A dozen things have to break right for the Tigers to be a factor in the American League this season.
Manager Jim Leyland will be watching rookie pitching coach Rick Knapp's projects as they stretch out their arms and get prepared for the grind of a long season.
While every prospective member of the rotation has a question attached to his prospectus, each also has a history of accomplishing good things.
Verlander faces a year that will tell whether he can adapt to a lack of success. Bonderman must show he's recovered from a blood clot and subsequent surgery. Was Galarraga's excellent rookie season a fluke? Jackson must continue to cut down on his walks but also learn how to miss bats.
Right-hander Zach Miner stands in reserve in case any of the other six rotation candidates falters.
Those are the things Leyland has to sort out as he builds his rotation for 2009. Last season opened with three southpaws in the rotation. This year there could none.
Questions abound in the bullpen. Can Lyon close for more than two months? Will Rodney be able to get his fastball over and be successful as either the setup man or closer?
The manager will be on the watch to see if Zumaya can breach 40 innings without getting hurt. And he'll be trying to find a handful of other pitchers to put in the bullpen, one of the worst in baseball last year.
Leyland thinks he has a lot of the pieces in place. But he doesn't know.
That's his biggest project of the spring, finding those things out. Because if his 12 pitchers don't do well this year, he -- and many of them -- won't be around in 2010.
WHERE, WHEN: Joker Marchant Stadium, Tigertown, Lakeland, Fla. First exhibition game is Feb. 25 against Atlanta.
TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: 1B Miguel Cabrera led the league with a career-high 37 home runs and had a career-best 127 runs batted in last year in his first look at American League pitching even though he didn't really start mashing until midseason. His manager, Jim Leyland, preached all year to Cabrera about bearing down on every at-bat because he plays the game at a higher level than most, and it seemed he finally started taking that message to heart late in the season. His .292 average was his first below .300 in four years, and many insiders believe Cabrera has Triple Crown potential. At 26, he's only now reaching his physical peak, and instead of going down, he could be headed for new performance milestones.
TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: LF Carlos Guillen followed seven straight years in which his batting average rose with two straight seasons of decline. He played through knee and hamstring ailments in 2007 but missed most of last August and all of September because of a balky back, and at age 33 those could be signs he's hitting the wall physically. Moving him to the outfield is part of a plan to improve Detroit's overall defense (he came to pro ball as an outfielder), but injuries were a problem for Guillen early in his career and it could be that he's on the verge of simply wearing out.
AUTHORITY FIGURES: Manager Jim Leyland is 257-229 in his three seasons with Detroit, but his win total has dropped each year since the Tigers lost the 2006 World Series. That's one reason the organization decided to deny him an extension as he heads into the final year of his contract. Disappointed because his lame-duck status will be a news topic until it's resolved, he has acknowledged that if Detroit has a good year he will be back but if it doesn't, he'll be gone. The front office fired his pitching coach, Chuck Hernandez (and his bullpen coach, Jeff Jones, who was quickly returned to his job) in favor of Minnesota minor league pitching coach Rick Knapp.
--2B Placido Polanco says he won't be participating in the World Baseball Classic even though he's listed on the early roster of the Dominican Republic. "I'm a middle infielder," he said. "That roster is packed with middle infielders." Another reason Polanco, 33, gave was: "This is the last year of my contract and anything could happen (in the WBC). I wanted to be here with the team and get ready. I want to do what it takes to have a good year, to help the Tigers get to the playoffs. If I went to the World Classic, I would lose (up to) three weeks." Polanco had back trouble early last season and only hit .227 in the first month of the season.
--LF Carlos Guillen intends to pull out of the World Baseball Classic if he doesn't play left field, the position he will be manning for Detroit this season. Guillen is on the preliminary roster for the Venezuelan team along with Detroit RF Magglio Ordonez. OF Bobby Abreu is the other headline outfielder for Venezuela, which doesn't have a marquee center fielder. "I better play left field, because if I do not play left field I am coming back (to the Tigers)," Guillen said.
--LHP Bobby Seay wants to change things up this year because he believes predictability played a role in his ERA ballooning to 7.59 over the final two months of last season, compared to the 2.57 ERA he posted through July. Manager Jim Leyland blamed Seay's inability to throw his looping slider on the outside corner to left-handed hitters for much of his problems. Left-handers batted .303 against Seay after hitting .246 against him in earlier years.
"I started pitching backward because I thought guys were sitting on my slider," Seay said. "But if I can throw it down and away with break, I am going to have a successful season. I'm working on a changeup and think it will be a good pitch for me. I don't want to live on my slider. And the big thing is conditioning myself to pitch in 60 to 65 games and not start dragging."
He wants to return to the form that had him go 3-0 with a 2.33 ERA in 2007. He was 1-2 with a 4.47 ERA last season.
