Inside Pitch: Minor League Help, One SS Short

The Tigers offseason moves have left the minor leagues a bit thin, but will the Tigers have enough options at the upper levels should the need arise at the big league level? Plus, which former promising shortstop saw his Tiger career come to an end this week?

The Tigers can live with stripping their top minors of prospects to get a loaded major league roster. But if need help from their minor league teams, they might have some limitations.

Team officials believe they'll be OK for rotation help if starters are forced to miss turns. Zach Miner or Jason Grilli could come out of the bullpen with enough notice. Jordan Tata and Virgil Vasquez, who have major league experience, could be summoned from the minors.

Aquilino Lopez provided short-term bullpen help several times last season and is getting a spring training invite this year. At some point, injured Joel Zumaya could return, too.

Outfielder Timo Perez was a big help last September and has signed a two-way minor league contract to be available this year, too. Utility player Ryan Raburn might be optioned to the minors one more time, especially if Detroit is unable to deal Brandon Inge.

The Tigers have shortstop Ramon Santiago in case something happens to a middle infielder, but minor league infield help is limited to Mike Hessman, rookies Scott Sizemore and Michael Hollimon. Shortstop Brent Dlugach, coming off an injury, might be able to play by May.

However, there is no one the caliber of the Tigers' top two prospects, center fielder Cameron Maybin or left-hander Andrew Miller around. Both were traded to Florida for third baseman Miguel Cabrera and left-hander Dontrelle Willis.

The Tigers felt the swap was equitable.

--OF Timo Perez, who hit .414 for Detroit last September as a replacement for injured DH Gary Sheffield, is one of 21 players the Tigers are inviting to major league spring training. Perez, who turns 33 in April, batted .389 overall in 90 at-bats for Detroit in two stretches of service with the team. He played a lot of left field but is also capable of playing the other outfield positions. He was designated for assignment at the end of the season to clear a roster space but later was signed to a two-way contract.

--SS Tony Giarratano is looking at shoulder surgery for the second consecutive spring and could be sidelined for the third straight year. Giarratano, who missed 2007 because of labrum surgery, re-injured his right shoulder recently, and Tigers director of minor league operations Dan Lunetta said Jan. 24 he does not expect Giarratano to be ready when spring training begins. "I would certainly say that it's one that creates some significant concern," Lunetta said. "We're still in the process of getting a complete medical diagnosis and then a prognosis on where this may lead. It's something that we're evaluating on a day-to-day basis, as is Tony." Giarratano, 25, missed the second half of the 2006 season because of right knee ACL surgery. Shortly after this information was released, the Tigers announced that they released Giarratano. The release opens up a spot on the 40-man roster.

--RHP Aquilino Lopez, who made brief roster appearances with the Tigers last season, is one of 21 non-roster players Detroit has invited to spring training. Lopez, who becomes 33 in April, spent much of the season closing games for Detroit's Class AAA Toledo farm club. He was brought up several times to fill in and posted a 5.19 ERA with one save in 10 games. Lopez allowed 18 hits over 17 1/3 innings with six walks and seven strikeouts.

--RHP Francisco Cruceta is one of two chief contenders for the spot of injured RHP Joel Zumaya in the Detroit bullpen. Cruceta impressed Detroit pitching winter ball after a strong comeback in Class AAA following a 50-game suspension for violating the minor league ban on steroids. He had a 3.02 ERA that would have been lower except he walked two more batters than the 38 hits he gave up 65 2/3 innings. Cruceta has an excellent split-finger but needs to come up with something to offset that pitch and his fastball. Improving his control will also be essential to making the team.

--RHP Denny Bautista has a chance to make the Tigers' bullpen as the replacement for injured RHP Joel Zumaya. Bautista has a career 6.93 ERA because too many of his high-90s fastballs are hittable. He had a 12.46 ERA in limited time with Colorado last year but was 3-2 with a 2.92 ERA at Class AAA Colorado Springs. "You're not going to find many better arms than his," GM Dave Dombrowski said. "This guy touches 100 at times. I got a call from a couple of organizations afterward asking, 'How'd you pull that off?'"

BY THE NUMBERS: 21 -- Non-roster players the Tigers are inviting to major league spring training next month. Of those, six are catchers and only two (OF Timo Perez and RHP Aquilino Lopez) appeared in a game for Detroit last season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have every intention of working in that direction." -- Tigers vice president John Westhoff on Detroit's intention to get 3B Miguel Cabrera signed to a long-term contract as soon as possible.

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