Inside Pitch: Tigers in Position to Compete

While it's been a whirlwind off-season and an up-and-down spring training, the Tigers appear to have the pieces in place to compete for the AL Central crown once again.

INSIDE PITCH
The Tigers feel that a winter of reloading on the run will keep them in contention for the American League Central Division title that eluded them by one (extra) game last season.

They might be right.

After Detroit blew a nearly season-long lead in the division at the end of the regular season and lost a one-game playoff at Minnesota, general maanger Dave Dombrowski decided to make significant changes before 2010 warmed up.

The intent was to set Detroit up to contend over the next few seasons by getting younger while getting a jump on some $50 million in salaries that are due to expire at the end of this season. Some of that cash was simply transferred to Justin Verlander, who signed a long-term deal shortly after the signing of a new closer, Jose Valverde, convinced him the organization was going small-market on him and intended to spend (albeit prudently) to win.

Valverde was signed to a two-year deal plus an option to help cover for the loss of the back of the bullpen, Brandon Lyon and Fernando Rodney.

The organization then got the go-ahead from owner Mike Ilitch to sign free agent Johnny Damon for a year so the club wouldn't be forced to put two rookies at the top of the batting order.

The old leadoff man, Curtis Granderson, was traded to the Yankees as part of a three-way deal that included Edwin Jackson going to Arizona and four talented young players coming back -- Austin Jackson, the new leadoff man; plus pitchers Max Scherzer, Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth.

The second hitter in the batting order, Placido Polanco, was allowed to depart as a free agent to save Detroit his salary and also because rookie Scott Sizemore was deemed ready to play.

Jackson has looked this spring like the prospect Detroit had hoped would be ready to blossom as Granderson's replacement. Sizemore, coming off fall surgery to fix a broken left ankle, has looked better than advertised defensively and appears as though he'll hit at some point this season.

Having Damon takes some of the pressure off Jackson, and it lets manager Jim Leyland bat Sizemore down in the order. It also puts Carlos Guillen in the DH spot most of the time, which the Tigers hope will keep him healthy and in the lineup.

Magglio Ordonez appears ready to put to rest fears his career might be coming to an end. His bat has more pop than it showed last year, although he did hit close to .400 the last two months of his powerless 2009 season.

Catcher Gerald Laird, fully aware he's coming up on his free agent year, is taking advice about modifying his swing in an effort to avoid another season in the .220s. Whether the changes carry over and can eliminate his home run mentality remain to be seen.

Brandon Inge looks good and says the patellar tendinitis that plagued him the second half of last season has been largely taken care of by surgery on both knees. Eliminating the knee problems will let him re-adopt the changes he had to forsake after the first half of last year.

Utility man Ryan Raburn was excellent as a part-timer last year (16 home runs in less than 300 at-bats) and should let Leyland give Damon, Guillen and Ordonez enough rest to keep them effective.

Signing Verlander to a long-term deal and knowing the team's mainstay pitchers will be around for at least five more years can't hurt either. Rick Porcello looks ready to build on his 14-win rookie season, while Scherzer might be able to duplicate the 13 wins Edwin Jackson had last year.

Leyland was hoping to have at least one pitcher grab one of the other two available rotation spots, and so far the top three candidates -- lefties Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson plus right-hander Jeremy Bonderman -- have pitched well enough to be considered for the two spots.

Coke, second-year man Ryan Perry and Joel Zumaya should provide the club with reliable seventh- and eighth-inning pitching in front of Valverde. Detroit has enough depth to cover for the loss of Bobby Seay (shoulder) and Zach Miner (elbow), both of whom will open the season on the disabled list.

Detroit is seen in most circles as being behind the Twins and the White Sox in the AL Central, but Leyland said right off the top his team has talent and is going to be competitive.

The Tigers will need to avoid injuries to key players, and they'll have to get production from the bottom of the batting order, something that may not happen.

Effective pitching after Verlander and Porcello is a must also.

