Inside Pitch: Season Preview

Ready for baseball? Get the complete season preview for the '08 Detroit Tigers inside!

============== DETROIT TIGERS ==============

INSIDE PITCH
The key thing for the Tigers this season will be to hang in there until they can get their bullpen straightened away.

Manager Jim Leyland knows he's going to war with questionable bullpen ammunition but believes help will come along at some point when it's necessary.

Fernando Rodney will be brought back slowly from right shoulder tendinitis. He would be a lift if he can come back to fill the setup role the way he has in the past.

Joel Zumaya is a distant ray of hope, but there is no track record for pitchers returning from AC shoulder joint surgery. Nobody knows for sure how that's going to turn out, but doctors have told the Tigers to be optimistic for a complete recovery. You're talking about a guy with shutdown potential, so Detroit will cling to optimism until proved otherwise.

If Leyland were entering the season with both of them healthy, nobody would be talking about the Tigers' bullpen problems.

Given the circumstances, though, people are looking for holes in a team that otherwise looks very, very good.

What the Tigers need to do is hang in there through April and May while they see whether the perceived problems can be solved by those on hand. It's not going to be easy -- the schedule has the Tigers playing all of their games against Boston and the Yankees before May 12, along with sets with Cleveland, Chicago, Toronto and Texas.

If the offense can approach the 1,000-run status some believe it's capable of and if the starters can work seven solid innings most of the time, then the Tigers can make it to July in good enough shape to assess what is needed and whether they can obtain it.

Owner Mike Ilitch has shown repeatedly he's willing to pay the freight to get Leyland good players. So before the non-waiver deadline at the end of July, Detroit will be in the hunt for late inning bullpen help if that's what's needed.

Whether the Tigers have enough outside of money to get help might be an issue, but three months is plenty of time for minor-leaguers to raise their status.

The trick will be to stay in the hunt until they can see the fox.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: RHP Justin Verlander and 3B Miguel Cabrera. Verlander has three outstanding pitches and 35 victories in his first two seasons. He has looked solid this spring and has the work ethic to complement his skills. Cabrera spent the winter slimming down and is coming to a team of veterans who will show him how to refine his superstar skills. Cold weather might affect him more than switching leagues initially.

ON THE DECLINE: LHP Dontrelle Willis has shown a live arm, but his control this spring has been spotty, as it was during his last two seasons with Florida. The inability to throw strikes early in the count have marked his steady two-year falloff from a 22-win 2005 season.

NOTES, QUOTES
--OF Clete Thomas was "speechless" Friday after being told by manager Jim Leyland he had made the jump from Class AA to Detroit's Opening Day roster. "I think it will be a wonderful experience for him," Leyland said. "I'll get him in there. I just told him to enjoy this ride for however long it is. But he has a great arm, he's an outstanding runner, and has some power. He has a lot of pluses. Let's not get carried away, but watching him, it's almost like he's always been here. He looks like he belongs." Thomas, who played in Class AA last year, was returned to minor league camp March 12, but CF Curtis Granderson's broken right middle finger created a roster opening for an outfielder. "I'm speechless," Thomas said. "I heard (Leyland) say it, but it didn't sink in until he was shaking my hand. An awesome feeling." Thomas will make major league money but also has major league expenses -- such as his first sportcoat. "I asked him if he had one," Leyland said. "He said he'd worn a tux for his wedding, but that was it. I told him he might want to get one."

--RHP Aquilino Lopez's contract was purchased from the Tigers' top affiliate when he made the Opening Day roster. Lopez had a strong spring and took advantage of a vacancy to squeeze onto the roster. He will probably be used in late and middle-inning situations. He was successful for the Tigers last year in a variety of roles.

--RHP Yorman Bazardo, who was out of options, had a horrendous last inning this spring but made the Tigers' initial roster because of his versatility. Bazardo did a good job as a spot starter last year while working long relief, roles he will probably reprise this season.

--C Ivan Rodriguez has been nominated to lead off against left-handers while CF Curtis Granderson is on the disabled list. Manager Jim Leyland said his catcher would hit seventh against right-handed pitching. Rodriguez had a solid spring.

