Detroit Tigers Inside Pitch

The Tigers may have struggled with issues in the past, but this time around, the team seems squarely behind new manager Jim Leyland. The world series champion has a history of making winners, and the Tigers hope that their group is no exception.

One of the big reasons Detroit management believes the team will improve this season won't play an inning in the field.

The Tigers clearly think they will benefit from the transition at manager, from icon Alan Trammell to proven veteran skipper Jim Leyland.

While injuries played a big part in Detroit's losing one more game in 2005 than it did in 2004, many observers believe clubhouse divisions also played a significant role, especially over the last couple of months.

People in the organization say Leyland and his ready-made credentials will go a long way toward healing some clubhouse rifts.

"You can tell he's a straight shooter," said outfielder Craig Monroe, typical of the reaction of Tigers players after meeting their new manager. "Everything seems to be very upbeat. A lot of people talk about whether he still has it, but you could tell he definitely is going to command respect."

Trammell had a 186-300 record in his three seasons as Detroit's manager, the last two months going from a peak of one game under .500 to a 71-91 record that cost him his job.

Leyland has a 1,069-1,131 record in 14 seasons managing Pittsburgh, Florida and Colorado. He got most of his wins in the middle and the bulk of the defeats at either end.

Leyland's teams won three division titles (Pirates, 1990-92), and he was a two-time Manager of the Year in the National League (1990 and 1992). He led the wild-card Marlins to the 1997 World Series title.

He brings with him an image as a stern disciplinarian who drives himself and his players harder than a Kentucky Derby jockey pushes his horse. But while Leyland does have high standards, he's got a wry sense of humor that plays well when understood.

"Contrary to what a lot of people think, I'm not some grumpy old man," he said. "I like to have fun. I'm going to have fun with the players.

"You'll never hear me rip the players publicly, but behind closed doors, they're going to be held accountable. There's no question about that. They have to be. And I'm going to be held accountable also. It's time for performance. We got good players, so let's perform."

Getting everybody on the same page should help.

--OF Craig Monroe and the Tigers avoided arbitration Feb. 2 when the outfielder agreed to a $2.8 million contract for 2006. He had been asking for slightly more than $3 million, while Detroit offered a tad below $2.5 million.

Monroe, 28, earned $400,000 last season when he led the team with 89 RBIs. He hit .277 with 20 home runs and had a major league-leading 12 sacrifice flies.

"I felt I had a very good, solid season," Monroe said. "I'm very proud of what I've done and I feel like I'm not going to do anything but get better."

--2B Placido Polanco and SS Carlos Guillen are Detroit's regulars at their positions, yet they started only 21 games together all last season. Spring training will be their time to get better acquainted.

"I know that the more you play with somebody, the better you get together," Polanco said. "Me and Guillen, we haven't really played together much. He was hurt and then I was hurt. Now we have a chance to really play together and really get better. It's going to be great for the team."

Guillen began the season as Detroit's regular shortstop with Omar Infante at second. But as the season went on, Guillen struggled with fluid on his surgically repaired right knee and then was sidelined by sore muscles around the knee. Infante wasn't hitting, which is why Detroit traded with Philadelphia to get Polanco. Infante then became the regular shortstop.

Guillen was disabled after the All-Star break to build up his knee muscles, and he came back late in September just to gauge his return to health.

Polanco and Guillen will take groundballs together and start to learn each other's moves in spring training.

--1B Chris Shelton is a pretty good defensive first baseman for a guy who supposedly isn't good defensively.

"Wow, he's a good athlete," new Detroit infield coach Rafael Belliard said. "I watched the video of him. We have to work on his throwing. I look forward to spring training so I can teach him more. I have a lot of secrets I think I can pass to him."

Former Tigers manager Alan Trammell was surprised at the defensive improvement of Shelton, who came to the Tigers as a player without a position from Pittsburgh in the Rule 5 draft. The consensus is Shelton will never be a standout but can become better than average as he continues to play.

