Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Porcello, Robertson still in mix

        With just two games to go before the Tigers break camp on Thursday afternoon, Jim Leyland still has several major decisions to make regarding his pitching staff.
        Rookie Rick Porcello still isn’t on the team. But he isn’t off it, either.
        Nate Robertson still isn’t on the team. But he isn’t off it, either.
        “You’re not going to get any information out of me because I don’t have any answers,” Leyland said before meeting with his coaches and the front office staff to discuss that very subject.
        Both pitchers enhanced their chances of joining the Tigers’ rotation in Tuesday’s rain-interrupted  7-2 loss to the Washington Nationals.
        But at this juncture, I would say Porcello is definitely ahead.
        Porcello, rebounding from his worst outing of the spring last Thursday, breezed through the first five innings, throwing just 53 pitches and limiting the  Nationals to one run on two hits. But he was struck on the right side, underneath his arm, with a line drive in the fifth  and left the game, strictly for precautionary reasons, at the end of the inning.
        However, Porcello then went to bullpen where he threw 15 more pitches, the equivalent of another inning.
        “He’s fine, but I wasn’t going to take any chances,” Leyland said. “Just watching him today you would never believe he was really wild last time out. He was a strike-thrower today.”
        Robertson, in his first appearance since he sprained his left thumb, worked the final three innings and was nailed for five runs on six hits, including a couple of homers.
        But Leyland said later, “You almost have to throw that one out,”  because Robertson was pitching out of the bullpen and his stint was interrupted by a 30-minute rain delay.
        “We’re down to the nitty-gritty,” Leyland said. “Who knows what might happen now.”
        In other moves Tuesday, the Tigers placed Jeremy Bonderman on the 15-day disabled list where he joins fellow pitchers Joel Zumaya and Dontrelle Willis, and sent Clete Thomas, Timo Perez and Will Rhymes to minor league camp.
        Leyland went over to Tigertown Tuesday morning to watch Zumaya pitch in a minor league game against the Houston Astros Class A farm club.
        “He really looked good,” Leyland said.
        “I got excited _ but let’s not get too excited,” the manager cautioned.
        According to Leyland, Zumaya’s fastball was clocked at 97 mph.

Sheffield: "I know I can play"

        Gary Sheffield has no doubt he can still play baseball. “I know I can play,” the Tigers’ departing designated hitter declared Tuesday moments after the Tigers cut him loose. “For whatever reason, these guys don’t think so.
        “I can still hit, I can still run, and I know I can throw better than most people,” the 40-year-old future Hall of Famer said. “Up until I got hurt (in July of 2007) I was leading the team in everything. You don’t go from that to this because of one freak accident.”
        Tigers manager Jim Leyland and team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski both believe Sheffield can still play, too.
        Just not for the Tigers.
        Toronto and Tampa Bay could be the two leading candidates for Sheffield’s services.
        Leyland wanted to get Marcus Thames more playing time and he wanted  to use the DH to occasionally give Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen a break from their duties in the outfield.
        With Sheffield as the full-time DH, Leyland knew he wouldn’t be able to do that.       
        He knew that Sheffield, who barely tolerated the role of DH, would never be happy playing that position part-time.
        And Leyland did not feel comfortable using Sheffield in the outfield.
        When the Tigers failed in their repeated efforts to trade Thames during the offseason, they came to the conclusion that releasing Sheffield was their best option.
        To convince Sheffield to agree to the November 2006 trade, in which the Tigers sent three prospects to the Yankees, they had to agree to add a two-year $28 million extension to Gary’s existing contract. “I don’t think we could have made the deal without that,” Dombrowski said Tuesday.
        The Tigers were the only team willing to offer Sheffield that kind of security.
        Sheffield got off to a great start with the Tigers. But he injured his shoulder in a right field collision with Placido Polanco in July of 2007 and he hasn’t been the same since.
        “I started off having a monster season,” Sheffield recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to take this team to the championship.’ Then I  had that freak injury.”
        “I have no question it would have been very successful if he didn’t have that injury,” Dombrowski said. “We never really had a chance to feel the full benefit of his ability.  After he got hurt, it’s been a struggle for him.”
        “Obviously, DHing wasn’t my thing,” Sheffield said. “I just did it because they asked me to do it.
        “When I was right, I gave ‘em what I had. I gave ‘em what I had when I was hurt, too.”
        Sheffield had been healthy and happy this spring. However, he was hitting only .178.
        Tuesday morning as Sheffield said good-bye to his Tiger teammates, Miguel Cabrera was asked what he thought of the shocking move.
        “No comment,” he said softly.
        With Dontrelle Willis on the disabled list, suffering from what has been diagnosed as an anxiety disorder, the Tigers now have $24 million of this year’s estimated $130 million payroll on the shelf.
        “I don’t make the decisions to eat contracts,” Leyland said. “I manage the team.”

Willis' locker cleaned out

        Dontrelle Willis’ cubicle in the Tigers’ Marchant Stadium clubhouse was cleaned out on Tuesday. Willis’ name plate had been removed from the top of his locker. Even his chair was gone.
        A new suitcase that Willis won’t need now for the Tigers’ season-opening series in Toronto set in front of his locker.
        Tigers’ president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Tuesday that Willis, who was placed on the disabled list on Sunday suffering from what was diagnosed as an anxiety disorder, had left town.
        But nobody would say exactly where the struggling left handed pitcher has gone.
        “He is following up on medical things that he has to follow up on,” Dombrowski said, cryptically.

