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 Despite adversity, Tigers showing confidence

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PostSubject: Despite adversity, Tigers showing confidence   Thu Mar 10, 2011 11:59 pm

Despite adversity, Tigers showing confidence
By Jason Beck / MLB.com | 03/10/11 4:33 PM EST

LAKELAND, Fla. -- No matter how small the suspense, there is no such thing as a completely smooth Spring Training. The Tigers have done their best to come close.

Between a relatively set lineup, a completely set starting rotation, a bullpen that had the potential to run deep and injury rehabs that were encouraging across the board, the Tigers were set up to get through their six weeks at Tigertown rather smoothly.

A late February incident with MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera and a setback for recuperating reliever Joel Zumaya threw some obstacles in front of those plans.

Yet through the twists and turns, the Tigers have come out of it pretty well.

"I think everybody realizes as individuals that they have a job to do," manager Jim Leyland said a couple weeks ago in reference in Cabrera, "and they prepare themselves as such. You move forward. Those are situations those guys had nothing to do with or could do anything about.

"Obviously, they're going about their business, getting themselves ready for a championship season, and everything else just kind of falls in place. I thought everybody handled it extremely well."

The Tigers got on an early roll in Spring Training games -- due in large part to dominant pitching -- before falling back of late. They picked up some strong hitting from power-hitting prospect Ryan Strieby while Cabrera was out, and they've seen some relievers step up in the absence of Zumaya and lefty Daniel Schlereth. They still have questions, but they also still have the chance to be very strong contenders in the American League Central, depending in part on injuries.

What we've learned:

1. The Tigers have a little more depth in position prospects than expected. Andy Dirks' quick bat and slashing hits have become one of the stories of camp, and they've put him in the mix for an outfield spot alongside second-year sluggers Brennan Boesch and Casper Wells. Brandon Douglas has made a strong early impressions despite limited playing time.

Outfielder Avisail Garcia is impossible to miss, given his combination of size and speed. Strieby looks like he's healthy and hitting again.

2. A healthy Scott Sizemore looks a lot different than last year's Scott Sizemore. He's 16 months removed from ankle surgery, and the difference in his range and athleticism is big. This is the guy the Tigers saw as their second baseman of the future. "He looks totally different," Leyland said.

3. Phil Coke can shift into a starting-pitching mindset. It took a little while this spring, but that max-effort, hair-on-fire reliever personality is fading, even if Coke's in-your-face personality is not. He's mixing pitches like someone with a plan. "I'm finding it and it's coming quicker than I thought," Coke said.

4. Andy Oliver and Jacob Turner aren't far off. They've more than held their own against Major League hitters in their early spring starts, and their ability to learn and adjust has impressed the Detroit staff. Leyland said they have more insurance options at starter than those two, but it's obvious they're at the top of the list. The Tigers are looking smart for not signing any journeymen starters to Minor League contracts.

What to watch for:

1. Will Carlos Guillen get back into games in time to be ready for Opening Day? He's taking batting practice, taking ground balls and running the bases, but Leyland said he doesn't know yet whether Guillen will be ready for games next week.

Next Tuesday marks two weeks left in camp, so it's hard to see him starting the season on the roster if he isn't back next week. The answer drastically affects the roster and the lineup, with Sizemore and Will Rhymes competing for playing time if Guillen isn't ready.

"There will be a point," Leyland said, "that you reach where you say, 'Well, he can be ready or he won't be ready.' But I'm not sure exactly what that is."

2. Who steps up in the bullpen with Zumaya out? He's almost certain to miss the start of the season, and while the Tigers built their late-inning relief corps without him, they still have to get along without his presence in the seventh inning. Here's where Robbie Weinhardt's solid spring could put him in a very nice role, or Detroit might have room for two or three lefty relievers.

3. Who fills out the Tigers outfield? Leyland said he can fit four outfielders into three spots through rotations and the DH slot when Victor Martinez catches. Now he has to figure out who his fourth outfielder is. Dirks has hit his way into consideration, but Boesch has shown the tape-measure power that made him so formidable in the first half of last season.

Casper Wells can play all three outfield spots well and continues to hit. Someone, Leyland said this week, is going to be disappointed.

4. How much of a distraction will Cabrera's situation be to Cabrera? He has had more than his fair share of hard-hit fly balls to right field, so his bat shouldn't take long to come around. Still, he admitted, he's getting into baseball shape, including with his legs under a 270-pound frame.

"I think what I've seen in his at-bats is what I normally see," Leyland said, "except he's not ready."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. 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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