Detroit Tigers Inside Pitch Season Preview

Spring Training is about to come to an end, the honeymoon period for manager Jim Leyland and his staff is about to come to an end. How will the team and the staff gel, and who is poised for a breakout?

The sun-splashed, get-acquainted times are about to end for Jim Leyland, and soon the Tigers' new manager will be getting to know how his players perform under the stress of the regular season.

"I got to know you, you got to know me, but one thing I want you to understand, there's been no pressure," Leyland said of what he intended to tell his squad before it left Florida.

"If we get into the nitty-gritty of the season and suddenly we lose seven in a row, are you still going to like me?

"Am I still going to like you -- and are we still going to be teammates? Those are the most important questions. It's also important for them to know there's a real serious side of me and that the answer to all these favors isn't always going to be yes. That's when you find out if you're all together or not.

"I hope we are, because this is a good group of guys. I like them, but I can see where they need to understand some things that are important to the formula of winning."

One of the things Leyland is likely to see are those traits that have helped prevent Detroit from having a winning record since 1993. Among them are poor plate discipline, inability to make adjustments from inning to inning and from game to game, bad pitching habits plus bad situational awareness on both sides of an inning.

Bad defense has been a team trait for several seasons and Leyland keeps addressing it. As did his predecessors.

But while Leyland inherits most of the same starters whose inability to put thought into action cost Alan Trammell his job, the new manager sees all of his starters as being healthy.

Last spring shortstop Carlos Guillen was an uncertainty because he was coming off knee surgery (he could still hit, just not with any authority and it turned out he was not strong enough to play a full season); right fielder Magglio Ordonez looked fully recovered from multiple knee surgeries, only to be felled by a sport hernia that cost him half the year; right-hander Troy Percival was headed for two trips to the disabled list that ended his career; and two other closers (right-handerss Ugueth Urbina and Kyle Farnsworth) were traded.

The only significant change in the starting lineup (aside from first baseman Chris Shelton, called up in May and who quickly grabbed the job last year) will be the addition of center fielder Curtis Granderson.

Left-hander Kenny Rogers, signed as a free agent, looks to be more than adequate as a replacement for the allowed-to-depart right-hander Jason Johnson, and right-hander Todd Jones was brought back for a second term as the club closer. He hasn't had a sparkling spring but he always gets juiced for games that count more than games that don't.

The one thing Leyland saw this spring he didn't expect was a corps of good young players coming up through the minors. Two were expected to stick to the pitching staff -- right-hander Justin Verlander as the No. 5 starter and right-hander Joel Zumaya as a flame-throwing reliever.

He also liked outfielder Brent Clevlen as an outfield prospect, right-handers Humberto Sanchez and Jordan Tata plus a few other young prospects.

"I like talent," Leyland said. "I don't care what age it is."

He was expected to keep prospective starters Jason Grilli and Roman Colon, both right-handers, as bullpen members, a departure from recent Tiger bullpens. It gives the club flexibility to make an in-season move with its staff. It can do that much more readily than in the past because there are replacement waiting both within the staff and down in the minors, something that has rarely been true for more than 20 years.

Everybody's on the same page now, but the test will come after that seven-game losing streak he was talking about or when it becomes obvious that another "Wait 'til Next Year" has set in.

The young pitchers give the club the potential to be a lot better by the end of the year than it will be on opening day. Getting there will be the hard part.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: RHP Jeremy Bonderman has three seasons of being a major league starter under his belt and is not yet 24-years- old. He was next on the list to be added to the American League All-Star team last season but his second half was ruined by a sore muscle on the outside of his right elbow, a condition that ended his season early in September. He's gone from six, to 11, to 14 victories and if healthy could easily move into the 15-20 win class.

ON THE DECLINE: LHP Kenny Rogers is 41 -- how much of an upside can he have? He's traditionally been a good first-half pitcher, and he's looked about the same as always this spring. If Rogers gets whacked around in the first half, that will be a pretty good sign that, like RHP Troy Percival, he could get paid not to pitch in the second half of his Detroit contract. No matter how early his second half starts, Rogers will be an upgrade on the man he replaced, RHP Jason Johnson, who nearly went winless in two second halves with the Tigers.