Newest Tiger Anderson fills three needs

        Talk about killing three birds with one stone.
        Jim Leyland wanted to carry an extra outfielder who was capable of backing up Curtis Granderson in center field, just in case.
        Leyland also wanted to have a left handed hitter on his bench.
        And everybody knows the Tigers could use more speed on the base paths.
        Enter Josh Anderson, who was acquired Monday in a deal -- or should I say, steal -- with the Atlanta Braves.
        All that the Tigers had to give up was side-arming minor league relief pitcher Rudy Darrow.
        Anderson, who is 26, can play all three outfield positions,  including center. In fact, he was a candidate to be the Braves’ starting center fielder this season until he lost out to Atlanta’s Jordan Schafer.
        Anderson bats left handed. He hit .294 in 40 games with the Braves last year.
        And he can fly. Anderson stole 42 bases in 49 tries at Triple-A Richmond last season and  has swiped 280 bases in his minor league career. In his 40 games with the Braves last season, he stole 10 bases.
        The Tigers haven’t possessed that kind of speed and that much of a threat on the base paths since Alex Sanchez (2003-04) and Nook Logan (2005).
        Anderson’s arrival, of course, was not such news for the left hand hitting Jeff Larish, versatile Ryan Raburn and center field candidate Brent Clevlen, all of whom are still hoping to make the team this spring.

Tigers release Sheffield, eat $14 million contract

        In a move that caught just about everyone in the Marchant Stadium clubhouse by surprise, the Tigers released 40-year-old future Hall of Famer Gary Sheffield early Tuesday morning, one home run shy of the magical number of 500.
        “I wouldn’t say I’m shocked but I am surprised,” admitted Sheffield, who was clearly angered by the unexpected decision. “To do this when somebody is  one home run away . . . I don’t know how to react to it.
        “Jim (Leyland) said, ‘We’re going to go with versatility.’ When he said that word I thought to myself, ‘I’m probably the most athletic guy on this team.’      
        “But they’re entitled to their opinion,” Sheffield added.      
        Tuesday’s move means home run threat Marcus Thames, who was worried about his own future with the team this spring, will be the Tigers’  primary designated hitter, although Dave Dombrowski said Tuesday that Leyland also plans to occasionally use Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen in that role.
        “We think this makes us a better ballclub at this point,” Dombrowski declared. “This give us most versatility in how we use the DH.
        “It was going to be hard to keep Marcus Thames and Gary Sheffield together. We’ve been trying to get Marcus more opportunities. This will allow us to do that. We think Marcus can be a very productive hitter for us.”
        Tuesday’s decision means the Tigers will have to eat the $14 million remaining on Sheffield’s contract this season.
        “We were going to have to pay him one way or another,” Dombrowski rationalized. “We were paying him no matter what.”
         It is the largest  contract that Tigers have had to swallow since they released infielder Damion Easley with $14.3 remaining on his contract near the end of spring training in 2003. 
        Sheffield had been healthy and happy all spring. But he was hitting only .178.
        “I think (Gary) would have hit well enough,” Dombrowski said. “But I can’t tell you what his numbers would have been versus Marcus Thames.”
        Sheffield said he hopes to catch on with another club and continue his career, which was entering its 22nd year.
        “I know I can still play this game,” he said.  “If somebody wants me, I’d be happy to look at that. If not, I’ll stay home and play with my kids.
        “I wanted to play until I was 40 and I have accomplished that,” Sheffield added.
        Once Sheffield clears waivers, he will be a free agent. He could sign with another team for as little as the major league minimum $400,000 salary. The Tigers would be on the hook for the balance.
        In Sheffield’s two injury-marred seasons with the Tigers, after he was acquired from the New York Yankees in a November 2006 trade, he batted .247 with 44 homers and 132 RBI in 247 games.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Placing Willis on DL raises eyebrows

        Let’s get one thing straight: The Tigers’ stunning decision in December of 2007 to trade six players, including the organization’s top two  minor league prospects, to the Florida Marlins for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis was --  and still is -- a no-brainer.
        Cabrera alone was worth the six players, including Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller, that the Tigers had to part with in order to make the deal.
        But it was the decision to immediately bestow that three-year, $29 million contract on Willis, before he had thrown a pitch on behalf of the Tigers  that may rank as the biggest blunder of Dave Dombrowski’s career.
        On Sunday, the Tigers made the best that they could of a hopelessly bad situation, placing Willis on the 15-day disabled list with what was diagnosed as “anxiety disorder.”
        The Tigers’ only other options were to restore Willis to the starting rotation (that was not going to happen), put him in the bullpen (highly unlikely), send him to Toledo (first he would have to agree) or simply release him and eat the $22 million remaining on his contract (Ouch!).
        Not surprisingly, Sunday’s convenient, face-saving decision to place Willis on the DL raised more than few eyebrows among members of the Tigers’ press corps.
        “The Commissioner’s Office accepted the diagnosis as grounds for the disabled list,” Tigers president/GM Dave Dombrowski said, perhaps anticipating the inevitable question. “They always need documentation.”
        Willis’ anxiety disorder could explain his loss of rhythm and control last season when he walked 35 big league batters in 24 innings, posted an 0-2 record with a 9.38 ERA and spent most of the year in the minor leagues, trying to find himself.
        Dombrowski said Sunday he believes Willis’ problem finding the play may have been caused, at least in part, by his current condition.
        According to the National Institute of Mental Health web site, people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) “can’t seem to shake their concerns.”
        Dombrowski also said he is “fairly optimistic” Willis will pitch for the Tigers at some point this season.
        “I’ve been told it’s correctible,” Dombowski added.
        “I want to pitch for this team again,” Willis said Sunday.
        We’ll see.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Gamesmanship has begun

