The Tigers Triple-A affiliate in Toledo has experienced a nice run of late, including three straight West Division titles, and two International League crowns in the last three years (2005 and 2006). The ‘Hens will look to continue this trend of success with a revamped roster in 2008, one with a combination of familiar faces and new talent. Returning to lead the way for the Mud Hens will be Manager Larry Parrish. After a year away nursing an injured ankle, Parrish returns to the helm with his eye on returning his team to the top of the league. Joining Parrish on the staff will be hitting coach Leon Durham who is back for his eighth season in Toledo, and newcomer AJ Sager who returns to his roots as an Ohio native, to lead the pitching staff.
Starting behind the plate, the team will rely on returner Dane Sardinha to carry the primary load. Back for his second season in Toledo, Dane could be on call to Detroit should the need for an additional catcher should arise. Backing him up will be 27-year old Nick Trzesniak. After signing with the Tigers in June after starting the year in the Indy leagues and with Triple-A Oklahoma (Rangers), Nick managed to hit .299 for Double-A Erie. The catching duo should prove astute defensively, and should help pitching coach AJ Sager manage the staff effectively.
Toledo fans will look to welcome the Eastern League's leading slugger from 2007, first basemen Jeff Larish. A year removed from leading the Double-A circuit in both home runs (28) and RBI (101), Larish brings his act to the more hitter friendly International League, where he will no doubt be looking to continue slugging his way to Detroit. Joining Larish as the projected top mashers on the team will be third baseman Mike Hessman. Coming off his best season as a ‘Hen, Mike has an opportunity to force the organization's hand and possibly get more time in Detroit. While both Larish and Hessman are likely to strikeout with regularity, both are also likely to make pitchers work, draw walks, and drive the ball out of the park.
The middle infield will be a fluid situation, particularly until second baseman Michael Hollimon returns from a shoulder injury. Working at second base will be a combination of Henry Mateo and Caonabo Cosme. Both players are capable of playing solid defense and posting decent batting averages, but the team will certainly welcome the return of Hollimon; one of Detroit's top prospects. Minor league veterans Erick Almonte and Derek Wathan will hold down the shortstop duties to start the season, but will be looking over their shoulder as Brent Dlugach completes his recovery from shoulder surgery.
The ‘Hens outfield has the potential to be the catalyst for the lineup, with prospects Matt Joyce and Brent Clevlen, as well as a surging Timo Perez. Joining these three will be Double-A All-Star Jackson Melian, who is likely to see most of his action as the designated hitter. Joyce has been a slow starter in the past, but another strong spring could have his confidence riding high and lead to a hot start in his new home. As a former top prospect, Clevlen will look to get his career back on track; hopefully a track that leads to a job in Detroit before too long. There is little doubting his raw potential, but at some point serious questions arise about his ability to translate those skills to the field. Timo Perez will be an interesting case this season, coming off a year where he absolutely torched International League pitching, then continued his hot hitting in a late-season call to Detroit. Perez has always had a knack for driving the ball and hitting for average, but he really seems to have blossomed late in his career. Timo, in conjunction with the likes of Hessman, Larish, and Joyce, will be looked to lead an offense that has the potential to give opposing pitchers fits.
The pitching staff could be the determining factor in the success of the Toledo ballclub in 2008. Returning to the team will be staff ace Virgil Vasquez, a steady performer in need of only polish and opportunity to make an impact in Detroit. After one electric start late in the season for Toledo, Chris Lambert returns to Triple-A after showing signs this spring of fulfilling his promise as a first-round pick. Mackay McBride and Amando Galarraga both bring high ceilings from other organizations, and will look to refine their craft under the tutelage of AJ Sager. The key for both pitchers will be to follow the message laid out yesterday by Sager, to "throw the ball over the plate." The last member of the starting rotation will be someone Sager is very familiar with, right-hander Eddie Bonine. In discussions with the Toledo pitching coach, Sager indicated that all he saw with Bonine this spring was a "continuation of what I saw in Erie." With a reportedly healthy shoulder, Bonine, along with the rest of the Toledo staff will look to take that next step toward the big league dream.
With a veteran bullpen in hand, Manager Larry Parrish should have confidence in the game's late innings. Strong showings and strong arms from Blaine Neal and Francis Beltran will lead to them opening the season as the key late inning relievers, as both have an opportunity to lock down the closer role. Joining them in the ‘pen will be right-handers Preston Larrison, Anastacio Martinez, and Jeremy Johnson, and left-handers Aaron Fultz, and Ian Ostlund.
The 2008 season is full of opportunities for this Toledo club, and their success will hinge on steady performance from veterans, along with steps forward from young prospects. When asked about his outlook for the season, Sager mentioned a common quote from Larry Parrish as the best way to look at the early part of the season, "For the first couple of weeks, LP [Larry Parrish] makes out the lineup and picks the pitchers. After that, the players make out the lineups and pick the pitchers." As one can always surmise, it just comes down to how quickly the players establish their rhythm and start showing their stuff.