--Things are changing with the Tigers. And the best place to look for a sign of that is their bullpen, where almost as many starters lurk as there are in the rotation.

All that's needed is the official announcement, scheduled for midweek, that erstwhile right-handed starters Jason Grilli, Joel Zumaya and Roman Colon are members of Detroit's bullpen for the beginning of the 2006 season.

All three lost out to RHP Justin Verlander in the spring contest for the open fifth starter's spot but it would not be a stretch to find any of the three in the Tigers' rotation at some point this season.

Manager Jim Leyland might decide to skip one of his starters from time to time, he might decide to go with the veteran Grilli against teams that Verlander might not match up well against or Detroit might decide at some point this season to trade one of its three left-handed starters (right-hander Jeremy Bonderman is an untouchable).

The presence of the erstwhile starters is a change from the makeup of recent Tigers' bullpens, peopled largely by the hopefuls and discards that seem to go from club to club if a good year makes them too expensive to keep or a bad year makes them necessary to move.

Verlander got better with every spring start to nail down the vacant spot in the rotation. Grilli pitched well as well. Colon was spotty but continues to show flashes there might be something there.

Zumaya began spring training labeled too inexperienced to keep but ended it too outstanding not to.

Zumaya and Verlander have much the same assortment of pitches but their deliveries are different enough that one could follow the other with no difficulty. Each can hit 100 on the radar gun, each has a curve and each can throw an effective changeup, although Verlander's offspeed stuff might be a little more refined at this point.

"If (people) expect them to tear up the American League, that's unfair," Leyland said. "They're going to have some bumpy spots. There's no league higher than this one."

It changes the face of the Detroit staff, no question.

Having Rogers following Verlander after the first time through the rotation is going to put more than a few hitters out of whack. And having Zumaya, Colon and Grilli come into mid-game situations is going to give the Tigers more power arms to lightning-bolt their way out of trouble.

Things certainly won't turn out the way management figures, they rarely do, but it could make things more interesting in Detroit than they have been in some time.

--RHP Joel Zumaya needed only a midweek confirmation to know he'd made Detroit's Opening Day roster.

Zumaya, 21, pitched just eight Triple-A games last season but showed at the end he had made the adjustment to the higher level. He's shown much the same in spring training.

"I know how I would look at it," manager Jim Leyland said of how his prodigy should view his chances. "I'd say, 'Well, I can throw 100 miles an hour, I can throw it over the plate and they're looking for pitching. I've got a pretty good chance.'"

Although some scouts view him as an excellent closer prospect, Detroit has always wanted to see what he could do as a starter and that's how he was used in the minors. But he initially will be on the Tigers' roster as a reliever.

"He's been a marathon runner and now he's a sprinter," said veteran RHP Todd Jones, Detroit's closer. "He's going to have to make a big adjustment. So they (Tigers officials) must think a lot of him."

"I know there's going to be tough times, but I think it's really fun coming out of the pen," Zumaya said. "I want to make the team. If I made it as a starter or as a reliever, my dream has come true."

--RHP Justin Verlander was finishing spring training strongly and locked up the vacant fifth starter's spot in the Detroit rotation. Verlander pitched a pair of 1-2-3 innings before a rain delay curtailed his start in an exhibition game March 23.

"That was a shame," Manager Jim Leyland said about the rain, "because he was really good. If he pitches and locates like that, there's no league he couldn't pitch in."

Verlander had pitched only nine games above the high Class A level, including two cameo starts for the Tigers last summer.

--Manager Jim Leyland wants to have Detroit's Opening Day roster set and announced by Thursday, two days before the team breaks camp.

"I want it done by the 30th," he said, "but that's in a perfect world. Sometimes you have a trade going and you do what your boss tells you. But I want it out of the way. I want this club set as quickly as I can."

--LHP Wilfredo Ledezma was one of nine Detroit players cut March 23, getting optioned to Triple-A Toledo before the last round of roster trimming.