        Saturday was Bobby Seay’s day to pitch. But the left handed reliever did not make the bus trip to Dunedin to face the Toronto Blue Jays.
        Edwin Jackson is scheduled to make his next start on Thursday. However, it will not be against the Blue Jays in the Tigers’ Grapefruit League finale in Lakeland.
        The gamesmanship has begun.
        The Tigers open the season against the Blue Jays in Toronto on April 6 -- Jackson will start Game Two --  and Jim Leyland does not want the Toronto hitters to become too familiar with the Tiger pitchers.    
        Meanwhile, shortstop Adam Everett, sidelined with a sprained ankle, worked out on Saturday and may be ready to return to the lineup as soon as Monday.
        Jeremy Bonderman, Dontrelle Willis and Zach Miner are all scheduled to pitch Sunday, weather permitting, in a game that will be carried on the Tigers’ TV and radio networks.
        A week ago, Leyland said he was “99.9 percent certain,” Miner would start the season in the bullpen.
        However, with Bonderman’s return delayed indefinitely and Nate Robertson slowed by a sprained thumb, Leyland said Saturday that number on Miner “is a little lower now.”

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tiger regulars return, Porcello struggles

        Rookie Rick Porcello, whose chances of beginning the season in the Tigers’ starting rotation may hinge on how quickly Nate Robertson recovers from Wednesday’s sprained thumb, struggled against the American League champion Tampa Bay Rays Thursday night.
        Porcello started and pitched the first 2 1/3 innings innings. Although he loaded the bases before he could get anyone out in the first inning, he escaped with only one run scored against.
        Except for shortstop Adam Everett, who is sidelined for a few days with a sprained ankle, and  Porcello, the Tigers’ starting lineup for Thursday night’s exhibition was identical to the one we expect to see on April 6, Opening Day, in Toronto.
        Miguel Cabrera was at first base, Curtis Granderson was in center field, Magglio Ordonez was in right and Carlos Guillen was in left.
        For Jim Leyland, it was a welcome sight.
        The Tiger players, who have been gone all month for the World Baseball Classic, were glad to be back, too.
        “When I got to the ballpark yesterday they said, ‘We’re going  run the bases,’ ” Ordonez said.
        “I said, ‘Thank God.’ I only got on base twice the whole time I was with the WBC.”
        Baseball-wise, it was largely a wasted month -- although, in the best interest of baseball, Leyland is biting his tongue.
        However, Leyland didn’t hold back when asked his response to Internet critics who have claimed lately that Cabrera is overweight and out of shape.
        “Cabrera is fine, Cabrera is perfect,” the Tigers’ manager said. “And if he hits 37 home runs this year, he’ll be really perfect.”
        Robertson went to a nearby hospital for precautionary X-rays of his sprained left thumb Thursday afternoon. Robertson was struck on his pitching hand by a throw while covering first base on Wednesday.
        “No big red flags,” Robertson, who had emerged as the leading candidate in the race for the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation, insisted when he returned to the ballpark. “I’m a pretty tough guy.”
        Nevertheless, his thumb was red and noticeably swollen.
        “I’m not worried about this, I feel good about where I’m at,” he said.  “My recent outings have shown that the command and the action on my pitches is there.”
        Robertson said he may be able to make his next and probably final exhibition start on Tuesday. “It’s not out of the question, but it’s not a sure thing,” he admitted.
        Everett  sprained his left ankle sliding into second base on Wednesday.
        “I’ve heard ‘a few days,’ I think that’s realistic,” Everett said when asked how long he might be out of action.
        “I was starting to feel good, my body was starting to feel great, everything was starting to come around,” he continued. “Yeah, I’m a little frustrated.”      
        The Tigers cut four more players on Thursday, outfielders Wilkin Ramirez and  Alexis Gomez, infielder Don Kelly, and catcher Max St. Pierre across the road to minor league camp. Only Ramirez is on the major league roster. None had a legitimate chance to make the team