--UT Brandon Inge has been penciled in as the regular center fielder until CF Curtis Granderson's broken right middle finger heals, with manager Jim Leyland cautioning against bigger expectations. "I think when you do something like that, you have to understand as the manager what the expectation should be," Leyland said. "If you expect Brandon Inge to go out there right now and play a great center field and make unbelievable plays and all that, I think that's totally unfair. He's a great athlete and I think he'll do fine in center field and there won't be any problem. If you think he's going to be perfect, you're crazy because it's not going to happen. There are guys who play out there every day who aren't perfect."

--OF Freddy Guzman cleared waivers last week and was outrighted to Class AA Erie of the Eastern League. Detroit chose to send Guzman, an offseason acquisition from Texas, to Class AA so it could clear playing time at the Class AAA level for some of its young outfield prospects.

--LHP Tim Byrdak cleared waivers and became a free agent, and the Tigers hoped to sign him to a minor league contract should he fail to land a job with a big-league team. The Tigers abruptly cut Byrdak, who did a good job for them in 2007, after a horrible spring in which he failed to show the same fastball he delivered a year ago. "I had a great conversation with him," manager Jim Leyland said. "We thought we had something and I'm not sure that we don't. I couldn't put him on the team at this time, I just couldn't do it." In 10 spring games Byrdak posted a 13.50 ERA, allowing 21 hits in 10 innings.

--LHP Dontrelle Willis remained in Florida so he could throw to more hitters before joining his Tigers teammates Monday in Detroit. Willis was to pitch once more because he won't make his first Detroit start until the weekend. Willis allowed eight hits, all seven Pirates runs (six earned), and walked four, including three in succession in the Pirates' five-run first inning. Willis has a spring ERA of 8.64. "He was having trouble throwing strikes and he was starting to aim the ball," manager Jim Leyland said. "The comforting thing is Chuck (Hernandez, the Tigers' pitching coach) thinks he'll be fine. Chuck's encouraged, so I'm encouraged. I really like the stuff I see. The stuff is there. The command is not."

--3B Miguel Cabrera will receive $141 million for the seven-year contract extension he signed last week, including $22 million the last two seasons (2014 and 2015). "We're very, very thrilled," president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "One of the things that grated on us," assistant GM Al Avila said, "was people saying, 'You're looking to win now.' No, we're looking to win now -- and in the future." "I feel good here," Cabrera said. "I wanna say we are a winning team and we're gonna be a winning team." "I'm very impressed," Dombrowski said. "It's easy to see: He's in good shape. He's worked hard. He's moving around third base fine. He has soft hands. He has a great arm. If he keeps himself in the shape he is -- which I believe he will -- he can play third base for years. I'm thrilled to see that. He likes to play third base, and he's good at it. He's only going to get better."

--SS Edgar Renteria was manager Jim Leyland's choice to be Detroit's primary leadoff hitter in the absence of injured CF Curtis Granderson. Renteria has seldom batted first in his career but owns a career batting average of .291 and an on-base percentage of .349 and doesn't strike out much. "I'm thinking Renteria is the logical choice right now," Leyland said. "I don't like to do it. I like him down a little bit more. It's just the way it is. I think if you look at Renteria's RBIs, it's not that he's been a huge, huge RBI guy, but he's been one of the best in baseball in knocking in huge runs. His numbers aren't huge, but when he knocks in 70, there's a good chance that those 70 were more important than somebody else's 70. He knocks in the big ones at the right time." C Ivan Rodriguez will lead off against some left-handed pitching.

BY THE NUMBERS: 2 -- Tigers' place in merchandise sales nationally. Tigers gear has taken off in the wake of the club's success the last two seasons along with the addition of 3B Miguel Cabrera to a high-powered lineup.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is the best team I've ever seen since I've been in a Tiger uniform. This team, top to bottom, is the best I've seen. It's yet to be proven if this team wins." -- Hall of Fame RF Al Kaline, who joined the Tigers out of high school in 1953, on the 2008 team.