Ledezma made the Detroit roster last year out of spring training after sticking as a Rule 5 pick the year before. But he had control trouble and got hit hard, so he was optioned to Toledo early in the season.

"He needs to work on his breaking ball," manager Jim Leyland said, "and to locate his fastball better. But I look at him as a potentially good major league pitcher."

--Detroit club owner Mike Ilitch and manager Jim Leyland held a closed-door conversation that lasted nearly a half-hour March 21 after the Tigers played their only night game of the exhibition season.

"This is the best I've felt about the team," Ilitch said after the meeting, an opinion he's expressed before, "because we have a farm system now. That's a wonderful feeling. I'm very happy with what I see."

Said Leyland: "It was very enjoyable, right to the point. No bull. I liked that a lot. He'd be a good poker player, never showed signs of anything. He just asked his next question."

Ilitch also said he'd be willing to spring for a key performer at mid-season if it might made a difference in Detroit's post-season chances. He's made that statement before, too.

"I haven't had that opportunity," Ilitch said. "An owner can make a difference. I haven't been able to make a difference."

"I think if we prove to Mr. Ilitch we can compete, he would consider, consider, doing what it takes to get over the hump," Leyland said. "But I would never spend any owner's money foolishly."

--Marcus Lemon, son of former Detroit CF Chet Lemon and a top high school shortstop, spent a day working out for the Tigers as a possible high draft pick in June.

"Wouldn't that be nice (if he becomes a Tiger)?" Chet Lemon said. "There are a couple of places I'm partial to, and Detroit is one of them."

Lemon recently spent two weeks in intensive care after two blood vessels in his stomach ruptured.

--RHP Matt Mantei, granted his unconditional release by Detroit recently, went back to Michigan to heal his bad side muscle and see if he might be able to get in shape to pitch in the majors again.

"I'm going to get a physical therapist and a personal trainer and see what I can do," he said. "If I still have the fire in me, I'll give it a shot."

Mantei has been in the majors for 10 years but has averaged more than one trip to the disabled list per season during that time. An ankle injury that resulted in July surgery curtailed his 2005 season with Boston and led to his signing with Detroit as a free agent. He hurt his left oblique muscle, getting only one out in an early exhibition appearance.

Mantei told manager Jim Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski after getting his release that he did not intend to pitch for anybody else but the Tigers if he was able to get back in shape. He showed a good major league fastball in his brief time with Detroit.

BY THE NUMBERS: 2.1 -- Millions of dollars the Tigers would save in payroll this season if they decided to cut 1B Carlos Pena before the end of spring training. Pena, scheduled to earn $2.8 million if he sticks with Detroit, could also be traded.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's incredible. If they can keep their heads on straight, they'll be great." -- Detroit backup C Vance Wilson after catching both of the Tigers' young heet-seekers, RHPs Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya, on an afternoon when both threw two scoreless innings of an exhibition game.

Manager Jim Leyland felt he learned this spring the organization has a lot of impressive young talent and most of it lies in pitching. He has decided to take both of his prize hard-throwing young starters, RHP Justin Verlander and RHP Joel Zumaya, to begin the season with one or both working out of the bullpen initially. Health of the regulars is not the concern it was a year ago and slimmed-down Dmitri Young looks like he'll be able to rotate between first, third and left to give the fielders some rest. CF Curtis Granderson has looked good in the lineup and LF Craig Monroe was crushing the ball after a late start because of injuries. Leyland has seen glimpses of the poor hitting approaches that have plagued the team for a decade and is making that an early season point of emphasis.

1. LHP Kenny Rogers
2. RHP Jeremy Bonderman
3. LHP Nate Robertson
4. LHP Mike Maroth
5. RHP Justin Verlander

Bonderman is probably the best bet to win the most games on the staff but Rogers was given the opening day assignment in deference to his veteran status. While the track record of Bonderman, Robertson and Maroth isn't as high-profile as some, all three have taken their lumps for three seasons and are poised to begin reaping the benefits of those hard lessons. Bonderman, especially, could have a breakout season.