--OF Clete Thomas will not be allowed to throw until the end of spring training. Thomas underwent Tommy John surgery late last season after trying for a couple months to play through the pain. He hurt his elbow the first time he was called up to Detroit but kept quiet about it in an effort to prolong his time with the team. Thomas will be allowed to hit but will be kept out of the field. His arm is expected to be healthy enough for him to make outfield throws early in the season. He will open the schedule with Class AAA Toledo, although Detroit may elect to keep him in a warm weather site at the start.
--LHP Kyle Bloom is showing Detroit a sharp-breaking curveball in his effort to make the roster as a Rule 5 choice out of the Pittsburgh organization. "I've really been impressed with Bloom's curveball," manager Jim Leyland said after watching him throw a bullpen session. "He's got a pretty good curveball." Bloom also features a mid-90s fastball that helped him fan 93 in 109 2/3 minor league innings last season. His problem has been getting the ball over the plate (55 walks last year).
"I think one of the reasons they got me is the curve," the 25-year-old Bloom said. "And lefties are a top commodity and I'm lucky to be one of them." Bloom would move from starter to reliever with Detroit. "It's awesome," Bloom said. "This is a great opportunity. It's very comforting to know you come in with an opportunity to fit in here. I'm just going to take it a day at a time. It's a decision for the brass to make, and all I can do is show them what I can do. My goal is to be with this team."
--RHP Ryan Perry is making an impression with his easy-looking 100 mph fastball, and the 2008 top draft choice will get limited spring innings to see where he stands. Perry, 22, showed the ability to miss bats during his limited minor league time last summer but also gave up too many hits because the ball was easy to pick up. The Tigers changed his delivery slightly and also had him add a two-seam fastball to his explosive four-seamer in an effort to give him more weapons. "That's a huge arm, no matter where it pitches," manager Jim Leyland said after an early look at Perry's fastball. "I'm not saying Ryan Perry by any means is going to be on the club. What I'm saying is that it (his arm) makes you stop and look, and I'm sure at some point this spring it will make us stop and think."
--CF Curtis Granderson took part in a photo shoot Feb. 16 for Playboy magazine's upcoming baseball issue. "The only thing I took off was my hat," Granderson said. He also called his mother to ask permission -- even though at age 27 he hardly needs to. "I wouldn't have done it if she had said no to it," Granderson said.
--LHP Kenny Rogers isn't in camp, hasn't signed with anybody and hasn't officially retired -- but don't expect him to come around. "I think he wants to be here," said ex-teammate Jeremy Bonderman, who has been in touch with Rogers, "but he wants to be with his family. We all miss him, but it's part of the game." Rogers, 44, got the last of his 219 major league victories Aug. 18 in Texas, giving up three runs in six innings of an 8-7 victory. He took himself out of the rotation in September so the Tigers could work with other pitchers.
BY THE NUMBERS: .256 -- Brandon Inge's career batting average as a third baseman, compared to only .199 when he catches. Inge will be returning to third base as a regular this season after serving as a utility player last season until C Ivan Rodriguez was traded. He was then more or less full time as the Tigers' catcher.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The only thing I took off was my hat." -- CF Curtis Granderson, after taking part in a Feb. 16 photo session for an upcoming baseball spread in Playboy magazine.
Scoring runs was not a problem for Detroit last season, but defense and pitching were. So the Tigers got a new shortstop (Adam Everett), moved Brandon Inge back to third, traded for C Gerald Laird and shifted Carlos Guillen to left field, moves they believe will help the pitching. RHP Edwin Jackson was obtained via trade to give the rotation a fresh arm, and the organization hopes a complete return to health by RHP Jeremy Bonderman along with a resurgence by RHP Justin Verlander will stabilize the rotation and take pressure off the bullpen. There is no established closer, but RHP Brandon Lyon was signed to compete for that job and a healthy RHP Joel Zumaya would give the 'pen a big boost.
ARRIVALS: C Gerald Laird (trade with Rangers), SS Adam Everett (free agent from Twins), RHP Edwin Jackson (trade with Rays), LHP Kyle Bloom (Rule 5 selection from Pirates), C Matt Treanor (free agent from Marlins), RHP Juan Rincon (minor league free agent from Indians), RHP Brandon Lyon (free agent from Diamondbacks), RHP Scott Williamson (minor league free agent from Mariners).
DEPARTURES: RHP Kyle Farnsworth (free agent, signed with Royals), RHP Todd Jones (retired), SS Edgar Renteria (free agent, signed with Giants), OF Matt Joyce (traded to Rays), C Vance Wilson (free agent, signed minor league deal with Royals), LHP Casey Fossum (free agent, signed minor league deal with Mets), RHP Freddy Garcia (free agent, signed with Mets).
