It looks as if Ivan Rodriguez is ready for the World Baseball Classic.
Rodriguez, who will be Puerto Rico's catcher for the March tournament among national teams, led off for the second straight day Thursday and went 3-for-3 with four RBIs.
He'll join Team Puerto Rico during the weekend and won't be back with the Tigers until his team is eliminated or the tournament ends. Rodriguez appears to have gotten on well with new Tigers manager Jim Leyland after a fractured relationship in 2005 with former manager Alan Trammell.
Leyland had Rodriguez leading off in Detroit's exhibition opener Wednesday against Florida Southern College and put him first in the lineup Thursday.
It is not an experiment to find a leadoff hitter, Leyland says, but merely a maneuver that let Rodriguez get as many at-bats as possible before he leaves for training with his national team. Curtis Granderson and Nook Logan will be battling this spring to play center field and lead off for the Tigers.
--C Ivan Rodriguez was at leadoff for Detroit for the second straight game Thursday.
Rodriguez went 3-for-3 and drove in three runs before coming out of the game. He'll leave the Tigers this weekend to join Team Puerto Rico for the World Baseball Classic.
Detroit loses four of its positional regulars for the event, but manager Jim Leyland will use their absences as a chance to view some of his minor-leaguers.
Leyland had Rodriguez leading off to give him a maximum number of at-bats, not as an experiment to see whether he could do it. He says OF Curtis Granderson or OF Nook Logan will lead off once the season starts, whichever one wins the job, with Rodriguez hitting third, fifth or sixth.
--LHP Nate Robertson wants to get off to a good start -- and a good finish -- this season.
Robertson made his first spring start Thursday in Detroit's first exhibition game and didn't let a ball out of the infield in two innings.
He struck out three.
Robertson was sensational the first half of the 2004 season, playing an excellent slider off a decent fastball to rank among the league leaders in strikeouts the first two months of the season. But he fell off the second half of the year and wasn't as sharp through all of 2005.
He spent the winter building lower body and trunk strength in an effort to regain his good stuff while retaining the stamina to pitch well for a whole season.
--RF Magglio Ordonez changed his mind and will join Team Venezuela for the World Baseball Classic.
Pressure from family, teammate SS Carlos Guillen and countrymen prompted Ordonez to rethink his position. He had wanted to stay with the Tigers in an effort to get off to a good start after an injury-plagued first season with Detroit.
But Ordonez decided to play exhibition games with the Tigers through the weekend before leaving Sunday for the short drive up to Clearwater, where his national team will be working out.
--RHP Craig Dingman, his future clouded by a leaky blood vessel in his right shoulder, was the only unsigned member of Detroit's 40-man roster after the Tigers announced they have agreed to terms with nine players on 2006 contracts.
Results of Dingman's exam were not available late in the week, but it is likely the Tigers wanted to get his status cleared up before negotiating a contract.
--RHP Roman Colon turned in a so-so first outing Thursday in his battle to land the open fifth starter's slot in the Tigers' rotation.
Colon gave up a run on two hits and a walk and wasn't as sharp as he needs to be to edge out three other challengers.
--RHP Jason Grilli worked two shaky innings Thursday in his bid to make Detroit as either a starter or long relief man.
Grilli worked two innings but was charged with two runs on four hits and didn't appear to be dominating in his first outing.
The Tigers will be following his efforts pitching for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic. Grilli could really help himself with strong showings in the tournament. He's not expected to win the open starter's position, but there is an opening in the bullpen for a long man.
BY THE NUMBERS: .290, .268 -- On-base percentages for 2005 of OF Curtis Granderson and CF Nook Logan when they batted leadoff. Manager Jim Leyland has indicated one or the other will be his center fielder and leadoff hitter for 2006. Granderson led off 16 times last year and Logan 13.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think I made it about Dec. 15." -- Manager Jim Leyland in response to when he made his decision as to which of his pitchers would start the first game of the 2006 season. Detroit announced the signing of free agent LHP Kenny Rogers on Dec. 14.
The primary goals of spring training for Detroit will be determining a fifth starter, settling on a center fielder, thinning the excess of OF/DH/1B types on the roster and possibly finding a second left-hander for the bullpen. Manager Jim Leyland will focus on those decisions but mostly will spend the exhibition season getting to know his players.
