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 "Around the Horn" Tiger position discussion

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PostSubject: "Around the Horn" Tiger position discussion   Sat Jan 05, 2008 8:43 pm

01/04/2008 10:00 AM ET
Around the Horn: Catchers
Rodriguez, Wilson give Tigers veteran duo behind the plate

Detroit Tigers

Detroit Tigers



Catchers: Veteran duo behind plate
Corner IF: New spot for Guillen
Middle IF: Renteria takes over at short
Outfielders: Mags leads the way
Starters: Rotation deeper than ever
Bullpen: Door opens for Cruceta
DH/Bench: What to do with Inge?


By Jason Beck / MLB.com

The following is the first in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com
examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday
until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position.
Today: Catcher.



DETROIT -- The biggest question that faced the Tigers at last season's end was whether Ivan Rodriguez would be back at catcher. One of the few lingering questions as Detroit heads toward this coming season is whether Vance Wilson will be back behind him. With just over a month until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, that answer appears to be yes.

They're both familiar faces, but it took big steps to bring both back. Rodriguez's return came down to a big decision from management and ownership. Wilson's decision comes down to the work he puts in every morning.

It hasn't been an easy offseason for Wilson, as he works his way back from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery. The days start early so he can warm up his arm before unleashing some throws, then ice his arm, then warm it up again before hitting the weight room. The progress isn't always evident, and it's more a collection of good days and bad than it is simply a progression of better days.

Through all that, however, is a strong confidence that he's going to be back behind the plate again this year, and that he's going to be the catcher he was before the surgery. At this point, his return is viewed as a matter of when it happens, not if it does. His being ready by Opening Day isn't so clear, but for a backup to an ironman starter, it isn't so important, either. "I'm feeling good," Wilson said. "I'm getting there."

It's already a long way from where his 2007 season began and ended, his arm unable to let loose on a throw without throbbing in pain in Spring Training. It wasn't until his arm came up sore again during a June rehab stint at Triple-A Toledo that a ligament tear became apparent as the cause.

With that, Wilson went under the knife, a move that can knock out a player for as long as a full year. Even then, Wilson and the Tigers left open the idea that he could be ready for the start of 2008. It's not an expectation -- at this point, it's not even a stated goal -- but it's a real possibility for a player who has been working this offseason with that in mind.

"One day you feel great, the next day you don't," Wilson said. "It's kind of one of those things where I'd be disappointed if I'm not ready for Opening Day, but I'm not going to set any goals."

From a conditioning standpoint, Wilson said he feels better than he did before he was hurt, if for no other reason than he has had so much time to lift weights. He couldn't begin throwing until November, and it'll be the last part of his game to round into shape as his arm regains strength. Otherwise, he has been doing catching drills since around Thanksgiving, working out at the University of Arkansas near his Springdale, Ark., home. His pitch-calling skills and knowledge of the pitchers' repertoire will come together once he begins catching side sessions next month.

He can see the reward for all his hard work coming up, and for someone who couldn't sleep the night before his first throwing session, his first game back could be quite an experience.

"It's actually a frustrating thought," Wilson said, "because I know I have another month and a half to two months to get to that point. But yeah, I'm getting antsy."

Between Wilson and everyday starter Rodriguez, the Tigers have two veteran backstops with experience handling almost all of Detroit's pitchers. Newly acquired Dontrelle Willis worked with Rodriguez in 2003, when then-rookie Willis teamed with Josh Beckett, Brad Penny and others to help pitch the Florida Marlins to a World Series championship.

Rodriguez's success with Willis in Florida helped establish Pudge as a veteran game-caller who had learned to adeptly handle a young pitching staff, a trait that made him very appealing to the Tigers that offseason. Four years later, Rodriguez will enter his 18th Major League season, trying to show he still ranks among the best in the game during what would be the twilight of many players' careers.

The Tigers had to make that determination for themselves before deciding to pick up the $13 million option for the 2008 season.

"We still feel that Pudge is one of the better catchers in baseball," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said in October. "We just felt that he did a solid job for us this year, and we feel like he's still one of the top catchers available in the game."

Statistically, it was not one of the top seasons for Rodriguez, either at the plate or behind it. His .281 batting average, 11 home runs and 63 RBIs constituted some of his lowest offensive production in over a decade, while his nine walks for the season afforded him just a .294 on-base percentage. He threw out 21 of 68 would-be basestealers, and his seven passed balls marked his highest total since 2003.

The stolen-base total was somewhat deceptive, because it included a slow start and a much stingier finish. At season's end, he was again named by Baseball America as the best defensive catcher in the American League. "Sometimes you have ups and downs," Rodriguez said in November, after winning his 13th Gold Glove. "It was a situation sometimes when you rush and you do things, you throw the ball where you don't want it. But in the end, you have to play the game hard."