Verlander beat out RHP Jason Grilli, who is having an excellent spring, for the No. 5 starting spot. RHP Joel Zumaya, another hard thrower who like Verlander has a good curve and changeup, has made the roster as a reliever instead of being a starter in Triple-A. Power arms are a staple of general manager Dave Dombrowski's teams and the Tigers are starting to display that trait. More power arms lurk, nearly ready, in the minors.

1. RHP Todd Jones (closer)
2. RHP Fernando Rodney (setup)
3. LHP Jamie Walker
4. RHP Craig Spurling
5. RHP Roman Colon
6. RHP Joel Zumaya
7. RHP Jason Grilli

Power arms are the order of the day in Detroit's bullpen, as per general manager Dave Dombrowski's preference. Jones, at 37, could be through at any moment but he has a solid four-pitch assortment and goes with what's working each day, plus he relishes being on the spot.

Zumaya has long been thought of as a potential ace closer by scouts from other organizations but Detroit still feels he has potential to be a top-of-the-rotation starter and he's probable to get that chance at some point this season when an opening occurs.

Grilli is a former No. 1 draft choice whose fastball finally seems to be coming back several seasons after a shoulder operation and the presence of some many potential starters in the bullpen could induce the Tigers to make a trade at some point. Young RHPs Humberto Sanchez and Jordan Tata also opened eyes in spring training and could be ready to join the staff this season.

1. CF Curtis Granderson
2. 2B Placido Polanco
3. C Ivan Rodriguez
4. RF Magglio Ordonez
5. DH Dmitri Young
6. 1B Chris Shelton
7. LF Craig Monroe
8. SS Carlos Guillen
9. 3B Brandon Inge

Manager Jim Leyland promises to use a different lineup nearly every day, both to take advantage of matchups and give his starters more rest than they might have been accustomed to in the past. Young is going play in the field (1B, 3B, LF) on occasion with those he replaces possibly DHing to give their bodies a little break. It shouldn't surprise if Guillen or Monroe bats second, either, or if Young and Ordonez flip-flop in the order.

Though not a good runner, Shelton walks and uses the field well so he could hit second or third, and Inge has been successful leading off in the past. Rodriguez will probably get more rest than he'd like and infielder Omar Infante will see a lot of action off the bench in both the infield and outfield.

INF Omar Infante
C Vance Wilson
OF Nook Logan or OF Marcus Thames
IF Ramon Santiago

Infante could get 400 at-bats under Manager Jim Leyland's plan to use him 4-5 times a week as a sub in both the infield and outfield. Wilson will catch up to twice a week as C Ivan Rodriguez either gets a day off or DHs.

The organization was using the last week of spring training to determine the last two bench spots. It was trying to trade CF Nook Logan, who lost out to CF Curtis Granderson for the starter's spot, and mulling whether to keep 1B Carlos Pena and try to trade him later or just release him. INF Ramon Santiago impressed Leyland with a good spring but he's done that before, following with a no-hit major league response. Thames would provide power off the bench but is a right-handed hitter and is pretty much limited to left field. Pena needed a good spring and didn't have one, which resulted in his unconditional release.

ROOKIE WATCH: RHP Justin Verlander and RHP Joel Zumaya represented the first wave of power arms GM Dave Dombrowski likes to have. Verlander was almost certain to make the opening day roster and the only reason Zumaya wouldn't is to let him apprentice as a starter at Triple-A rather than in Detroit's bullpen. Manager Jim Leyland also had praise for several other youngsters who could appear with the Tigers in the next year or two -- OF Brent Clevlen, RHPs Humberto Sanchez and Jordan Tata plus 3B Kody Kirkland and IF Donald Kelly. SS Tony Giarratano has a major league glove but needs to improve his hitting.

MEDICAL WATCH: DH Dmitri Young (quad) returned to action midway through spring training and appeared healthy. LF Craig Monroe missed two weeks with strained oblique and then a quad but thumped the ball upon his return. IF Omar Infante (right shoulder tendonitis) missed a few days but has returned to action. RHP Troy Percival (torn right elbow muscle) was unable to pitch effectively and left camp, apparently retired. RHP Matt Mantei (oblique) was released.

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