Inside Pitch: Setting the Tone

Coming into spring training, the Tigers were one of the clear favorites in the American League. What does Jim Leyland plan to do to keep the team grounded and ready to work hard for the '08 season?

Manager Jim Leyland's theme for this spring training is to keep problems from becoming problems.

Leyland said he was going to tell his players when they report for spring training that just because the Tigers are expected to be good doesn't mean they will be -- unless they work at it.

"It's huge because the expectations are so high," Leyland said. "We have to make sure we don't just come in here, stare at the lockers and say, 'Holy cow, this team's pretty good.' I'll make sure that doesn't happen.

"We'll have a lot of fun, but work first and just make sure everyone does what they need to get ready. That's really important. You can get lulled to sleep at times with a team like this.

"We're leaning toward more veteran players now, and it's that same old thing: A lot of times veteran players think, 'I know what it takes.' Well, they might know what it takes, but all of a sudden Opening Day comes and they're not ready. I'm going to guard against that."

Leyland will have to walk the line between getting his regulars enough work and not burning them out or risking injury in the spring, when games don't count.

The biggest distraction of the spring could be whether Brandon Inge gets traded -- and how content or unhappy he is over becoming a part-time player should he remain with Detroit. For that reason, Leyland and Inge held a one-time press conference Feb. 15 and said they are shelving the issue for the rest of the spring.

The other issues are minor: the makeup of the bullpen and the competition among five players for four bench spots.

Leyland will thus pay more attention to making sure his many veterans are working hard enough to get ready for the season.

"You want to make sure you set the right tone," Leyland said. "No shortcuts. I think it's good when the expectations are high because it means you have a good team, which we do. But that's only on paper.

"The rest is for us to execute, go out and get in the right frame of mind, and prepare for the long haul. You do that on the field, not in newspaper articles."

--The Tigers like their starting rotation but have the same problem every team does -- who do they turn to if someone goes down?

A stable rotation helped the Tigers reach the World Series in 2006, but multiple injuries to starters last year kept Detroit out of postseason play. While some of the replacements pitched well, too many had to be used.

The Tigers thinned themselves of depth during the winter when they dealt two quality pitching prospects, sending right-hander Jair Jurrjens to Atlanta for shortstop Edgar Renteria and left-hander Andrew Miller to Florida as part of the trade for left-hander Dontrelle Willis and third baseman Miguel Cabrera. Right-hander Chad Durbin, who made 19 starts last year, was allowed to leave as a free agent.

One possibility Detroit likes is right-hander Yorman Bazardo, who looked good in two starts last summer but is out of options and probably must make the staff as a reliever to be available. Right-hander Zach Miner, who made 16 starts two years ago and one last season, performed well in relief for the club last year. He has an option remaining.

Right-handers Virgil Vasquez and Jordan Tata made three emergency starts apiece for the Tigers last season and will probably open this year in the minors. Tata is seen as having the higher upside.

The organization's current top pitching prospect and its No. 1 2007 draft choice, right-hander Rick Porcello, is scheduled to throw his first competitive professional pitch sometime in April.

WHERE, WHEN: Joker Marchant Stadium, Lakeland, Fla. First exhibition games are Feb. 26 against Florida Southern and Feb. 27 against New York Mets.

TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: UT Brandon Inge was a major disappointment at the plate last season and is being written off as just a spare part or due to be traded. But Inge understands a good offensive season will boost his value to other teams or put him in line to take a regular job from somebody else on Detroit's roster. A good start is key because if that happens, manager Jim Leyland will find ways to work him into the lineup.

TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: LHP Kenny Rogers is going to lose his race against age one of these seasons, and this could be the year Father Time catches up with the athletic 43-year-old. A blood clot requiring surgery and a sore elbow limited Rogers to token starts in 2007 and the Tigers could be rolling the dice by counting on him to be their fifth starter this year. It should be noted RF Magglio Ordonez and CF Curtis Granderson can both be expected to come down off career years but still have respectable seasons.

AUTHORITY FIGURES: Manager Jim Leyland has guided Detroit to a 183-141 record in his two seasons with the Tigers. Leyland is a no-nonsense nice guy, if there can be such a thing, who commands the respect of his players and is known for getting the most from his teams. Pitching coach Chuck Hernandez is part of a returning staff that is strong on teaching and includes hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, third base coach Gene Lamont, first base coach Andy Van Slyke, infield coach Rafael Belliard and bullpen coach Jeff Jones.