"He's got power and he can hit and he's improved his defense," new manager Jim Leyland said. "I can tell you this, he'll get plenty of at-bats. I don't have starters or non-starters. I have 25 players, and every one of them has to be ready to make some kind of contribution to a winning cause. He'll be one of the 25, I'm sure."

Shelton is spending his pre-spring training time working out at the University of Utah with his old college team.

"I've done this for four years," he said. "Every offseason, I go back. They've been great. I blend in with guys. If we're doing a drill and someone messed up and the coaches made them run, then I get in and run with them.

"I swing my wooden bats. All the players at the university use aluminum. Other than that, if you watch practice, the only way you wouldn't know that I'm on the team is my attire. The team is in their pants and Utah T-shirts and I'm out there in my shorts."

--Manager Jim Leyland wants his Detroit Tigers to take a page from Detroit's most recent world champions, the Pistons, with everybody bonding and playing together as a team.

"I think it's important for everybody on a team to have their own individual identity," Leyland said. "I think it's good for each player to have his own identity, but you can't separate that from the team concept. I want everybody to be his own man. I want him to stand up for himself. I want him to be a little selfish but not to the point where it hurts the team.

"That's what it appears to me like the Pistons do. They've got superstars, but for whatever reason they get it done as a team. So, obviously, it can be done."

--3B Brandon Inge has suddenly determined he's the Detroit player with the most continuous service on the team.

As such, he stands to inherit the lockers next to the clubhouse entrance. They formerly belonged to OF Bobby Higginson.

Inge was brought up to Detroit as the backup catcher in 2001. He spent portions of the next two seasons with Toledo getting his batting technique up to speed but has spent all of the last two seasons with the Tigers.

He's on his fourth manager and believes his senior status will let him take a more active leadership role in the clubhouse and on the field.

"I think I'm definitely going to take more of an active role in that this year," Inge said. "I've been asked by certain people to step up more. I've been around long enough. I've been around all the managers, learned what to do and what not to do, so I'm at the point now where I'm going to help guys.

"I want to help them win, no matter what it is, whether it's a kick in the tail or whether it's encouragement or being a pal to someone. I want to get the most performance out of every player that I can. I'll always have an open locker. I want people to come talk to me.

"I would love to give information to people. I don't think I'm a salty veteran or anything like that, but I have been around. I've been through terrible seasons and halfway decent seasons. I've seen a lot of information, especially here. I know how it works here, because I've been here for a while. And I know how it should work."

While Detroit will have veterans with more major league service time, such as C Ivan Rodriguez, LHP Kenny Rogers, RF Magglio Ordonez and SS Carlos Guillen, Inge feels he's seen enough to let him speak up, too.

--RHP Justin Verlander thinks he learned a lot from last season, one thing being to pace himself.

Verlander went from high Class A to Double-A to the majors and back to Double-A in his first pro season. It ended early when he felt stiffness in his right shoulder after three innings of an Aug. 2 start for Erie.

"I was surprised my arm got tired, absolutely I was," he said. "Thank God that nothing was hurt seriously. I came back to the Instructional League, felt great, and I'm ready to go now in spring training. It was weird. I just didn't have it. I couldn't throw hard."

The Tigers shut him down until the Instruction League, when they let him resume throwing and then pitch an IL game just so he'd go home for the winter confident that things would be OK in the spring.

"I believe I know how to pace myself," Verlander said. "It's hard, though, when you're excited, not to just go out there and get after it.

"This year, I started throwing later. Hopefully it will work out. Before last season, like a typical rookie, I was throwing way too much."

BY THE NUMBERS: 21 -- Starts in the same game last season by Detroit's regular double-play combination, SS Carlos Guillen and 2B Placido Polanco.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I learned more in those two starts than I did the entire season in the minor leagues -- pitching-wise, in-game, not necessarily coaching." -- RHP Justin Verlander, whose exceptional first pro season and assortment of major league pitches have made him the leading candidate to win the job as the fifth starter in Detroit's rotation.

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).

BIGGEST NEEDS: To thin the excess of OF/DH/1B types currently on the roster and add a left-handed reliever to help LHP Jamie Walker.

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


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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