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).
PROJECTED ROTATION: The lessons learned over three losing seasons under former manager Alan Trammell are expected to start paying off this year for RHP Jeremy Bonderman and LHPs Mike Maroth and Nate Robertson. Bonderman and Maroth have improved each year, while Robertson has been walking in place. Signing free agent LHP Kenny Rogers to replace RHP Jason Johnson should be a plus -- but only if Father Time doesn't slam him down as he did to that cameraman with Texas last summer. There is one open spot, and the Tigers hope one of their prized young power arms is ready to seize it.
--LHP Kenny Rogers was 14-8, 3.46 for Texas before signing with Detroit as a free agent. He typically starts a season in sensational fashion but tapers off in the second half, but that wasn't as much in evidence last summer because he missed some time when he was suspended for shoving a television cameraman. The Tigers feel he has value remaining even at the age of 41 and hope he can impart some of his knowledge of working hitters to their younger pitchers, especially the two other left-handed starters. Early in camp he was named the club's Opening Day starter.
--RHP Jeremy Bonderman tied for the club lead with 14 wins and is expected to take the next step toward being a dominant rotation leader. He pitched much of July and August without telling management a muscle on the outside of his elbow was bothering him, which plumped his ERA to 4.57, and the club shut him down in September. He's expected to be OK -- but the club needs to be cautious because it can ill afford to lose him. He will spend some time continuing to work on his changeup this spring.
--LHP Mike Maroth lost 21 games in 2003 but improved each of the following two seasons and was 14-14 with a 4.74 ERA in 2005. Similar in style to LHP Kenny Rogers, the Tigers hope he can learn more about setting up hitters from the veteran lefty and take another step forward in 2006. Maroth just signed a two-year contract, and Detroit envisions him having a similar career to Rogers or Seattle's LHP Jamie Moyer, still pitching at 43.
--LHP Nate Robertson has had second-half falloffs each of his two full seasons with Detroit, so he spent the winter working with former Tigers strength and conditioning coach Denny Taft to build up his leg and trunk muscles. Robertson fell from 12 wins in 2004 to just seven a year ago, and his fastball wasn't as lively, which diminished the effectiveness of his excellent slider. He continued to have trouble getting two-strike outs.
--RHP Justin Verlander zoomed from high Class A to two cameo major league starts in his first pro season. He has an upper-90s fastball, a great 12-to-6 curve and a major league changeup. All he lacks is the experience in mixing all of them. It didn't matter in the minors that he couldn't command his fastball, but major league hitters quickly showed him that's a weakness he'll need to overcome to succeed in the big leagues. Verlander was shut down in August due to a tired shoulder, but that was attributed to the rigors of the daily pro grind, and he came back in the Instructional League to show he was healthy. Still, he needs a good spring to fend off challengers.
PROJECTED BULLPEN: The Tigers went through closers last season like manager Jim Leyland used to go through smokes during a game. They had four closers with six saves or more, and RHP Craig Dingman had four. The Tigers went from RHP Troy Percival to RHP Ugueth Urbina to RHP Kyle Farnsworth before going back to Percival and then finishing with RHP Fernando Rodney as the primary stopper. Signing free agent RHP Todd Jones, who emerged from three seasons of ineffectiveness to save 40 games for Florida last year, to a two-year deal is supposed to close that hole. Trading Farnsworth to Atlanta at the end of July (the Tigers didn't think they could stop him from becoming a free agent at the end of the season) and losing Percival to an elbow muscle injury for the second time caused the bullpen to collapse the last two months of the season after it had been a team strength. Having Rodney as the setup man in his second season away from Tommy John surgery and having Dingman and RHP Chris Spurling to work the middle along with LHP Jamie Walker should give the bullpen stability. Also, for the first time in years, help awaits in the minors if anyone falters.
--RHP Todd Jones saved 40 games for Florida last year after earning just three saves in the previous three seasons combined. While there's a question of which is the real Jones, the former Detroit closer (1997-2001) was energized when the Marlins turned to him to finish games. He has four major league pitches to work with, compensating for a diminished fastball. He also should help teach the Tigers' other relievers.