If Rodriguez remains solid defensively and calls a good game, the Tigers have enough offense up and down the lineup to live with whatever he can do offensively. Unlike Pudge's first couple seasons, when he was batting around the middle of the order, he could now end up hitting near the bottom, depending on how manager Jim Leyland shuffles his lineup with new arrivals Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria and Jacque Jones.

It's not a bad situation for Rodriguez, who has said he'd like to catch until he turns 40 but who also is a free agent at season's end. His offseason training and physical shape gives him a shot to last that long.

"I have a lot of baseball in me," Rodriguez said. "I have good health, and I want to play this game a lot longer."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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PostSubject: Around the Horn: Corner infielders   Wed Jan 09, 2008 9:50 pm

01/09/2008 10:00 AM ET
Around the Horn: Corner infielders
Tigers have a pair of mashers to take over vacant spots


By Jason Beck / MLB.com

The following is the second in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position.
Today: Corner Infielders.


DETROIT -- Carlos Guillen is moving across the infield in his fifth season as a Tiger. Miguel Cabrera isn't shifting anywhere after moving north from Florida.

The Tigers head into their 2008 season with an entirely different look at the corners of their infield, and not only in name. In one shift and one trade, Detroit's corner infield evolved from a group better known for defense to one of the most potent offensive tandems in the American League.

While Detroit shifted Guillen from shortstop to first base to help keep his All-Star bat in the lineup at age 32, Cabrera will stick at the same position he had with the Florida Marlins before the Tigers dealt six young players for him and Dontrelle Willis. Keeping Cabrera at third base has become a much-debated move in fan circles because of what it could mean for incumbent Brandon Inge and Detroit's infield defense. The club, obviously, is hoping it has acquired one of baseball's most potent offensive threats for years to come.

It was Cabrera upon whom the Tigers had their gaze trained when the possibility for a deal with the Marlins grew during last month's Winter Meetings. It was the current Tigers front-office group that brought Cabrera into the Florida organization; vice president/assistant general manager Al Avila signed him out of Venezuela. However, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch provided the impetus to acquire him with a phone call to president/general manager Dave Dombrowski around Thanksgiving.

His bat, of course, can't be questioned. Four full seasons averaging more than 30 home runs a year, batting for better than a .318 average and nearly a .950 OPS have propelled Cabrera into the elite class of hitters before he even turns 25 years old in April.

His defensive value is somewhat less clear. After shuffling between third base and the corner outfield spots for his first three seasons in the big leagues, he started manning the hot corner full-time in 2006. He ranked in the middle of the pack among National League third basemen with a .957 fielding percentage and 17 errors that year, but he took a step back last season.

Only Brewers rookie Ryan Braun committed more errors among Major League third basemen than Cabrera's 23. His .714 zone rating, the percentage of balls fielded in a third baseman's typical defensive range, also ranked next-to-last, while Cabrera's .941 fielding percentage finished third from the bottom.

The Tigers consulted with their scouts on Cabrera as a third baseman before they made the deal. Dombrowski said they concluded that Cabrera's weight was an issue, and that his range will improve once he reports to Spring Training with a lighter frame. According to the Tigers reports and from Cabrera himself, he has lost about 15 pounds since season's end while working out in his native Venezuela.

"We think he can play third," Dombrowski said last month. "He has soft hands. He has a strong arm. Of course, he doesn't have the [same] range [as before]. He's a little bit heavier. I think it'll be important for him when he's in shape. He'll be a little more nimble and agile at that point."

Agility and range is something the Tigers have enjoyed with Inge at third the past few years. In terms of range factor, calculated from putouts plus assists per nine innings, Inge made almost a full play per game more than Cabrera in 2006. Last year, however, the difference shrunk to a 2.86 range factor for Inge compared to 2.51 for Cabrera. The difference was more pronounced in zone rating, .803 to .714.

Part of the statistical gap could also be attributed to ballpark and pitching staff. Aside from Willis and Sergio Mitre, Florida's rotation had few ground-ball starting pitchers compared with Detroit.

There is little question about Guillen's move to first base, even though he has played there less. The transition took place down the stretch last season, with Ramon Santiago handling shortstop duties for defense while Guillen started at first. Manager Jim Leyland told Guillen the move to first would be permanent at season's end, and when the Tigers dealt for Edgar Renteria the day after the World Series ended, the transition was final.

He's a different style of first baseman than the Tigers have had in years, boasting a shortstop's range and glove but not a typical first baseman's size. Statistically, he more than held his own, committing just one error in 203 total chances while ending up with a perfect 1.000 zone rating.