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Remembering George Kell

        In 1983, I was involved in the baseball card/sports memorabilia business. That January, I happened to be in Indianapolis, visiting with Lou Brock, who at the time was a member of the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee.
        Knowing that I was a friend of George Kell’s, Brock leaned over and whispered, “Don’t tell anybody, but we’re going to put George into the Hall of Fame this  year. I’ve talked to some of the other guys and I’m sure we have the votes.”
        I needed another autograph guest for my next card show, so, without saying a word about the Hall of Fame, I called Kell and asked if he would appear.
        Kell was elected, just as Brock had predicted. As a result, George was more popular than ever when he appeared at my show shortly after the announcement was made.
        “This was good timing on your part,” Kell said as he signed baseball after baseball for the fans and collectors in line.
        “It sure was,” I replied, smiling.
        I never had the heart to tell him I probably would not have invited him to appear had it not been for my “inside tip.”
        But, knowing George, had I told him I’m sure he would have laughed.
        In the 40 years that I knew George Kell, I never once heard him raise his voice.
        Kell made himself into a Hall of Famer, first as a player and later as a Tiger broadcaster.
        They said he couldn’t hit. Connie Mack, who managed in the big leagues for 53 years, and Al Simmons, who batted .381 one season and .390 the next, both told George so --  to his face.
        But Kell didn’t let that, or anything else, stop him. “I knew there were a whole lot of players who had more natural talent than I did,” Kell once said. “But I promised myself that no one was going to work harder than I did. I played like that for my entire career.”
        Kell made himself into a fine hitter. He did such a good job of it, in fact, that he beat Ted Williams -- the self--proclaimed “greatest hitter who ever lived” -- out of the American League batting title in 1949, winning the crown by the narrowest margin in history, .3429 to .3427, with a 2-for-3 effort on the final day of the season.
        In the field, Kell made himself into the premier third baseman of his day, leading all AL third sackers in fielding four times. He made a science out of playing his position, just as he did at the plate, studying his opponents until he knew precisely where each batter was most likely to hit the ball.
        He never stopped using his head. As Tigers' Hall of Fame slugger-turned broadcaster Harry Heilmann, who himself won four batting titles, once observed, “George is all brains out there.”
        In 1948, with the bases loaded and two men out, New York Yankee great Joe DiMaggio smashed a wicked grounder off Kell’s chin. The ball shattered Kell’s jaw in two places and caused him to black out.
        Kell didn’t remembered grabbing the ball off the ground and stepping on third base for the force out, or stumbling blindly around the field like a drunk who had just been bounced out of a bar.
        Later, when Kell came to his senses in the clubhouse, the first thing he wanted to know was, “Did I get the man out?”
        Kell didn’t play again the rest of that season.
        Traded to Detroit in 1946 because Connie Mack, the financially-strapped Philadelphia Athletics owner, knew he couldn’t afford to pay Kell a $2,000 end-of-the-year bonus that had been promised,  George quickly began a favorite of Tigers fans -- and of Tigers’ owner and automotive magnate Walter O. Briggs.
        During a doubleheader at Briggs Stadium, Kell, his uniform seriously soiled as usual from diving after balls in the opener, was warming up for the day’s second game when he heard someone in the stands calling his name.
        Briggs, who had been stricken with polio, was confined to a wheel  chair. But an attendant had wheeled him down next to the railing between games.
        “Mr. Kell,” the attendant shouted. “Mr. Briggs would like to have a brief word with you.”
        Worried that he had done something wrong, Kell trotted over to the edge of the grandstand.
        “George,” Briggs said softly, “don’t you have a clean uniform you can put on for the second game?”
        When Kell put down his bat and glove and sat down behind a microphone as a Tiger broadcaster, the Arkansas-native with the Southern accent worked just as hard to make himself into a polished, professional broadcaster.
        No flash, no flamboyance -- just the facts. For 37 years.
        After retiring from the Tigers’ broadcast booth in 1996, Kell, who was rejected from military service during World War II because of loose cartilage in both knees, nearly lost his life twice -- first in a 2001 fire that destroyed his home of 55 years, and more recently in a serious 2004 auto accident.
        But George never lost his love for life -- or for the Tigers.

Golf provides off-day diversion

        The Tigers have a day off today. Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis will pitch in a minor league camp game. And Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen, back from the World Baseball Classic, may show up at Marchant Stadium for extra batting practice.
        Meanwhile, many of their teammates will spend at least part of the day on the golf course. It provides an ideal diversion as the daily pressures of preparing for the pending regular season mount.
        Justin Verlander and Brandon Inge, both bombers, are arguably the two best golfers on the team. Andy Van Slyke is, without a doubt, the best golfer on the coaching staff, although Gene Lamont is not bad.
        A lot of the guys, including rookie pitchers Rick Porcello and Ryan Perry, just love to play.
        Porcello, who is low-keyed and composed, says whenever he makes a poor shot he “delicately,” to use his word, puts the offending club back in his bag.
        However, according to Porcello, the more excitable Perry is an incorrigible club-thrower.
        And what does manager Jim Leyland, who is capable of making birdie or double bogey on every hole,  do when he makes a bad shot?
        “I pull a ‘Tony La Russa’ and I say, ‘That one doesn’t count,’ ” Leyland admits.
        Asked what his strength as a golfer is, Leyland readily confesses, “I don’t have one.”
        The Tigers manager remembers the time he was playing in a celebrity tournament with the legendary Arnold Palmer.
        “I made a bad shot and I got a little mad,” Leyland recalls.   
        “Arnold took at me and he said, ‘You don’t play good enough to get mad.’ ”


