner. I've known him for years, and I talked to a lot of players who played for him. He loves to win and he likes to see everything the right way in the field. And that's what we need on the team. If he doesn't like something, he'll come to us or to the player and tell him. It's great for us to have Jim and the coaching staff."

Rodriguez had a stellar first season for the Tigers, but his production declined sharply last year, when he went through a divorce and reportedly didn't always agree with Trammell.

"I don't have any problems," Rodriguez said. "Last season is over. This year is another year with new players, new season, new coaching staff. All we have to do is focus on getting ready and playing and winning games.

"We have a great team. Jim Leyland is a great guy. He has been in baseball for a lot of years. He has been on the winning side. He has a world championship under his belt. He's going to bring a good chemistry to the club.

"That's what we need, and I'm very happy to have Jim Leyland here. I've talked to him by phone, but I look forward to seeing him and talking about what we're going to do for this year."

--OF Craig Monroe says he's ready to step up and be a team leader for Detroit.

Monroe, who has been with the Tigers since 2002, is now second to 3B Brandon Inge in terms of service time with Detroit.

"I've been through the years of being the rookie and being on the bench and then getting to play," Monroe said. "And to be honest with you, now I'm as confident as ever. It's time for me to step up. It's time for me to be a leader. I can voice my opinion and try to push guys, but not really forceful. Just prove to them that I'm here to play, I want you guys to be ready to play and let's just go out and play hard baseball."

Monroe was Detroit's RBI leader with 89 last season.

--RHP Troy Percival is playing catch at home in California but is realistic about his chances of being a closer again.

Percival intends to push it as far as he can but doesn't expect to have enough in his arm to be able to bounce back every day -- providing he can even throw with reasonable effectiveness.

Manager Jim Leyland reported Percival has volunteered to try starting this spring since there is a vacancy in the Tigers' rotation.

--New pitching coach Chuck Hernandez agrees with former pitching coach Bob Cluck that 2006 will be the season Detroit's starters mature.

"Let's be honest," Hernandez said. "(Jeremy) Bonderman's young. Nate (Robertson) and Mike (Maroth), they're not too young. In years of experience, they're growing. Looking at it from the other side, they continue to get better, and that's the one thing I noticed the last few years. They all kept making progress and moving forward. If you do that, you've got a chance to end up being pretty good."

Bonderman has been a Detroit starter for four seasons, while Maroth is opening his fifth and Robertson his third, although he also had two partial seasons of experience before that. Of course, LHP Kenny Rogers has been pitching since the Beatles first started performing. The Tigers' fifth starting spot is open but likely will go to a rookie or a relatively inexperienced starter.

"I don't think they're young anymore," Hernandez said of Detroit's returning starters. "I coached young. We had young in Tampa. I had 20 and 22 and 23 and 24. That was four of the starters. That's young. I'm not afraid of young. But these guys, I expect these guys to really come into their own. They're in the prime of their careers, and it's now the time for them to really step forward."

BY THE NUMBERS: .331 -- Overall 2005 batting average of Tigers' 2B Placido Polanco, who had the highest average in the American League (.338) but didn't qualify because he didn't have enough AL plate appearances and couldn't count his National League at-bats.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm not asking anyone to be patient, I can tell you that. People get sick and tired of hearing that. Tiger fans are sick and tired of hearing that. We don't have that long. Mike Ilitch is running out of patience. The fans are running out of patience. So I don't have any long-term plans. I have short-term plans. And we better get good pretty quick." -- Manager Jim Leyland.

The Tigers believe they filled their needs at the front and back of the staff without going premium or overly pricey, netting starting LHP Kenny Rogers and closer Todd Jones with two-year deals for a combined total of $27 million. Both were free agents not requiring compensation. A trade for more pitching help is still possible, with the target being a left-handed reliever. The club has one too many OF/DH types and will entertain offers in that area.

ARRIVALS: RHP Todd Jones (free agent from Florida); LHP Kenny Rogers (free agent from Texas), RHP Matt Mantei (minor league free agent from Boston).

DEPARTURES: OF Rondell White (free agent, signed with Minnesota), OF Bobby Higginson (free agent, not offered arbitration); RHP Jason Johnson (free agent, signed with Cleveland); INF John McDonald (sold to Toronto); RHP Sean Douglass (waived, rejected claim by Cleveland and will pitch in Japan), 2B Fernando Vina (free agent, signed with Seattle).

FREE AGENTS: OF Bobby Higginson. Higginson departs Detroit after 11 seasons.

ARBITRATION ELIGIBLE: OF Craig Monroe. The Tigers and Monroe exchanged bids and could settle on a compromise.

IN LIMBO: 1B Carlos Pena, OF Craig Monroe, 1B/DH/LF Dmitri Young, RHP Franklyn German.

MEDICAL WATCH: RHP Justin Verlander (tired shoulder) responded well to late-season rest; RHP Joel Zumaya (tired shoulder) expected to be fine in the spring; RHP Jeremy Bonderman (sore elbow) pitched just twice in September but is expected to be fully recuperated by the spring; RHP Troy Percival (right elbow muscle) has been doing light throwing since December and will try to crank it up in the spring, but it's widely believed his career is over.

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