There had been speculation that Guillen might play some games in winter ball in his native Venezuela to get some more playing time at first. However, Dombrowski said the team did not want him playing this winter.

For Cabrera's part, he has been playing games recently in the Venezuelan League. He went 9-for-24 with two doubles and seven runs scored in seven regular-season games at third down the stretch for the Tigres de Aragua. He has continued his play into the league's postseason, where he was batting 3-for-18 entering Wednesday.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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PostSubject: Around the Horn: Middle infielders   Wed Jan 16, 2008 5:22 pm

01/16/2008 10:00 AM ET
Around the Horn: Middle infielders
Five-time All-Star at short compliments Gold Glove at second
By Jason Beck / MLB.com

DETROIT -- Carlos Guillen was trying to defend his turf, or at least the part of the turf where he played. He ended up being prophetic about how he would move.

While the Tigers' postseason hopes were fading in their three-game series at Cleveland last September, Guillen was facing questions about possibly shifting to first base next year. It was not an idea he particularly liked at first, because it had the feeling of being replaced. So he made his point.

"I don't have a problem playing first base. I don't have any problem," Guillen said at the time. "But if you bring in a shortstop, he'd have to be a really good shortstop."

Asked who that might be, Guillen said, "I don't know. Not too many."

Pressed further, Guillen ran off a handful of names, including Orlando Cabrera, Cesar Izturis and Omar Vizquel. Edgar Renteria was at the top of the list. After all, Guillen was willing to move to third base when the Tigers made a brief push to sign Renteria as a free agent after the 2004 season. He didn't know anything was going to happen this time, but he thought of Renteria in that category.

So, obviously, did the Tigers, whose middle infield entering the season still features a Gold Glove winner on one side and a multi-time All-Star on the other. The All-Star is just a little different.

The Tigers couldn't know for sure that they were going to get Renteria when they told Guillen about their plans for next year on the season's final weekend, but they anticipated he would be available with young Yunel Escobar available to take Renteria's place in Atlanta. Still, the Tigers reassured Guillen enough that he was fine with first base.

The soonest possible day they could make that move, they did, trading for Renteria from Atlanta and announcing it less than 24 hours after the World Series ended. They had to give up two very good prospects -- late-season hero Jair Jurrjens and potential star center fielder Gorkys Hernandez -- to do it, but they felt like it was their most pressing need heading into the offseason. And they filled it without having to dip into a free-agent market that was not seen as particularly strong.

For all that they've done since, it was the Renteria move that started it all.

"People almost forget about getting Renteria at this point," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Monday, "because it was right after the World Series and we had other acquisitions afterward."

Guillen still has a very good feeling about the move. He also has a pretty good memory.

"I don't know if you remember last year," Guillen said, "but I moved to first to get a guy like Edgar Renteria. Because he's good. He knows how to win. He plays hard. He knows how to play.

"Sometimes you don't need guys that maybe hit 40, 50 home runs. You need guys who know how to play baseball. They know how to get [runners] over, hit ground balls with men on third, not trying to do too much. That's the type of guy you need to win a ballgame."

To put Renteria in that category might not do his hitting justice, especially since he laid down just two sacrifice bunts last year. Though a high right ankle sprain limited him to 124 games, his fewest in a season since his rookie year of 1996, the offense he put up when he played ranked among the best in baseball.

With a .332 average and solid extra-base power, Renteria's .860 OPS actually beat out Guillen by a point despite Guillen's 35 doubles, nine triples and 21 home runs. Florida's Hanley Ramirez and National League MVP Jimmy Rollins were the only shortstops in the Majors with a higher OPS.

The only question to his offense is how it will transition to the American League, where his one season there was a relative disappointment. After signing with Boston a few years ago, his .720 OPS in 2005 remains his career low, and he struck out 100 times in 623 plate appearances. He hit just .229 that September during Boston's run for a playoff spot. Not until he was back in the National League next year with Atlanta did his numbers rebound.

He's back in the American League, but as a somewhat different hitter. His presence at the plate has arguably matured with age. His average pitch total per plate appearance has risen in each of the last three seasons, and he's statistically a much better hitter when behind in the count now compared to then.

Defensively, the Tigers readily admit his range isn't quite the same as when he was younger, evidenced through both range factor and zone rating. What they like about him, however, is that he makes the plays on the ground balls he can reach.

For all Renteria has accomplished, the only reigning All-Star second baseman alongside whom he has played was Fernando Vina in 1999, though Luis Castillo went on to future stardom. Placido Polanco, himself a former teammate of Renteria in St. Louis, arguably ranks in a elite category at this point.