Monday, March 23, 2009

Bullpen battle is four-way fight

        Veteran right hander Juan Rincon has 468 big league innings under his belt. Hard-throwing Scott Williamson has 439. Rookies Ryan Perry and Kyle Bloom have none.
        Between them Rincon and Williamson have spent all or part of 17 seasons in the majors, appearing in 753 games, winning 59 and saving 58 . “The question,” Jim Leyland admits, “is can they still do it?”
        Perry, on the other hand, has appeared in just 14 games, none higher than Class A. Bloom has never ventured above AA Altoona.
        But, as Leyland likes to say, experience isn’t everything.
        Perry easily throws the hardest of the four bullpen candidates. Bloom has the best curve. Rincon and Williamson, of course, have the most experience.
        With Joel Zumaya apparently out of the picture, at least at the start of the season, two or maybe even three of those guys figure to make the team.
        For those four, the coming week, when the Tigers play five of their seven games on the road, will be critical.
        It will be Leyland’s call -- with plenty of input, of course, from his boss, GM Dave Dombrowski, and from his coaching staff, particularly Rick Knapp.
        That was one of the things Leyland’s Saturday night dinner with his coaches and the several closed door meetings in his Marchant Stadium office on Sunday were all about.
        “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Leyland admits. “As soon as I do, I’ll tell you.”
        Rincon, a workhorse reliever with Minnesota from 2003-07 when he appeared in 348 games, is still unscored-upon after nine innings this spring.
        However, Leyland knows a manager can get burned if he places too much stock in spring training games. “The question is, is his stuff what it used to be?” Leyland says.
        Rincon, who was released last season by the Twins, then picked up by Cleveland, signed with the Tigers as a free agent, in large part because the Tigers hired Knapp, who was Rincon’s mentor in the minor leagues.
        The Tigers claimed Bloom from Pittsburgh in the Rule 5 draft last December. If he doesn’t make the team this spring, the Tigers have to offer him back to the Pirates for $25,000.
        Williamson, who is probably getting his shot at returning to the big leagues, appears this spring to have  regained his trademark fastball. However, the Tigers are wise to be wary.
        Perry, of course, is the most intriguing candidate on the list. Leyland likes talent and Perry, the Tigers No. 1 draft pick out of Arizona last summer, definitely has that _ plus a triple-digit fast ball.
        He is at the other end of the spectrum from Rincon and Williamson.
        I think the Tigers are now leaning toward opening the season with Perry in the bullpen, at least until they learn what the foreseeable future holds for Zumaya.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Leyland predicts: "Very difficult couple of weeks"

        Jim Leyland dreads having to call players into his office, one by one, to tell them they have
failed to make the team. “Telling guys they’re not going to make the team is the worst day,” he declared.
        On the other hand, the Tigers’ manager admitted, “Knowing  that the decisions have been made is the best part.”
        On Sunday the Tigers cut three more relievers -- Casey Fein, Freddy Dolsi and Fu-Te Ni. No surprises there. That leaves them with 42 players, including 19 pitchers, which means 17 players including seven pitchers, still have to go before the team breaks camp and heads for Atlanta on April 2.
        Of Fein, who first caught the manager’s eye last spring, Leyland said Sunday: “He’s a strike-thrower, which all managers like. If he defines his breaking ball a little better, he’ll be a big league pitcher for a long time. I like him a lot.”
        Of Dolsi, who spent time with the Tigers last season after moving quickly up the minor league ladder from Lakeland to Erie to Toledo, Leyland said: “He has an outstanding arm. He’ll probably pitch in the big leagues on talent alone. But he needs to get more pitch-ability.”
        Ni, a lefty who last pitched in the Chinese Professional Baseball League, was a longshot from the start, but showed some promise this spring. “He needs to improve his breaking ball,” the manager said.
        At least four of seven spots in the Tigers’ bullpen are set. Those belong to Brandon Lyon, Fernando Rodney, Bobby Seay and Zach Miner. Depending upon what the Tigers decide to do with Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis, that leaves veterans Juan Rincon and Scott Williamson, rookie Ryan Perry and lefties Clay Rapada and Kyle Bloom vying for the other three.
        Right now, I would give the edge to Rincon and Perry, with Robertson in the starting rotation.
        If Jeremy Bonderman isn’t ready to start the season, that job will probably go to Rick Porcello.
        “I think it’s going to be a very difficult last couple of weeks for me and Dave Dombrowski and the coaching staff,” Leyland said.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Porcello keeps his hopes alive

        Rick Porcello, still in the hunt for that fifth spot in the Tigers’ starting rotation, was asked Saturday, if he had a crystal ball and could look two weeks into the future, what he might see.
        “I don’t believe in magic,” the rookie replied.
        Good answer.
        “I think about it, obviously,” Porcello admitted. “I’m human. But whatever happens, happens. It’s out of my control.”
        The names were there on the lineup card for everyone to see at Steinbrenner Field on Saturday: Melky Cabrera, Johnny Damon, Mark Teixeira, Hideki Matsui --  except for Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada, the New York Yankees’ entire regular season array.
        The Tigers wanted to see what the 20-year-old Porcello would do on the big stage.
        Porcello, who hadn’t pitched since March 9 because of a cut underneath the nail on his right index finger that refused to heal,  lasted less than three innings, allowing two runs on four hits before he was replaced by Clay Rapada in the middle of the third of what turned out to be a 4-3 Tigers loss.
        After three starts, covering 6 1/3 innings, Porcello has a 4.26 ERA.
        “Just another team, another game,” Porcello insisted before the game.
        Afterwards, he admitted, “There’s an aura that follows the Yankees. At times, it’s a little more exciting when you’re facing a team like that. I thought about it a little bit. But once I got out there, all that other stuff kind of went away.”
        Saturday’s exhibition was Porcello’s biggest test yet this spring. And he clearly passed, even though Nate Robertson certainly appears to be the front-runner in the race for that fifth starting spot.
        “You find out a little more about guys when they have some adversity,” Leyland said. “I don’t think he (Porcello) had very much adversity in high school. And he did fine.”
        “I’ve got to do a better job of getting ahead of hitters and being consistent with my pitches,” Porcello said afterward.
        “But I’ve learned I can definitely compete here. I know what I have to work on to get better. I’ve learned a lot about myself. I have a lot of confidence.
        “I guess I’ve been throwing the ball well enough to stay here at this point. But I’m not going to get ahead of myself.”
        “He’s a pitcher in camp like everyone else, fighting for a spot,” Leyland said, fending off the New York reporters who came looking for some pithy sound bites on Porcello, who was born and raised in New Jersey and grew up a fan of the Mets and Jets.
        “Is he one of the best young players I’ve seen in a long time? Absolutely,” Leyland continued. “I think he’ll be a real impressive major league pitcher someday. We already know he’s a big league pitcher. It’s just a matter of when. We need to make a decision on whether he’s a big league pitcher right now.
        “But I’ve seen a lot of good young pitchers in my time. There have been a lot of good young players since Babe Ruth died. I haven’t seen the  Second Coming of the Lord.”

