Inside Pitch: Catcher Quandary

As we move closer and closer to Opening Day, the glaring hole behind Pudge Rodriguez becomes more and more noticable. Vance Wilson won't be ready and isn't improving the way the Tigers had hoped. Can Dane Sardinha handle the role? Or will the Tigers be looking around for an upgrade?

It now seems certain Vance Wilson won't be physically able to be Detroit's backup catcher until at least mid-April or later, which could give some players an opportunity they never thought they'd have.

"I don't have any arm strength," Wilson said after another day of inactivity, "so I have to believe at this point I won't be (ready), even if next week I felt great. Even on the days when it feels good, there's just nothing behind it. So I have to build that up. I'm not a pitcher (for whom Tommy John surgery is more common), but doctors tell you that it takes 11 or 12 months, and I'm not even at nine months."

Wilson underwent Tommy John surgery last June 13 after two failed attempts to cure a sore elbow through rest.

"I'm frustrated," Wilson said, "but not with anyone. Everybody says that when you have Tommy John, it's the mental grind of it that's tough. They're right. That's the hard part.

"Missing last year was tough for me, but nowhere near as tough as what I'm going through now. I want to take part in drills, but it's like, 'Hey, you sit over there.' You feel worthless.

"They say a lot of times with this that, all of a sudden, one week you'll turn a corner and take off. You just have to keep working, going day-to-day. You know you're going to get there, you just don't know when."

Brandon Inge took himself out of the picture at catcher earlier this spring, but now he says his expression of dissatisfaction was not accurately portrayed.

"I was more criticizing myself, saying it's something I need to work on," Inge said. "It's not something you're crying about, saying, 'I don't want to do it again.' That's not even close to what I was saying. I'll do whatever they want me to do."

Manager Jim Leyland says he will try Inge behind the plate again, but he's also talking about light-hitting career minor leaguer Dave Sardinha as a possibility.

"He's an extremely fine defensive catcher who can throw," Leyland said. "Anything you get offensively from him would be a bonus. You just hope that on the days you play him, the big boys can carry the lineup offensively.

"But I've really been impressed with his defense. I don't know if he's going to be on the team or not on the team, but I like him a lot."

Sardinha, who turns 29 on April 8, has five hitless major league at-bats and hit only .202 for Detroit's Class AAA affiliate last summer.

The Tigers have other catchers in their organization who fit the can-catch but can't-hit mold. It could happen one of them would get a shot.

Another possibility: Detroit will wait until the end of spring training and claim a veteran backup catcher off waivers.

--3B Brandon Inge has said he doesn't want to catch, and manager Jim Leyland has said he won't make Inge a catcher. Yet there was Inge starting at catcher on Thursday. He later moved to left field, as the Tigers continue to look to add to his versatility.

--LHP Macay McBride, acquired from Atlanta last summer in a trade for LHP Wilfredo Ledezma, was optioned to Class AAA Toledo. He made three appearances for the Tigers this spring, allowing five runs (four earned) on 10 hits in three innings.

--RHP Armando Galarraga, obtained in an offseason trade with the Rangers, was optioned to Class AAA Toledo. Galarraga allowed seven runs (five earned) in six innings this spring.

--RHP Rick Porcello, Detroit's top pick in the 2007 draft, was included in the Tigers' first round of cuts Wednesday, getting assigned to high Class A Lakeland for his first pro season. Porcello gave up just one run in 5 2/3 spring innings, retiring all six batters he faced in his first and third appearances.

"We like him a great deal," said GM Dave Dombrowski, who picked the high Class A squad rather than low Class A West Michigan for Porcello. "He pitched well. And we think he has a bright future. We didn't have anybody (among the Tigers' consultants) think he couldn't handle it."

"I enjoyed my time here," said Porcello, who signed a major league contract with the Tigers. "Everybody's been great." The 19-year-old has impressed everybody with his poise.

--RHP Denny Bautista is trying to fit his fastball through a crack in the Tigers bullpen. The non-roster invitee, known for throwing in the high 90s but with little control, is fighting for the one or two possible bullpen jobs with Detroit. Bautista struck out four batters in two impressive innings of relief Tuesday, allowing just a bloop single in two innings while showing command of the strike zone. Bautista, 27, hasn't allowed a run in eight innings this spring.