The errorless streak remains intact, now a record for his position at 181 games. If he can avoid a booted ball for the first few weeks of this season, he'll break Steve Garvey's record for all infielders at 195 straight errorless games. Between his glove and his bat, 2007 became the season Polanco finally earned recognition for more than grit, from his first Gold Glove to his first All-Star selection.

His batting average was relatively consistent -- .341 overall, .364 with runners in scoring position, .357 with runners on base, .345 versus right-handers, .326 against lefties.

If not for Polanco, Renteria might be an ideal second hitter in Detroit. Instead, Renteria appears set to hit seventh and follow Guillen yet again.

"Carlos was a very good shortstop," Renteria said. "I don't know why he's moving, but I appreciate that, because I want to play with Detroit, too."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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PostSubject: Around the Horn: Outfielders   Wed Jan 23, 2008 6:14 pm

01/23/2008 11:00 AM ET
Around the Horn: Outfielders
Ordonez, Granderson Tigers' anchors; left open to options
By Jason Beck / MLB.com

The following is the fourth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Outfielders.

DETROIT -- Magglio Ordonez became an icon in 2006 with his walk-off home run that sent the Tigers to the World Series. He became a batting champ last year, a national hero upon his return home to his native Venezuela and began building a legacy beyond the playing field with a scholarship fund this winter. He's one of those rare athletes who can be recognized with just one name, and at this point might be recognizable by his hair.

It's no longer a comeback for him. Three seasons after knee injuries put his career in question, he's beyond where he was before surgery, maybe beyond where he could've imagined when he signed with the Tigers. But he's still not satisfied.

"No," Ordonez said at TigerFest earlier this month. "I need a World Series ring. That's why we're here. I already won a batting title."

That, in a nutshell, is how Detroit's two star outfielders can top last year.

While no Tiger had won a batting title since 1961 until Ordonez, Curtis Granderson pulled off an offensive feat only two other players in Major League history had reached in a season. As the Tigers pull in more offensive help to bolster what was already one of baseball's most dangerous lineups, the question that gets lost is what these two stars can do for an encore.

"We're going to have to do our jobs," Ordonez said of his club. "I'm not going to get comfortable. Neither are my teammates."

Four years ago, Detroit's offense was centered around the infield. In 2007, no pair of outfield teammates in the Majors produced more runs, hits and doubles than Granderson and Ordonez, and no teammates at any position produced more total bases. Ordonez and Granderson became the first pair of Tigers to both finish among the top 10 in American League MVP voting since Detroit's World Series championship team of 1984, and were the first pair of Tigers outfielders to crack the top 10 together since Rocky Colavito and Al Kaline placed eighth and ninth in 1961.

Now comes the follow-up season, and the challenges are different.

Ordonez, who has regained his younger form and then some over the last two seasons after injuries stalled his career in 2004 and '05, must show that his health will continue to be on his side after he turns 34 years old next week. Granderson, whose 2007 numbers were a career-defining leap above his encouraging but streaky '06 performance, will try to show he can maintain the balance of aggressiveness and efficiency that worked so well for him last year.

Only Wade Boggs and Nomar Garciaparra have repeated in the AL in the 30 years since Rod Carew's back-to-back batting crowns, while Tony Gwynn and Larry Walker are the only repeat winners in the National League in that same span. Both Gwynn and Walker were in their early to mid-30s when they repeated.

History has shown, however, that Ordonez is only as old as he feels. In his first season as a Tiger in 2005, he arguably looked older than his actual age thanks to knee surgeries and hernia surgery in the span of less than 12 months. He still topped .300 that year, but he didn't have the same strength to lash those hits into extra bases.

In each year since, Ordonez has felt healthier, and that renewed strength in his legs and lower body have shown. If he has that strength, he could get many of those same numbers.

"I feel great. I feel good," Ordonez said. "I feel like last year. I'm healthy. That's the most important thing."

Amazingly, he could also have even better support around him. As important as it was for manager Jim Leyland to keep Carlos Guillen in the fifth spot after cleanup man Ordonez, he can top that this year with a healthy Gary Sheffield and the newly acquired Miguel Cabrera. One is expected to bat in front of Ordonez, the other behind him.

Ordonez batted a Major League-best .429 with runners in scoring position, best by a Major League hitter since Manny Ramirez in 2001. He hasn't hit lower than .309 in those situations since his rookie season of 1997. Give him runners to drive in, and history suggests he can get the hit. The way Leyland arranges the order, in part, will help assure that Ordonez gets the pitches in the strike zone that he needs.

It's Granderson's job to get into those scoring-position situations, if somebody doesn't drive him in before Ordonez steps to the plate. Few leadoff men did their job as well as Granderson last year.