Leyland: Miner won't be Tigers' fifth starter

        Zach Miner reported to training camp last month eager to fight for the No. 5 spot in the Tigers’ starting rotation -- and believing, in his heart, that he deserved to be that guy.
        However, on Saturday Jim Leyland said he has told Miner that, in all likelihood, he will not be the Tigers’ fifth starter when the season begins.
        Miner took the news in stride.
        “I told him, it’s not positively 100 percent for sure, but it’s 99.9 percent, Zach Miner will not be the fifth starter,” Leyland declared before Saturday’s game, a 4-3 loss to the New York Yankees in which Miner threw three scoreless innings in relief to lower his spring ERA to 7.88.
        “I wanted to prepare him for it,” the Tigers manager explained. “If you know something, and you believe it, I believe that’s the time to say it.”
        “He talked, I just listened,” Miner said, forcing a weak smile.
        However, Miner admitted the news that he will not be starting was not as devastating a blow as he once believed it might be.
        “If I had been throwing great, it would probably have been harder to handle,” Miner continued. “I think I took it better than I would have earlier.
        “But I understood the situation. I have experience coming out of the bullpen. The other guys (Nate Robertson, Dontrelle Willis and Rick Porcello) don’t. I knew I would have to be really, really good this spring, and they would have to be really, really bad, in order for it happen. And that hasn’t been the case.”
        After six exhibition appearances, Miner has a 1-2 record with a 7.88 ERA. Robertson is 2-1 with a 3.27 ERA after four trips to the mound. Willis is 0-2 with a 12.46 ERA. Porcello, who also pitched Saturday, is 0-1 with a 4.26 ERA.

Leyland admits, "It's getting hairy."

        Jim Leyland admitted Saturday he is experiencing “a lot of anxiety right now,” as he lays in bed night after night, pondering the decisions that are still pending and the cuts to the team that still must be made.
        “It’s getting hairy,” said the Tigers’ manager, who skipped the team bus and stayed behind in Lakeland Saturday morning to watch Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis throw in the bullpen before driving to Tampa for a matinee against the Yankees.
        Big cuts are coming. Some major decisions remain.
        Who will be the Tigers’ fifth starter? Nate Robertson, Rick Porcello, or Dontrelle Willis?
        Who will be in the bullpen behind Brandon Lyon, Fernando Rodney and Bobby Seay? Right now, Juan Rincon is among the leading candidates.
        Will Jeff Larish or Ryan Raburn, or long shots Brent Clevlen or Timo Perez, win that final seat on the bench? That field has actually gotten more crowded.
        Right now, even Leyland doesn’t have the answers.
        What he does know is,  “We’re not where we need to be.”
        The number of decisions hanging over the Leyland’s head have not diminished. But the time he has left in which to make them has.
        Last week, Leyland told his team it is time for the guys who are on the bubble to put up or shut up. “The guys are really stepping it up, and I appreciate that,” he said.
        “We’ve still got time for decisions,” Leyland added. “But there isn’t time for guys not stepping up and showing something.”
        No doubt, some players will be hurt by the cuts. Some will be angry. Some will be shocked.
        “The thing we’ve got to do is to make sure (those decisions) are not 100 percent performance-based,” Leyland cautioned.
        Spring training games have a way of distorting the true picture. “You don’t put all our stock in spring training,” Leyland said. Other factors such as experience, past performance in the big leagues, contracts and options also have to be considered.
        “I think about it a lot,” Leyland admitted. “I guess you’d call that getting anxious.  It’s not health anxiety. It’s baseball anxiety. I guess you could call it good anxiety. I’m anxious to find out.
        “There are some nights when I wish I knew,” Leyland said. “Other nights, I think, ‘I’ll just keep throwing ‘em out there and we’ll see how it plays out.’
        “This is going to be tough,” he predicted.
        “I hope my decisions will be the toughest I’ve ever had to make,” Leyland added. “But I’ll be happy when it is all said and done