ROSTER REPORT
The Tigers could be a 1,000-pound weight (the lineup) hanging by a single strand of sewing thread (the bullpen). Injuries to RHP Joel Zumaya and RHP Fernando Rodney have left Detroit's relief staff short of back-end strength. There are only hopes and prayers if something dire should happen to one of the starters, too. The loaded lineup figures to hit enough to keep the Tigers in playoff contention, but the real race will be to get the bullpen stabilized for the end of the season.

ROTATION:
1. RHP Justin Verlander
2. LHP Kenny Rogers
3. RHP Jeremy Bonderman
4. LHP Nate Robertson
5. LHP Dontrelle Willis

Verlander has looked 20-game-winner sharp this spring, but Willis has shown signs that his two-year-slide is a trend, not an aberration. Rogers has looked good but is 43, while Robertson has looked a lot like the pitcher who keyed Detroit's 2006 run to the World Series. Bonderman has had no elbow problems and looks as if he's serious about using his changeup now, which could be the key to a dominating season for him. The Tigers need them all to stay relatively healthy, though, because there is no ready replacement available.

BULLPEN:
RHP Todd Jones (closer)
RHP Denny Bautista
LHP Bobby Seay
RHP Jason Grilli
RHP Zach Miner
RHP Aquilino Lopez
RHP Yorman Bazardo

RHP Fernando Rodney opens the season on the disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis, as does RHP Joel Zumaya, leaving the Tigers with no proven setup man. Jones has been erratic in the spring; could this be a tipoff that his career is about to end at age 40? LHP Tim Byrdak had a poor spring and was a surprise cut the last week of spring training; he was replaced by RHP Aquilino Lopez, who performed well on a emergency basis last year. Manager Jim Leyland has chosen RHP Denny Bautista as his initial setup man for Jones, but that could change. Zumaya won't be available until midseason at the earliest.

LINEUP:
1. SS Edgar Renteria
2. 2B Placido Polanco
3. DH Gary Sheffield
4. RF Magglio Ordonez
5. 3B Miguel Cabrera
6. 1B Carlos Guillen
7. C Ivan Rodriguez
8. LF Jacque Jones
9. CF Brandon Inge

CF Curtis Granderson opens the season on the disabled list (broken right middle finger) but is expected back by the third week of April, when he will resume his spot at the top of the order. Renteria replaces him at leadoff in the interim with Rodriguez hitting first against lefties. There is speculation Detroit could score 1,000 runs this year, but Leyland seems likely to be willing to settle for 900 and no long-term injuries. Most of the regulars have some age on them, but there is enough bench strength to ensure they all get enough rest.

RESERVES:
OF Clete Thomas
OF/1B Marcus Thames
SS Ramon Santiago
UT/C Ryan Raburn

C Vance Wilson, still recovering from Tommy John surgery last June, has been placed on the disabled list and won't be back until May at the earliest. Raburn is strictly an emergency catcher with CF/UT Brandon Inge the primary (if unwilling) backup to C Ivan Rodriguez. Santiago will back up the middle-infield spots while Thames figures to spell the corner outfielders and 1B Carlos Guillen. Thomas made the squad as a spare outfielder and left-handed pinch-hitter until CF Curtis Granderson recovers from his broken finger.

ROOKIE WATCH: OF Clete Thomas, sent back to minor league camp March 12, squeezed through a door opened when CF Curtis Granderson suffered a broken finger. Thomas played at the Class AA level last year and was slated to open the year at Class AAA before getting the call to give Detroit reserve outfield help and be a left-handed bat off the bench for the next three weeks.

MEDICAL WATCH: CF Curtis Granderson (non-displaced fracture of right middle finger) was placed on the disabled list March 23 and expected to be out until mid-April.

RHP Joel Zumaya (right shoulder AC joint surgery) is throwing lightly on a regular basis but won't be pitching for another couple of months and will be out until at least midseason.

C Vance Wilson (Tommy John surgery) has been placed on the disabled list as he continues to progress slowly from June 13 Tommy John surgery. He hopes to return by the end of April, but even that is uncertain. RHP Fernando Rodney (right shoulder tendinitis) has been placed on the disabled list, in part so the club won't be tempted to rush the setup man back too early. He will rehabilitate in the warm weather.


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