Batting average doesn't adequately describe it, though Granderson's .302 clip ranked fourth among Major League leadoff men last year. Only Florida phenom Hanley Ramirez (.984) posted a higher on-base plus slugging percentage atop a batting order than Granderson's .913. AL All-Star Grady Sizemore (79) and NL MVP Jimmy Rollins (94) were the only leadoff men with more RBIs than Granderson's 74, and Rollins (380) was the only one with more total bases than Granderson's 338.

The improvement was in part a tag-team instructional effort. While hitting coach Lloyd McClendon worked with Granderson on line drives to all fields and what to expect from pitchers in a given situation, first-base coach Andy Van Slyke worked on Granderson's aggressiveness, teaching him to think extra bases immediately out of the batter's box.

Not only was Granderson 26-for-27 in stolen-base attempts, but he wasn't thrown out at all trying to advance on the basepaths. His mere four outs on the bases, according to the Bill James Handbook, all came from being doubled off. His 34 manufactured runs, according to the same book, ranked fourth in the American League.

Granderson could yet blossom into a hitter better suited for batting lower in the order, but given the lineup the Tigers have, he's their best weapon at the top for the foreseeable future. How to get the most offense out of a potential two- or three-man timeshare in left field will be a bigger project for Leyland.

By bringing in Jacque Jones from the Cubs for Omar Infante, the Tigers added a left-handed bat to a lineup that was leaning heavily right-handed with Sean Casey out. If Jones can build on his second half in Chicago, he won't be in the lineup simply for being left-handed.

Jones batted .332 after the All-Star break with 46 RBIs and an .832 OPS over 238 at-bats, helping fuel the Cubs' late charge to the postseason. However, his power dropoff was dramatic, from 74 home runs over his previous three seasons to just five last year, despite one of his best seasons for doubles. If Marcus Thames is around to share time in left, that could be a bigger help.

Thames homered 18 times over just 269 at-bats last year, but hit just .242 with 72 strikeouts. In that sense, and the lefty-righty splits, he complements Jones well. Add in Ryan Raburn, who hit his way into a utility role over the second half last year, and return Timo Perez as a non-roster invitee, and Detroit has no shortage of options in left.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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PostSubject: Around the Horn: Rotation   Thu Jan 31, 2008 12:08 am

01/30/2008 10:00 AM ET
Around the Horn: Rotation
Tigers' offseason additions make rotation five deep
By Jason Beck / MLB.com

The following is the fifth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Starting rotation.

DETROIT -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland knows the questions critics have about his bullpen. His answer to that rests in part with his starting pitching.

"I'm not as worried about the bullpen as everybody else is," Leyland said earlier this month at TigerFest. "I think the big key is going to be the starting pitching. We've got to get an extra out or two-thirds of an inning more from our starters than we were getting. If we get that, I think the bullpen will be fine."

The Tigers averaged just over six innings per start in 2006, accounting for 976 1/3 innings and 75 victories on their way to the American League pennant. The innings total ranked fifth in the American League and seventh in the Majors. Last year's team, by contrast, received 932 innings from its starters. That dropped them to ninth in the AL, 20th in the Majors and less than six innings per start.

No matter the might in the offense, Leyland points out, it's pitching that wins. History supports that notion in October. So does the Tigers' performance the last two years. Expectations on offense will mean little if they can't meet or exceed expectations on the mound.

"That's the only way we're gonna win it. We've gotta pitch," Leyland said. "It doesn't matter how many you score. On a freak year once in a while, you might outslug somebody, but that's not going to happen very often."

The innings deficit last year didn't come at the top of the rotation. Justin Verlander averaged well better than six innings per start on his way to 200 innings in his second full Major League season. Jeremy Bonderman, too, hit the six-inning average before midseason elbow problems eventually shut him down. Take away Nate Robertson's disastrous start on June 5 at Texas, where he didn't record an out, and he averaged six innings per outing.

The struggles to fill innings came with everything around that trio. With Kenny Rogers injured and Mike Maroth -- though he, too, averaged six innings a start -- traded at midseason, Detroit was left with unproven arms and innings to fill. Try as they might, Andrew Miller, Chad Durbin, Virgil Vasquez had to battle escalating pitch counts, at times, along with opponents.

With Dontrelle Willis, the Tigers have someone to fill those innings. And Detroit arguably has as much depth in its rotation as any team in the American League.

"Everybody's talking about who's one, two or three [in the rotation order]," Leyland said. "But we've got five starters, and whoever's pitching that day is your No. 1 starter. If you've got one great pitcher and four that aren't very good, you're not gonna win anything."