Friday, March 20, 2009

Robertson grabs lead in race for starting job

        Nate Robertson is in the fight of his life. His job with the Tigers, maybe even his big league future, are on the line. And he knows it.
        Those things were on the 31-year-old left hander’s mind Friday as he turned in a performance that Jim Leyland, the man who will ultimately pass judgment, called “the best Nate has looked” this spring.
        In the race for the fifth spot in the Tigers’ starting rotation, right now it is: Advantage Robertson.
        Earlier this week, Leyland warned those players who are on the bubble in the scramble to make the team that they “need to start competing.”
        Robertson got the message. On Friday, he pitched four shutout innings of two-hit ball as the Tigers downed the Washington Nationals, 5-2, in one of the best games the team has played this spring.
        And no one needed it more than Nate, one of last season’s leading goats.
        With two weeks to go in spring training, Robertson has moved ahead of struggling Dontrelle Willis,  rookie Rick Porcello, who realistically remains a longshot, and Zach Miner.
        Robertson is 2-1 this spring with a 3.27 ERA, even as he tries to reinvent himself as a pitcher. “There’s probably a little bit of transition,” he admitted.
        Earlier this week, pitching coach Rick Knapp told Robertson  he needs to “become more left handed.”
        That has Robertson thinking about becoming more like departed Tigers’ veteran Kenny Rogers -- relying on cunning and guile instead of simply trying to overpower hitters. In fact, Robertson spoke at length with Rogers about that very subject this week.
        “What got me here was throwing a lot of pitches inside, a lot of hard stuff,” Robertson explained . “I’m not sure I can’t still do that. But I think it’s time to rely on some other things. This game is a chess match. There’s a lot of scouting going on.
        “In spring training, my mind-set was always to out there and better myself,” Robertson recalled.
        “But that’s a luxury I can no longer afford. Now there’s not a whole lot of room for error. That’s not an ideal situation for anybody.
        “In the past, it was always written down,” he said.
        “Now, it’s ‘do or go.’ There’s nothing written down anywhere for me right now.
        “Here I am, fighting for a job,” Robertson added. “That’s a new dynamic for me.”
        In seasons past, Robertson routinely threw pitch after pitch in the low 90s. That was his bread and butter. He attacked hitters inside.
        Now such pitches are rare.
        “I’m learning what you do after you throw 1,000 pitches in the big leagues,” Robertson explained. “But in my mind, I know I can be successful at this level.
        “The plane flies out of here in less than two weeks, and there are no answers yet,” Robertson said.  “Everybody wants to know.
        “At least I know my luggage will go back to Detroit,” he added wryly. “Because that’s where my house is.”
        For one afternoon, anyway, Robertson could afford to smile.

Desperate Willis resurrects old windup

        Time is running out for Dontrelle Willis.
        “We’re at the point where we’re trying almost anything,” Jim Leyland admitted Friday.
        So, until further notice, the struggling $22 million left hander will revert to his trademark high leg kick that he and the Tigers have spent much of the past year trying to remove from Willis’ repertoire.
        “My back’s against the wall,” admitted Willis, who, in desperation, took it upon himself in the middle of his appearance against Atlanta on Thursday night to return to the wind-up that brought him success with the Florida Marlins in 2003-07.
        Rick Knapp, the Tigers’ new pitching coach, approved of the change.
        Willis has an 0-2 record with a 12.46 ERA after four games this spring. Obviously, his new subdued wind-up wasn’t working. “I’m sure he’s not satisfied with the results he’s been getting,” Leyland said.
        “Everybody can’t have a smooth, perfect delivery,” Leyland continued. “That’s just the way it is. When you start thinking like that, you become a robot.
        “You are what you are,” Leyland added. “You have to do what your brain tells you.”
        Willis will make his next appearance on Tuesday. The Tigers are off that day but Willis and Jeremy Bonderman will pitch in a morning “camp game” against minor league hitters.
        But don’t read anything into the fact that the two will be pitching across the road from Marchant Stadium in Tigertown. “That’s just the way it falls,” Leyland said.
        Bonderman, who threw two scoreless innings in his first exhibition start on Thursday night, is scheduled to throw between 45 and 50 pitches next time out.
        After that, Willis and Bonderman will each have a maximum of three more starts in which to prepare for the regular season.
        However, Bonderman isn’t the one Leyland is worried about.
        “If Bondo stays healthy, if there are no setbacks, he’ll be ready to pitch Opening Day, or the fifth game, or the second or the third or the fourth,” the Tigers’ manager said.
        But what does the future hold for Willis, who, because of his track record and his guaranteed salary, still has a shot at that fifth spot in the Tigers’ starting rotation?
        “I don’t have the answer to that,” Leyland admitted. “I wish I did.”

Thursday, March 19, 2009

WBC is nice, but at what price?