--RHP Justin Verlander will probably be Detroit's Opening Day pitcher at the beginning of his third full season in the majors. "I haven't really had a thought about it yet," manager Jim Leyland said when Detroit's pitchers reported to camp, "but if I were to guess today, I'd probably say Verlander. He's earned it, but that's not anything etched in stone. It's important not to put too much on the guy, but I'd also like to compliment him. One thing I really like about Verlander is that he's had a lot of big things happen to him in a short period of time. For the most part, he's really handled them well. That's a real good sign. He's done a wonderful job at that. The other thing is, he's pretty good, but you have to make sure he doesn't go crazy in putting so much pressure on himself and try to leap forward in leaps and bounds." Verlander has won 35 games in his first two seasons.

--UT Brandon Inge and his manager, Jim Leyland, hope they held their only press conference of the spring Feb. 15 to discuss the transition last year's starting third baseman is making to utility player. Leyland said Detroit will keep trying to trade Inge even if backup C Vance Wilson isn't able to throw at the start of the season. "In one way, I hope we don't lose Brandon Inge because he's been a favorite of mine. In another way, I hope we do and that he gets traded somewhere he can play third base every day because that's what he is," Leyland said. "No question about it, we'd be a weaker club without him. We'd be losing arguably the best defensive third baseman in the American League. There's no doubt it's an awkward situation. But I'm sure (GM Dave Dombrowski) will try everything in his power to make a deal if it's possible. We don't know the answer to that yet, but we're certainly not going to give him away." "I love the organization," Inge said. "The Tigers are in my blood. But there's not a starting role here for me. That's a positive to be said for this ballclub. It's a great club. The problem for me is that I'm not going to play that much. I'd never be a cancer. I'll play as hard as I can. I'll do whatever I can to help, but my heart really is at third base."

--RHP Jeremy Bonderman altered his offseason routine in hopes it would keep his right elbow healthy all season. Bonderman was 9-1 record with a 3.48 ERA the first half of last season but won just two of 10 decisions and had a 7.38 ERA the second half. "I got a little more rest," he said. "After that World Series year, I probably didn't prepare myself as I should have for last season. But I'm more rested and more focused now." The Tigers' trainers gave him a set of custom exercises to do for 90 minutes six days a week to add strength to his forearm muscles, which were the source of the problem. "I feel good," he said Feb. 14 when he reported to camp. "I've thrown off the mound three times this week. I've let it go. And I feel good. I'm just going to get ready (for the regular season) and not rush things. I'll be ready when we break camp."

--UT Ryan Raburn probably won't know for sure whether he'll make the Tigers' season-opening roster until spring training ends, but he knows he has to work hard regardless. Manager Jim Leyland has two variables to watch that affect Raburn's situation -- whether UT Brandon Inge gets traded and whether C Vance Wilson's surgically repaired right elbow will be well enough to let him start the season as the backup to C Ivan Rodriguez. Leyland wants Raburn to enhance his value by working as an emergency catcher. "We're thinking of having him catch there a little bit this spring, just for an emergency situation," said Leyland.

--RHP Joel Zumaya is going through Detroit's early conditioning drills just like the rest of the Tigers' pitchers, he just isn't doing any throwing. "Everything is going good," said Zumaya, who added he doesn't know when he'll begin throwing again. "Everything is going forward. I've lost 20 pounds, and I'm getting strong. I was 260 at the end of last year, and now I'm 240. I took it off by working out and eating right -- not eating fast foods." Zumaya said there are a lot of strange stories out there about how his right shoulder injury really happened. "My family has read a lot of criticism of me on the Internet," he said. "It bothers them. I try to let it slide, but it's tough. I don't deserve it. I was moving a box and it fell on me. That's it. That's how it happened. People don't know how hard I've already worked to get back. I've worked the hardest I ever have, and it's going to pay off. That's why I say I'm only thinking forward and looking forward. I'm not looking back."

--DH Gary Sheffield was among those who reported with pitchers and catchers for the start of spring training, nearly a week ahead of when he had to. Sheffield is coming off right shoulder surgery to clean up damage that occurred last season and describes himself as "good and healthy" now. He said he's throwing from 60 feet with no pain and swinging a bat with no problem. "The doctor looked at me after the surgery," Sheffield said, "and told me, 'I don't know how you played with this (labrum tear). You had a lot more damage in there than we anticipated. For you to play like that, I'm just amazed that you even swung the bat.'"

BY THE NUMBERS: 5 -- Players vying for four bench spots on the Tigers' Opening Day roster. The five are Brandon Inge, Ramon Santiago, Marcus Thames, Vance Wilson and Ryan Raburn.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'll admit I was getting kind of angry. Then we stopped at a rest area and when I got out to play catch with my son, we saw a family (pulling) a U-Haul. They had a kid in a wheelchair. I had to remember there are a lot of people worse off. I'm still able to put a big-league uniform on." -- UT Brandon Inge on his feelings during the drive to open spring training now that he doesn't have a spot in the lineup anymore.

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