The one Tigers starter who was great down the stretch was the biggest question mark entering the season. Nobody knew for sure how Verlander's arm would react after more than 207 innings in his first full season, including the playoffs. However, Tigers coaches hoped that the lessons he learned from pitching without his peak velocity down the stretch and the energy he saved by curtailing his offseason training would help him in 2007.

All he did for an encore to his Rookie of the Year campaign was top his win total, taking 18 victories, top 200 innings in the regular season, nearly duplicate his ERA and become that strikeout pitcher many thought he would. He went 5-1 with a 2.72 ERA over his final seven starts. Oh, and he pitched a no-hitter.

Nobody has won more games than Verlander through his first two full big-league seasons since Dwight Gooden in 1984-85. Only Josh Beckett and Chien-Ming Wang have more wins than Verlander over the last two seasons. With a full offseason of rest and training, he's primed for potentially more.

"You can always improve, I think," Verlander said. "I've worked harder than I ever have this offseason. Hopefully that'll add some things to my game."

The Tigers' bigger hope is that their other starters can add some things, too. Health would be a start, and it was a focus on the staff in offseason training plans.

"The ability's there," said Robertson, who admitted he was strongly advised to take more time off before beginning his workout routine this winter. "I think we can perform. We just have to stay healthy. That's what we're looking forward to most is getting out there as a unit and staying healthy."

The aforementioned Texas start landed Robertson on the disabled list for three weeks. He came back to average six innings per start over 18 outings after returning, but still had some quick exits.

Rogers essentially had a lost season, surrendering nearly three full months following surgery to repair arteries in his shoulder before battling a sore elbow down the stretch. He said at TigerFest that his health is fine, and that he has backed off a little on offseason throwing to adjust to his age.

Bonderman was dominant for the season's first two months, going 5-0 with a 3.27 ERA over his first 10 starts. He went 6-9 with a 6.06 ERA after that, and while he still could eat innings, he had two exits in the third inning or sooner.

But with the elbow injury, he received an extra month of rest. The team's medical staff gave him a program with which to work his arm, which he says feels great now.

"There's a lot of things I did really well," Bonderman said. "The second half of the year was disappointing for me, but I had to try to get healthy. I did everything I was supposed to do [rehab-wise], so I feel like coming in this year, I'm as ready as I've ever been."

These are the bits of news Leyland wants to hear.

"I don't ever like to single out people and say this guy's got to do this or this guy's got to do that," Leyland said. "But I think Willis and Bonderman and Nate Robertson are really big keys for us. We're hoping Kenny stays healthy, but they've got to step it up a little bit. It's time to get over the hump. They're good Major League pitchers with the chance to be better than good Major League pitchers. And if we're going to win, that's what they've got to be."

Willis, of course, has a very good stretch in his history with Florida. After starring as a 20-year-old rookie in 2003, he was a bona fide ace when he won 22 games with a 2.63 ERA and five shutouts in 2005.

Last year brought the toughest struggles of his career, but the Tigers are banking on two beliefs. First is the idea that Willis wasn't completely strong in midseason. He went 1-8 with a 5.80 ERA over a 14-start stretch from mid-June through August. In that train of thought, they believe his solid starts down the stretch came when he was feeling healthier.

Time will tell, not only on that but how he adjusts from the National to the American League while having the advantage of another pitcher's park. But one factor in his favor is his ability to eat innings.

"He's been an inning-eater, there's no question about it," Leyland said. "He's been an inning-eater his whole career, and I think he'll do the same thing here. I think he certainly has the potential to have a big year. With the type of ballclub we have, he fits right in."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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PostSubject: Re: "Around the Horn" Tiger position discussion   Thu Jan 31, 2008 7:29 am

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PostSubject: Re: "Around the Horn" Tiger position discussion   Thu Jan 31, 2008 8:57 am

I am really looking forward to the Bullpen article on Feb 6th!

GO TIGERS '08!! go team
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PostSubject: Re: "Around the Horn" Tiger position discussion   Thu Jan 31, 2008 9:14 am

I enjoy any Tigers article at this point! MISS YOU GUYS!!!
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PostSubject: Re: "Around the Horn" Tiger position discussion   Wed Feb 06, 2008 1:59 pm

02/06/2008 10:00 AM ET
Around the Horn: Bullpen
Zumaya's injury may open door for Cruceta
By Jason Beck / MLB.com

The following is the sixth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Bullpen.

DETROIT -- The Tigers have plenty of star players who could hold the key to their trip to the World Series, from Magglio Ordonez to Miguel Cabrera; Justin Verlander to Todd Jones. The one name that rarely seems to come up is Francisco Cruceta.