--RHP Fernando Rodney might throw off a mound this week for the first time since being shut down with shoulder tendinitis early in spring training. Rodney threw for about 10 minutes Tuesday, going from long-toss to throwing to a catcher. He was supposed to throw off a mound Monday, but pitching coach Chuck Hernandez scrubbed it. Rodney reported feeling good after the throwing the next day.

--RHP Jordan Tata, a candidate for replacement starter later in the season, will be out more than a month after breaking the small finger on his pitching hand when he hit a door in frustration Friday after his second poor outing of the spring. Tata was told after seeing a hand specialist he should be able to throw in three weeks.

"I don't have to wear a cast," Tata said. "It looks like I can start tossing lightly in three weeks and be back on the mound within five weeks."

He's concerned about his shoulder, too.

"I haven't thrown it right all spring," he said. "It's a very scary feeling. Last year I didn't have a good spring, either, and it turned out my shoulder was injured (torn labrum). I don't feel any pain in my shoulder now, but I didn't feel any last year, either. That's in the back of my mind because I've not been able to let it go. It felt like I was throwing poo up there. Eighty miles an hour. There's nothing there. Maybe the ligament's gone."

--RHP Zach Miner has a chance to be Detroit's setup man if RHP Fernando Rodney isn't ready to open the season, but he drew some criticism from manager Jim Leyland for botching a setup opportunity Monday. Miner worked two innings of relief and was solid for the first 1 2/3 innings. But with one out to go in the bottom of the eighth, he gave up a single, a walk and a three-run homer to tie the score. "He threw the ball outstanding today, which I love," Leyland said. "The only thing I didn't like was that he got two quick, easy outs and then all of a sudden to me -- and I could be all wet -- but he got concerned about giving up a run. And he did. He walked the next guy and then gave up a wind-blown homer. I like him a lot, but he cost himself. That's exactly what it looked like to me. He gave up a hit, and you could almost see the wheels come off. He had a great sinker and he threw the ball tremendous, but he's got to close the inning out."

--RHP Justin Verlander pitched eight shutout innings in his first three spring outings to show why his manager has selected him to open the season for the Tigers.

"My (previous) time out, I only threw two or three curveballs, and this is the first time I threw more of them, and they looked like they had some pretty sharp break and I was pleased with that," Verlander said after three innings in his third spring start. "I felt pretty good, just working on a little progression and getting where I need to be. I felt I had pretty good life on my fastball. My control wasn't quite as sharp as the last two times out, but I still felt solid. I'm where I need to be."

Verlander has used different approaches to all three of his Detroit spring trainings.

"Every one is a little different for me because I'm still trying to figure out what my schedule should be as far as what program I should be on for pitching. It's how I best prepare myself for the season," he said. "Three years ago, I was pretty much 100 percent ready to go when spring started. Last year, I had only thrown a handful of times before spring started, and, this time, it was kind of in-between. I'm working on it. I remember what I did before the spring trainings -- all of them -- and I take that into account. I want to see how it turns out for the season and how I feel at the end of the spring."

--C Ivan Rodriguez added a little weight during the winter to get some more drive in his hitting, and so far this spring it seems to have paid off. Rodriguez hit a pair of home runs Wednesday to give him six this spring, most in the majors, in limited playing time. He has hit eighth and first.

--LHP Kenny Rogers recovered from a rocky previous outing to become the first Detroit pitcher to go five innings this spring. Rogers retired the last 10 batters he faced Wednesday after a shaky second inning, when he gave up his lone run. The 43-year-old had been working more off his changeup and curve but is now starting to throw more fastballs as he readies himself for the regular season. He gave up just three hits, didn't walk a batter and struck out two.

BY THE NUMBERS: 0 -- Teams that have fielded an all-Latin American starting infield before. The Tigers' infield will be Venezuelans 3B Miguel Cabrera and 1B Carlos Guillen, Colombian SS Edgar Renteria and Dominican 2B Placido Polanco.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You've got a real nice present, but you can't open it yet. He belongs in big-league camp; he's one of the best-looking pitchers in this camp. Talent like that belongs in the big leagues." -- Manager Jim Leyland on RHP Rick Porcello, Detroit's top pick in last June's free agent draft. Porcello, a year out of high school ball, will open his pro career at high Class A Lakeland.

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