        I returned to Marchant Stadium on Thursday after a few weeks at home. And I was immediately struck, not by those players I saw, but rather by those who were missing.
        Empty lockers lined the far wall of the clubhouse where Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen usually dress. Curtis Granderson’s cubicle was vacant, too, as was the locker belonging to Armando Galarraga.
        Mail sat unopened, piled up on their chairs.
        Those are five key players without whom the Tigers will have little chance this season.
        By the middle of next week, all five will be back in camp, having completed their patriotic duties with Team Venezuela and Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. Good for them.                      
        But by then less than two weeks will remain before the regular season begins -- a season in which a fast start for the Tigers is imperative, both at the box office and for their own peace of mind.
        Jim Leyland likes to have his regulars together --  “bumping into each another,” he calls it -- leading up to Opening Day. “That’s always a good thing,” he said.
        That, Leyland believes, builds cohesiveness.
        But, because of the WBC, that time will be limited this spring.
        Leyland has watched some of the WBC games on TV, particularly those involving Venezuela and the U.S. “I can see by watching them, they need some work,” he said.
        Guillen, the Tigers’ new left fielder who needs to spend as much as possible at that position to prepare himself, has been used strictly as a DH by Venezuela in the WBC. In that regard, it has been a wasted spring. Guillen is batting .231.
        Cabrera is hitting .321, but Ordonez, who has been booed by his Venezuelan countrymen, is batting  a meager .208. Galarraga has pitched in just two games. Granderson is hitting .286 for the U.S.
        The WBC winds up this weekend, overshadowed in this country by the phenomenon known as March Madness.
        It remains to be seen how much the absence for most of this month of Cabrera, Ordonez, Guillen, Granderson and Galarraga  will hurt.
        But if the Tigers stumble coming out of the gate again this year, the WBC will  one of the reasons why.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pudge proves Tigers' point

        Those who questioned the Tigers' wisdom when they sent Pudge Rodriguez packing last July should see him now.
        Three weeks before the start of the 2009 season, Pudge still doesn't have a job.
        When Rodriguez last appeared in a Tigers' uniform, he was openly unhappy about sharing the catching duties with then heir-apparent Brandon Inge.        Pudge was convinced his best chance to showcase his skills would come playing for a contender.
        Rodriguez got his wish. The Tigers traded him to the Yankees, albeit for reliever Kyle Farnsworth.
        Now, although he still believes, at 37, he is still capable of catching every day, Pudge says he would sign with a team, any team, even if it is only for a backup role.
        There was talk last season that the Tigers might be willing to bring Pudge back for a sixth season in Detroit, provided he was winning to accept substantially less than the $13 million he was making -- possibly as little as one-third that amount.
        But I got the impression at the time, talking to Rodriguez, that he not only wanted more big money, he also wanted the security of another long-term term contact, one that would permit him to play until his preferred retirement age of 40.
        Now, clearly desperate,  Pudge is telling people at the World Baseball Classic that is willing to consider any offer.
        If none is forthcoming, Rodriguez's next appearance will be on the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Tigers' euphoria over ticket sales is disingenuous

        The Tigers proudly announced they sold 67,542 single-game tickets for the coming season when those tickets went on sale for the first time on Saturday. It was, they declared, their third-highest single-day offseason sale in the 10-year history of  Comerica Park.
        That is tantamount to bragging about owning the fastest Edsel on your block.
        The only two years in which the Tigers’ offseason first-day sales topped Saturday’s were in 2008 and 2007 -- which just happened to be the two winters following the team’s only two winning seasons since 1993.
        Last March, when hopes for the team were sky high, the Tigers sold 177,000 individual game tickets on the first day that they were offered. In ‘07, in the wake of the World Series, they sold 77,000.
        Come on, guys. Get real.
        The fact that they sold 67,542 Saturday -- in spite of last season’s debacle and the current economy -- was certainly surprising and encouraging.
        But it’s nothing to brag about, considering how bad the team has been for all but two of the past 15 years.
        By the way, tickets for the home opener, April 10, are sold out.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Tigers' $$$ deals not as dumb as some think

        From a web site called springtraining09.com  comes an offering that I believe falls under the heading, “Kick ‘em while they’re down.”
        A blogger named Tom Dierkes has compiled a list of what he considers to be the 45 worst contracts currently in effect in major league baseball.
        At the top, or should I say at the bottom, of the dumb deal heap are the Tigers, who, in Dierkes’ opinion, are saddled with, count ‘em, five supposed blunders.
        The Giants are second with four lousy contracts, followed by the Yankees (who else?), Mariners and Rangers with three each.
        While I applaud Dierkes’ effort, I believe he is off base on at least two of the Tigers’ contracts that he condemns.
        The Tigers’ Foolish Five, according to Dierkes, are:
        1.) Gary Sheffield’s two-year, $28 million extension, signed in November 2006 in order to secure Sheffield’s approval of the trade with the Yankees.
        2.) Jeremy Bonderman’s four-year, $38 million deal, signed in December of ‘06, when the Tigers were flying high in the wake of World Series and Bonderman was arbitration-bound.
        3.) Dontrelle Willis’ three-year, $29 million pact, inked in December of ‘07, after he was acquired from Marlins, but before he had thrown a single pinch in a Tigers’ uniform -- although, in Dave Dombrowski’s defense, Willis was eligible for binding arbitration at the time.
        4.) Also arbitration-eligible Nate Robertson’s three-year, $21.25 million deal, signed in January of ‘08.
        5.) Brandon Inge’s four-year, $24 million contract, signed in December of ‘06 when he, too, could have taken the Tigers to arbitration.
        I certainly won’t argue with Dierkes’ Bronx cheers for the Willis and Robertson contracts, which totaled $50 million and so far have resulted in just seven wins.
        However, Sheffield could still redeem himself, and that contract, if he closes out his career with a bang this summer.
        Bonderman’s name would not even be on the list, if he hadn’t undergone season-ending surgery last June. And you can hardly fault him, or the Tigers, for that.
        Finally, I don’t know what game Dierkes has been watching, but despite Inge’s declining offense, in today’s baseball, Brandon’s contract is a bargain.