THE TIGERS WILL CONTEND IF ...: They can avoid a serious injury to a key player. Their pitching should be decent-to-excellent, with a rotation anchored by RHPs Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello, while veteran RHP Jose Valverde waits at the end. Rookie CF Austin Jackson looks ready for prime time. RF Magglio Ordonez hit in the spring as if 2009 were an aberration. DH Carlos Guillen enters the season healthy for the first time in three springs, and 3B Brandon Inge's bad knees were greatly helped by offseason surgery. There are bottom-of-the-order hitting questions to be resolved, the team has the speed of a herd of hippos, and the lineup is laden with way too many right-handed bats, but there are lefties on the bench to use in late-game situations if necessary. There's a nice blend of youth and age, and it sure helps that Detroit isn't lodged in the rugged AL East.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: 1B Miguel Cabrera is way more relaxed than ever, appears to have put his off-field problems in the rearview mirror (the end-of-the-season drinking incident that hurt the team) and bombed the ball in spring training. If the rest of the team hits, Cabrera, whose statistics already parallel those of Hall of Famers, could take another big step upward. Another candidate would be RF Magglio Ordonez, whose miserable first half last year might have been related to his wife's battle with thyroid cancer; he has looked like the Ordonez of old in spring training.

ON THE DECLINE: DH Carlos Guillen has been plagued by injuries in recent seasons, and it won't get any easier as he gets older. Moving him to DH could slow down the process, but there's no doubt he's on the back side of his career.

NOTES, QUOTES
--RHP Jeremy Bonderman got an endorsement from GM Dave Dombrowski in his three-way battle for two spots in the Detroit rotation. Dombrowski said he considered Bonderman likely to be one of the Tigers' starters but noted "he has to throw the ball well." Bonderman isn't showing the consistent low-90s fastball he had before his two shoulder surgeries, but his ball has late movement, his slider has been very good and he's trying to work a split-finger fastball into his arsenal. "He had more confidence in it. If he's willing to work with it, he'll be fine," manager Jim Leyland said.

--RHP Dontrelle Willis continues to pitch effectively in his bid to put two very bad years behind him. He gave up one run in four innings in his most recent outing, overcoming his control troubles in the first inning. "His overall stuff was good," manager Jim Leyland said. "The ball was darting around. But his command wasn't quite as good as it's been. Did he do great? No, but he sure as heck didn't do bad. I don't think anything Dontrelle has been through is an issue anymore. I didn't worry one bit about him not bouncing back with his command or that he would blow up. I was pretty sure he'd throw strikes. Last year I would have worried. But he's different this spring."

"It's a huge advantage to be able to adjust," Willis said, "but only if what you adjust to you throw for strikes. If I start over-analyzing, that's when I get in trouble."

He is competing with LHP Nate Robertson and RHP Jeremy Bonderman for two spots in the rotation.

--LHP Nate Robertson continues to pitch well in his portion of the three-way battle to win two Detroit rotation spots. Robertson entered the weekend with a 2-0 spring record and a 3.68 ERA, largely due to one early bad outing. His fastball continues to top out at 90 mph, but his slider is back, and he's able to spot his pitches much better. He had struck out 14 in 14 2/3 innings. "It's way different from last year," C Gerald Laird said. "I think he's earned his way."

"I think Nate's feeling pretty good about himself," manager Jim Leyland said. "There's an unbelievable difference in his changeup," Laird said. "He can throw it any time, in any count. The slider is a lot better, and he's throwing it with a lot of confidence. It's sharper and with a lot more depth."

"I can't pitch with a swing-and-miss mentality early in counts," Robertson said. "What I've got to do is keep guys off balance."

--RHP Joel Zumaya seems to have benefited from a few side sessions on Detroit's minor league diamonds. Zumaya returned to major league competition after an 11-day absence March 25, and his first three pitches topped 100 mph.

"Throwing 100 is overrated now," Zumaya said. "Hitters see it all the time. But if I throw my breaking ball the way I did to that last guy, it'll be my show. They will have to go into the back of their heads to think, 'This guy has a curveball, too.'"

The Tigers tweaked Zumaya's motion because he'd been getting hit hard in exhibition games.