He's the most prominent free agent the Tigers brought in this offseason, though he's the only free agent brought in this offseason. Amid the questions about how the Tigers will replace Joel Zumaya, who will miss at least half the season following shoulder surgery and is an unknown quantity when he comes back, club officials believe Cruceta could be part of the answer.


Cruceta has pitched just 14 1/3 big league innings in his career, none of them since 2006. If his progression goes as hoped, he could pitch plenty this year.

"We like him a lot," Dombrowski said during the Winter Caravan. "People don't know him, but he's a guy who's been a quality prospect for a number of years."

Dombrowski doesn't buy into the notion that Detroit's bullpen is a major question mark. The scrutiny, he counters, comes from the fact that the other parts of the team are so strong, especially the offense. The relief staff isn't stacked like the lineup, nor does it have as many established arms as the rotation, but Dombrowski believes it has outs.

"When you look at our club, if you're going to point to an area, it's going to be relief," Dombrowski said, "because when you look at our everyday lineup, it's pretty hard to look at a specific hole. It's also hard, if our starting pitching is healthy, to point to a hole there. So you're going to continually talk about the bullpen."

The main cogs at the back end of the bullpen haven't changed from last year, but Zumaya's loss changes roles a bit. For all the anxiousness that seems to follow Jones with each ninth inning in Detroit, he has converted 75 saves in 87 chances over the last two seasons, which is why the Tigers wanted him back once his brief flirtation with free agency ended. Only Francisco Rodriguez and Bobby Jenks have more saves with fewer blown opportunities over that stretch.

Of more encouragement for Detroit was Jones' second half. His ERA fell from 5.82 heading into the All-Star break to 1.82 afterward. Opponents' batting average fell from .302 to .243, OPS from .795 to .571, and he allowed one home run over 30 second-half innings. The statistical difference stemmed in part from no disastrous outings like June 1 at Cleveland, where manager Jim Leyland paid dearly for breaking his own rule and using Jones in the eighth inning of a save situation.

Before last season ended, the Tigers had approached Jones about re-signing in Detroit with the idea of easing Zumaya into some save opportunities. That's not a consideration anytime soon, and Jones returns as the unquestioned closer. It's the roles behind him where the ripple effect of Zumaya's loss really begins.

Instead of splitting setup duties, Fernando Rodney enters the season as the lone option. It's a situation in which he struggled early when Zumaya was on the disabled list last season, but like Jones, his stats after coming off the DL in August -- 2.82 ERA, .533 OPS allowed, 29 strikeouts over 22 1/3 innings -- provided encouragement down the stretch.

If Zumaya were healthy, Leyland could stack him with Rodney in the seventh and eighth innings. But when an accident at home left Zumaya's labrum needing surgery, the Tigers had to scramble to fill a role. They had talks regarding bigger-name free agents LaTroy Hawkins and Octavio Dotel, but a recommendation from veteran scout and special assistant Dick Egan helped convince the Tigers to take a look at Cruceta.

Egan, who had seen Cruceta in previous years, went on assignment in the Dominican Republic to look at the 26-year-old right-hander in winter ball. What Egan saw was a pitcher with good stuff who finally appeared ready to take the next step in his career.

"He thinks Cruceta's ready to pitch in the seventh or eighth inning at the Major League level," Dombrowski said. "He's a mid-90s guy with a good split and a breaking ball that's improved and better command."

How good was Cruceta this winter? After holding opponents to a .193 batting average with a 1.14 ERA and striking out 31 batters over 23 2/3 innings for the Gigantes del Cibao, the Dominican League champion Aguilas Cibaenas added him for the Caribbean Series to a bullpen that boasts big leaguers Julian Tavarez, Leo Nunez, Joel Peralta and fellow Tigers signing Denny Bautista. He pitched two scoreless innings Sunday with a fastball that topped out around 94 mph.


If Cruceta doesn't pan out, the Tigers could end up turning to another gifted arm with a disappointing history in Bautista. With a high-90s fastball and good movement on his secondary pitches, his stuff earned Dombrowski's description as a "blue-blue chip arm." However, he has yet to translate that into consistent results on the field.

With Detroit's left-handed duo of Bobby Seay and Tim Byrdak seemingly secure, the rest of the bullpen could provide the only roster fight of Spring Training, with at least three pitchers fighting for two spots. Jason Grilli and Zach Miner have been important parts of the roster for the last two years, and either could end up stepping into more late-inning work if Detroit's starters work deeper into games as hoped. Yorman Bazardo could work his way into one of those spots; he's out of options and made an impression with his solid work in the Triple-A Toledo rotation last year.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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PostSubject: Re: "Around the Horn" Tiger position discussion   Wed Feb 13, 2008 2:57 pm

02/13/2008 10:00 AM ET
Around the Horn: Bench
Tigers' reserve mix hinges on Inge's role
By Jason Beck / MLB.com

The following is the last in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. For the past seven Wednesdays, we've previewed a different position. Today: Designated hitter and bench.