--RHP Fernando Rodney made an impressive comeback from 2004 Tommy John surgery with nine saves and a 2.86 ERA, finishing last season as Detroit's closer. But timidity in throwing his quality slider, attributed to expected normal soreness in the repaired elbow, sometimes let hitters tee off on his fastball. Even so, Rodney can get by on his mid-90s fastball and a changeup that's among the best in the majors. The setup job is his to lose.
--RHP Chris Spurling also made a stout comeback from 2004 Tommy John surgery, posting a 3-4 record and 3.44 ERA working largely middle relief. He shows a nice fastball, good control and a sometimes dominating breaking ball as he carves out a bullpen career. Spurling should work the same role for the Tigers in 2006.
--LHP Jamie Walker continues to excel as a multi-purpose reliever entering his fifth season with the Tigers. Walker had no saves but was 4-3 with a 3.70 ERA in 66 games. Detroit has never had an effective lefty companion for Walker in its bullpen, so it can seldom afford to bring him in for just one hitter. He has been very effective against left-handed hitters since taking Hall of Famer Al Kaline's advice to become more of a sidearm pitcher.
--RHP Craig Dingman filled every bullpen role after being brought up from Toledo at mid-year, but his 2006 season became in doubt when he reported to spring training unable to pitch due to a blood leakage in his right shoulder. He compiled four saves and a 3.66 ERA. The journeyman has shown a better fastball since the Tigers picked him up two years ago and has proven to be a serviceable middle relief man.
--RHP Franklyn German displayed his control problems the second half of the season after seeming to have them solved while winning a job last spring training. He walked 34 batters in 59 innings while striking out only 38. Everything revolves around setting up his deadly split-finger with first-pitch fastballs for strikes. When he gets behind in the count, hitters sit on his fastball or pass on anything low, figuring it will be out of the strike zone when it crosses home plate. Out of options, German will have to win a roster spot in the spring again this year.
--RHP Roman Colon isn't nearly as effective in relief as he is starting, historically, but he's probably looking at a role as an early reliever as his ticket to the majors this season. He will need to show something extraordinary to win the vacant spot in the starting rotation. Colon prefers to start because he feels he can use all of his pitches that way. He performed well in spots when it was obvious he was going to work three early innings out of the pen, though. Colon a good arm, but it's time for him to start showing some consistency.
--RHP Jason Grilli pitched well in two of three September appearances for the Tigers and is a long shot for the vacant fifth starter's spot. Grilli (1-1, 3.38) could squeeze into the hole created with the inability of RHP Craig Dingman to pitch due to a blood vessel injury in his right shoulder.
PROJECTED LINEUP: Detroit's starting lineup seems set as there's a regular returning at every position, but an excess of players with starter-sized salaries in the outfield, at first base and DH could prompt a change or two by the time spring training's over. The health questions that dominated last spring's training appear to be over for now. The challenge this season will be finding playing time for the $3 million-plus players who appear not to be as good as some of their minimum-wage competitors.
--CF Curtis Granderson provided the Tigers with a little power at the top of the batting order in his limited late-season playing time. He'll need to cut his strikeouts (43) and increase his walks (10) to establish himself. It's possible he'll open the season hitting down in the order -- if he wins a starting job.
--2B Placido Polanco is the only player assured of his spot in the batting order entering the season. He might have won the AL batting crown (.338) if he'd been with Detroit all season. Polanco is the ideal No. 2 batter because he hits for average and can move runners.
--C Ivan Rodriguez will have to show he's abandoned his free-swinging ways of last season to retain his spot in the order. He chased too many pitches out of the strike zone and tried to pull too much, in contrast to his first season with Detroit. Look for him to get more rest in 2006 as his age begins to be a factor.
--RF Magglio Ordonez will need to show he's the player he was three seasons ago (30 home runs, 120 RBIs). His knee, repaired twice in 2004, was fine last season, but a sports hernia put him out of action early and robbed him of his power when he did return after the All-Star break.
--DH Dmitri Young vowed to come to camp about 30 pounds under the reported 260 to 270 pounds he played at a year ago. He worked out with his high-profile brother, Delmon Young of Tampa Bay, during the winter in response to manager Jim Leyland's request that he be in shape to play more games at third base and in left field.