"He's a hard guy to manage," manager Jim Leyland said, "because you don't want to take his mentality away from him, that aggressiveness. But sometimes it works against him."

--RHP Max Scherzer has dialed it up over his last two starts after bumpy early going in his first spring with the Tigers. Scherzer entered the last weekend of March having allowed just one run in his last nine innings after giving up eight runs on 10 hits in his first couple. "Picking up the intensity" is the difference, Scherzer said. "It has given me better rhythm and has allowed me to throw more strikes. I'm not treating it like spring training. I'm treating it like a real game, the real deal. It's the way I'm wired. I can't go through the motions. That way, when the season rolls around, it'll just be another start for me."

--3B Brandon Inge is playing regularly now in an effort to be at full speed when the season begins. "I talked to Inge on the bus (March 22)," manager Jim Leyland said. "He said he will be ready for sure. I see him a little stiff at times, but that is to be expected. He gets achy sometimes. But if he does not have any setbacks, he will be ready to go and play a whole lot of games for us. And that's a good thing."

Inge played 161 games last season despite needing patellar tendinitis surgery on both knees after the season. He batted .268 with 21 home runs and 58 RBIs before the All-Star game and .186 with six home runs and 26 RBIs the rest of the way.

"I'm approaching full strength," Inge said. "Playing has been the easiest step in the rehab. I'm still stiff after games. But halfway through the season, things will be back to normal. I still have to build my quads up some."

"Brandon has done a tremendous job," Tigers trainer Kevin Rand said. "He worked extremely hard and did everything we asked. And it was good for him to find out that playing was easier than anything else in the process."

--RHP Casey Fien has returned to Detroit after going through three organizations without throwing a pitch this spring. Fien, who pitched briefly for Detroit last season, was put on waivers Feb. 23 when Detroit signed Johnny Damon for its outfield. He was claimed by Boston, which almost immediately put him on waivers in an effort to get him into its minor league system. However, Toronto claimed him and outrighted him to the minors March 14, inexplicably releasing him four days later. He never appeared in an exhibition game for any of the organizations, but the Tigers quickly signed him to a minor league deal after the Blue Jays let him go.

"I thanked (the Tigers) for not throwing away my jersey," Fien said.

--CF Austin Jackson is going to be an All-Star, in the opinion of his mentor with the Yankees, Hall of Fame outfielder Reggie Jackson. "Austin will hit .300 with 25 homers, drive in 100 runs and have a chance to win a Gold Glove," said Jackson, a special adviser to the Yankees. "He'll steal 25 bases, get caught four or five times and be mad about that. I love him, love him. He is confident with what he has in his toolbox, and he has a whole lot of tools. I have nothing but the highest regard for his aptitude, coachability and his ability to fit into a new team."

Austin Jackson hit .288 in New York's minor league system with a reputation as a sterling fielder with a solid arm. "He'll play even better at this level," Reggie Jackson said. "Why? For the same reason some guys are just good in a pickup basketball game but are great with 14,000 in the seats and the bright lights on. Austin is that kind of player. Austin Jackson is going to be an all-star."

BY THE NUMBERS: 3 -- Organizations RHP Casey Fien belonged to without throwing a pitch in a spring game. Fien was waived by Detroit Feb. 23 when it signed free agent LF Johnny Damon and claimed by Boston. Three days later, the Red Sox waived him in an effort to stash him in the minors. Toronto claimed him from Boston and outrighted him to the minors, then inexplicably released him days later. Detroit re-signed Fien the next day, March 20.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "This game can be cruel sometimes. Nobody gave me any answers. I asked the Jays why, and they told me I was a liability. A liability? I haven't thrown to a hitter all spring. It's been like a twilight zone, a nightmare. Nobody gave me a chance. That's the first time I'd ever thought of quitting baseball." -- RHP Casey Fien, on his meandering organizational spring journey from Detroit to Boston to Toronto and then back to Detroit. Fien had a cup of coffee with the Tigers last September and is still regarded as a prospect by the organization.


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