DETROIT -- Given time to practice and train, Brandon Inge might be able to play any position on the field. What, if any, position Inge will be playing for the Tigers this season remains to be seen.

While Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis proved to be the biggest names of Detroit's offseason, Inge became in some ways the face of it. Cabrera's addition gave the Tigers a new third baseman and gave Inge a winter of discontent. The problem he and the Tigers have faced is that they cannot seem to subtract him.

He might well have been a potential everyday third baseman for another team if price wasn't an issue, but the $19.1 million owed Inge over the next three years has proven to be a deal-breaker. So unless the Tigers can deal him to a team in need sometime during camp, they're going to have to find a place for him on their bench, and he's going to have to find a way to accept it.

"I'm not happy with it. I'm not happy at all," Inge said last month. "But my hands are tied. There's not much else I can do. And at the same time, I'm not going to be a cancer. I want to play baseball. I love playing the game of baseball. There's nothing more in my life other than my kids and my family that I love more. I don't care how much money you pay me. I want to play."

If that remains the case come Opening Day, the Tigers could have one of the most versatile players in baseball at their disposal. In turn, their bench could be almost as useful as their lineup is formidable.

It's a similar situation in many ways to what Inge faced four years ago. He was Detroit's catcher of the future in 2002 and '03 and seemed set in that spot heading into 2004 until the Tigers were able to sign Ivan Rodriguez. The Tigers liked Inge's ability a lot, but they weren't going to turn down the chance to sign a future Hall of Famer.

Inge became a utility player, and a pretty good one at that, backing up Rodriguez behind the plate and playing all three outfield positions before eventually taking over at third base. He had three outfield assists in the same game -- two from left, another from center -- and he converted 151 total consecutive chances without an error while shuffling between all those spots.

Had the Tigers signed Troy Glaus or Edgar Renteria on the free-agent market after the 2004 season, Inge could've ended up the regular center fielder instead of Alex Sanchez. When Glaus, Renteria and others spurned Detroit for points elsewhere, Sanchez was re-signed, and the hot corner belonged to Inge.

That, however, was Inge at ages 26 and 27. Now, he's in his early 30s, and he had established himself as an everyday player while getting accustomed to regular at-bats. He said two weeks ago that he looks at a super-sub position as a way to return to an everyday position somewhere next year. Considering he has never reacted well to days off, how he reacts to them now could well determine whether he starts again, whether in Detroit or somewhere else.

More immediate, Inge changes the mix of a bench that seemed pretty much set before the Tigers couldn't deal him. Assuming Vance Wilson is ready for Opening Day, which even he admits is no sure thing, he was to join a reserve group that would've likely included Marcus Thames in the outfield, Ramon Santiago in the middle infield and Ryan Raburn roaming between second, third, left and center.

General manager Dave Dombrowski conceded during the Winter Caravan that the Tigers probably couldn't keep Thames, Santiago and Raburn on the 25-man roster if Inge was still around. Of those guys, only Raburn has a Minor League option remaining. If Wilson opens the year on the disabled list following Tommy John surgery last summer, that would open the way to keep everyone else for a while. Regardless, Inge will be working some at catcher this spring.

If Inge can play at second base, a position he handled regularly in college but has not played in the Majors, his versatility would overlap that of Raburn. Unless Inge proves adept at shortstop, however, it would appear unlikely he would take Santiago's spot. Though Carlos Guillen could move back to short on occasion, Santiago's value as a late-inning defensive replacement could give him an edge.

Though Thames' value is in his power, his ability to play both corner spots as well as first base gives him more chances to get into the lineup. At one stretch last summer, he nearly split starts at first base before Sean Casey pulled out of his early-season slump and began hitting for production again. As it stands, he appears set to share starts to some degree with Jacque Jones in left field. How that balance works out will likely depend on how Jones and Thames hit early on.

There's plenty of versatility in the group. There is not, however, a big left-handed bat. Though Santiago switch-hits, he's a defense-first type of player unlikely to force a pitching change from an opponent if he steps into the batter's box. The biggest lefty bat not in the lineup likely comes from reigning Triple-A All-Star Timo Perez, whose productive performance in last week's Caribbean Series gives him a head start on his timing when full-squad workouts begin next week.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


“It takes pitching, hitting and defense. Any two can win. All three make you unbeatable.”    
–Joe Garagiola
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