SPRING FOCUS: Determining whether RHP Brandon Lyon or RHP Fernando Rodney -- or someone else -- will close games is the No. 1 task of the spring; the rest of the bullpen should fall into line after that. Getting the rotation ready and finding a fifth starter is No. 2. Positions in the field are set, but the bench is not; incumbent UT Ryan Raburn faces a challenge from rookie INF Jeff Larish for the last seat on the bench.
1. RHP Justin Verlander
2. RHP Jeremy Bonderman
3. RHP Armando Galarraga
4. RHP Edwin Jackson
5. LHP Dontrelle Willis or LHP Nate Robertson or RHP Zach Miner
Bonderman began throwing two weeks before spring training began and said he felt good. The key to a Detroit rebound will be a return by the Verlander to way he dominated hitters his first two seasons, when he won 35 games, and a repeat of his strong rookie season by Galarraga.
Last year Detroit opened the season with three lefties in the rotation; this year it might have none. Robertson dropped some weight and worked hard to get more flexibility, while Willis also shed pounds in an effort to regain his control. Both are working to rebound from disastrous 2008 seasons. Miner is in place if the lefties falter.
RHP Brandon Lyon (closer)
RHP Fernando Rodney
LHP Bobby Seay
RHP Joel Zumaya
RHP Zach Miner
LHP Kyle Bloom or LHP Nate Robertson or LHP Dontrelle Willis
RHP Juan Rincon, RHP Scott Williamson or RHP Freddy Dolsi
Detroit needs either Lyon or Rodney to grab the closer's job, which would set up the back end of the bullpen. Front end is in flux and the club is hopeful Rincon can bounce back or Williamson can be healthy. Miner could wind up in the rotation but is likely to begin the season in the bullpen.
Finding a second lefty to go with Seay is a priority but there are candidates. Some rookies, notably RHP Casey Fien, will get a long look and it's likely Detroit will be looking at the salary dumps and discards of other teams during the spring.
1. CF Curtis Granderson
2. 2B Placido Polanco
3. RF Magglio Ordonez
4. 1B Miguel Cabrera
5. LF Carlos Guillen
6. DH Gary Sheffield
7. C Gerald Laird
8. 3B Brandon Inge
9. SS Adam Everett
Bottom three spots in the order may fluctuate from game-to-game, and whether Guillen's back and knees can hold up in the outfield is a question, but everything else is set.
Manager Jim Leyland likes to make sure his regulars get enough rest to keep them fresh for the finish, so look for the players in the bottom three slots in the order to play 100-120 games at most.
It won't be surprising if Cabrera, who took one turn around the league to adjust, has a monster year in his second tour around the American League. And remember, he led the AL in home runs last season.
C Matt Trainor
LF Marcus Thames
INF Ramon Santiago
UT Ryan Raburn or INF Jeff Larish
Trainor, Thames and Santiago are set but it could go either way for the last spot on the bench. Raburn has the edge because he's been there before and he can play any position in the infield or outfield. Larish could get the call if the Tigers feel the need for left-handed power pinch-hitter or occasional DH.
If Raburn isn't around, though, the only alternative Detroit has in center is 3B Brandon Inge.
It's not hopeless for OF Clete Thomas, either, if Thames is dealt at some point to fill a void at another position. Thomas is a sound defender who hits from the left side.
A number of pitchers have a chance to make the roster at some point during the season. RHP Casey Fien went 3-3 with 12 saves and a 2.96 ERA in 40 games for Class AA Erie to earn a bump to Class AAA. RHP Rudy Darrow was 4-2 with four saves and a 1.85 ERA in 33 games for low Class A West Michigan before impressing in 14 games for Erie (six saves, 2.63 ERA in 14 games). At least two of last June's draftees -- No. 1 RHP Ryan Perry and No. 2 RHP Cody Satterwhite -- could be mid-season call-ups if the bullpen needs help. Perry had a 3.86 ERA in 12 games for Class A Lakeland but he saved four games while Satterwhite struck out 22 in 18 innings with a 4.42 ERA in 17 games for Lakeland (two saves).
INF Jeff Larish impressed as a pinch-hitter in two brief trials last season and might open with the Tigers if they feel his left-handed bat and power potential outweighs UT Ryan Raburn's versatility and experience. Larish, who hit .260 with two home runs and 16 RBI in 42 games for Detroit, added a third baseman's glove to his equipment bag last year and could help himself by taking fly balls in left this spring.
--RHP Joel Zumaya (small right shoulder fracture that did not require surgery) has been throwing without strain or pain through the first week-plus of camp. His curve has been excellent.
--RHP Jeremy Bonderman (right rib removal, blood clot surgery in June 2008) reports only the normal aches and pains of early throwing. He's beginning to work in his slider and is tinkering with a changeup (again) and a split-finger.
--LF Carlos Guillen (sore back, missed all of last September) played a handful of winter games in left with no ill effects. He said he'll drop out of the World Baseball Classic if he isn't playing left field (his new spot with the Tigers) for Team Venezuela.