--SS Carlos Guillen missed most of the second half because of weakness in the muscles around his right knee, subject of two ACL surgeries in his career. He returned in September and successfully played a few test games and served as a DH in winter ball. He improved his batting average for the fifth straight year, but the knee injury, which had him in and out of the lineup in the first half of the season, robbed him of his power.
--1B Chris Shelton wore down in the second half of the season but established himself as a player of promise in his first full trial in the majors. He showed 20 to 30 home run potential. Shelton uses the whole field and has great working knowledge of the strike zone.
--LF Craig Monroe led Detroit with 89 RBIs, but had few in September. A self-made player, he played all over the outfield in his first season as a regular. He needs to relax at the plate in the late innings.
--3B Brandon Inge was another Tiger who wore down as the season wound down. He played 160 games and showed a Gold Glove defensive style but will need to cut down on his strikeouts. He figures to get more rest and should be better for it. Inge could wind up as the leadoff hitter because of the .371 on-base percentage he posted at that spot in the order last season.
PROJECTED RESERVES: Detroit has a solid defensive bench, but offensively it's limited, and a mid-market team like the Tigers can't afford to pay one of its subs (1B Carlos Pena) $3 million a year to sit on the bench. Manager Jim Leyland talks about establishing a rotation that will give Pena at-bats as the club waits to see how things shake out early in the season before making a move. C Vance Wilson should play once or twice a week under a plan to give C Ivan Rodriguez more rest, and INF Omar Infante could get 200 to 400 at-bats rotating around the infield. Logan is a wild card because of his extreme speed.
--INF Omar Infante looks as if he's going to be a regular middle infielder at some point in his career but needs to show more bear-down consistency both ways before that happens. He has good gap power and is a solid defensive player -- most of the time.
--C Vance Wilson disappointed the Tigers offensively after coming over from the New York Mets before last season (falling from .274 to .197) but was the solid defensive backup the club wanted when C Ivan Rodriguez wasn't in the lineup. He was very sparsely used early in the season but was playing a couple of times a week toward the end, and that figures to be his role again this year.
--CF Nook Logan has a chance to crack the starting lineup if he becomes a more solid left-handed hitter and puts the ball in play more. At the very least, he will be in the lineup to protect leads in the late innings or be on the bases as a pinch runner when a stolen base is important. Speed and defensive ability will let him carve out a long career as at least a sub.
--1B Carlos Pena has been an early-season disappointment two years in a row, then come on in the late months to tantalize the Tigers with a power display. He's the best defensive first baseman on the team and will give Detroit left-handed pop off the bench. The more he hits, the more he'll play.
TOP ROOKIES: RHP Justin Verlander and RHP Joel Zumaya represent the first wave of the kind of power arms GM Dave Dombrowski likes to accumulate through the draft. Verlander signed too late in 2004 to make his pro debut, but with three major league pitches, he vaulted to the majors (0-2, 7.15) after dominating stints at Class A Lakeland (9-2, 1.67) and Double-A Erie (2-0, 0.28). Zumaya flashes the same high-90s heat, excellent curve but a slightly less developed changeup. He ranked second in the minors in overall strikeouts despite being shut down late with soreness not thought to be serious. Zumaya was 8-3, 2.77 with Erie and 1-2, 2.66 for Triple-A Toledo. SS Tony Giarratano had a brief mid-year cameo and showed a major league glove but will probably spend the season with Toledo to refine his hitting. INF Donald Kelly also will play at Toledo, probably third base, and could serve the Tigers in a utility role if the need arose.
SPRING FOCUS: The three-way battle for the open rotation spot between RHPs Justin Verlander, Roman Colon and Joel Zumaya will draw most of the attention, but whether CF Nook Logan can thrust himself into the outfield could have the most ramifications, as it would prompt Detroit to unload a salary (DH Dmitri Young, OF Craig Monroe, 1B Carlos Pena) were he to succeed.
MEDICAL WATCH: RHP Justin Verlander (tired shoulder) responded well to late-season rest and pitched well in an Instructional League test. RHP Joel Zumaya (tired shoulder) has smoothed out his mechanics a lot in the past couple seasons, and Detroit is not worried that he can't start. RHP Jeremy Bonderman (sore elbow) pitched just twice in September due to a sore muscle on the outside of his right elbow, but the organization feels a winter of rest has made him 100 percent for the spring.