In the field, Dusty Ryan and Dane Sardinha return behind the dish, while Danny Worth, Mike Hessman, Will Rhymes, Ryan Roberson, and Don Kelly all return on the infield. Its been a while since Don Kelly was in Toledo, but he returns as a more versatile player that should help fill any number of roles for Manager Larry Parrish.
Sardinha and Hessman are both Toledo veterans, and both have seen time in Detroit over the last two years; a trend that could continue in 2009 if things go awry north on I-75. There is a chance Hessman could bolt for greener pastures in Japan, which would be a blow to the middle of the ‘Hens lineup, but while he is there he should slug as he always does.
Dusty Ryan parlayed an extreme hot streak in Toledo last summer, into a shot at a big league gig towards the end of the season. He hit well both in Toledo and Detroit, but struggled over the winter in Puerto Rico. The Tigers are going to keep a close eye on Ryan as he tries to make himself a viable option behind the plate in the future, and he should get the bulk of the time back there for Toledo this summer.
Both Danny Worth and Ryan Roberson saw limited action for Toledo last year, though for different reasons. Worth was shut down with a cyst on his shoulder shortly after being promoted from Double-A Erie, and he returned to the field this spring. Roberson's Toledo stint ended quickly after he appeared completely over-matched by Triple-A pitcher.
Worth's slick glove and contact oriented bat will keep him in LP's lineup day in and day out, and with a healthy season he could re-establish himself as a prospect worth expecting in Detroit sometime next year.
After impressing Tiger Manager Jim Leyland in spring training, second baseman Will Rhymes heads back to Toledo as he waits for a bigger opportunity in Detroit. He's been about as consistent as any player in the system since being drafted out of William and Mary, hitting for average, playing good defense, and being a gritty leader at every stop along the way. There is no reason ‘Hens fans shouldn't expect the same from him in 2009.
The starting rotation that will be relying on this infield defense to turn ground balls into outs, will include two pitchers that have pitched in Toledo prior to this season; right-handers Ron Chiavacci and Chris Lambert. Chiavacci returns to the organization after a year away, and he will be looked upon to be a veteran presence capable of eating innings for Pitching Coach AJ Sager.
Lambert is coming off his best pro season, a performance that led to his Major League debut, and that experience should help him anchor the staff this season. He lacks the over-powering stuff he showed coming out of Boston College, but he has become a better pitcher and could help the Tigers at any point this summer.
Another free agent signing along with Chiavacci, righty Ruddy Lugo comes over from Tampa Bay's system and he'll be another arm the ‘Hens staff looks at to keep the team in ball games and eat innings.
Rounding out the rotation are indy league signee Scot Drucker, and left-hander Luke French. Drucker worked in relief for the Erie Seawolves last summer after signing, but the organization stretched him out this spring, and with some very strong performances he earned a shot in Triple-A. Now well more than a year removed from surgery, Drucker is looking to get back on track in his career, and he could make enough noise to get on the Tigers radar later this year. Pitching Coach AJ Sager hasn't seen much of him to this point, but likes what he hears, "He's been throwing well. I liked what I saw the one time I saw him throw. The ball comes out of his hand well. He seems eager to learn. I liked his curve ball and he showed an ability to throw a change-up, too."
French has slowly climbed the organizational ladder, and after a solid season at Erie in 2008, he gets his first crack at Triple-A. Sager has worked with Luke in the past (West Michigan, 2006), and he sees some dramatic differences that could be huge plusses for French in 2009, "His fastball has gotten a little quicker, its 88-90 now, and his slider is starting to come around as well. I'm looking for him to take the next step. I think he can be more than an inning eater for us, and he can be a big contributor."
Around the outfield, all four players have played for the ‘Hens in past seasons. Led by three players with extensive Major League experience, Clete Thomas, Brent Clevlen, and Ryan Raburn, the ‘Hens outfield should be able to hit and field with anyone in the International League. Thomas is returning from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, but there are no restrictions on his game and he should be a nice speed and defense option at the top of the ‘Hens order.
Both Clevlen and Raburn spent extensive time in big league camp, and both were seriously considered for the Tigers' 25-man roster. Raburn provides exceptional versatility, with the ability to play all three outfield positions, second base, third base, first base, and even work as an emergency catcher. That type of ability is something Larry Parrish and his staff will surely take advantage of this season, and his experienced bat will give them even more reason to get him in the lineup anywhere they can.
Rounding out the roster, the bullpen has some intriguing arms that will merit attention as potential arms that might be able to help in Detroit in 2009. Despite another strong spring, Casey Fien was sent back to minor league camp for a little further refinement. While in Toledo, Fien will be a chance to work in a multitude of roles, including closing out games and working in more than one inning at a time.
Freddy Dolsi will be another arm that has many opportunities throughout the year, as he tries to earn the right for a trip north to Detroit again. Dolsi's right arm has plenty of strength and velocity, but must harness his control and improve the consistency on his secondary pitches to truly make a difference.
The bullpen will feature two lefties with Clay Rapada returning to Toledo for another go-round, and newcomer Fu-Te Ni getting innings as well. Rapada had a successful big league audition this spring and many were shocked he was sent to Toledo for further seasoning. Fans of the ‘Hens shouldn't get used to seeing him in Triple-A, as it is likely he'll be back in Detroit in relatively short order.
Ni was the Tigers second foray into signing Taiwanese players, and the early returns from spring training were very encouraging. Sager was able to work with him while in big league camp, and though he notes some things that must improve for him to have an impact in Detroit, there is plenty of reason for optimism; "He looks like a guy that can manage the strike zone. He pitches inside and outside very well. What we have to find out is if he can pitch down in the strike zone. I think he can, but he hasn't had to yet. Having said that, it looks like he commands the baseball, so I don't think it will be a problem."
The final three members of the bullpen are veterans of the minor league ranks, including Nick Regilio and Matt Rusch, along with long time big leaguer Scott Williamson. Williamson was very close to making the Detroit roster out of spring training, and after accepting an assignment to Toledo, he could still see time in Detroit this summer. Yet again, Sager saw some things this spring that leave him hopeful of what they can get from Scott this year; "I was impressed with his stuff this spring. In the past, he's had some of the best stuff in the big leagues, and he showed flashes of that."
With a roster loaded with veteran minor league talent, ‘Hens fans can expect yet another competitive team, and with an experienced coaching staff at the helm, they could be more than just competitive. With plenty of time to talk about the upcoming season on their way north, the coaching staff has come to at least one consensus, "We're really excited. We have a nice mix of some young guys and a good group of proven, productive veterans. We think we're going to be able to go out and hit the ball, catch the ball, and pitch the ball. It should be a fun year."