February 2007

Let the games begin

Had a bad thunderstorm cell roll through a litlte while ago, but they’re planning on starting a little late once they dry out the field.

The lineup looks a lot like an everyday batting order except for Pudge out … 1. Granderson, 2. Polanco, 3. Sheffield (DH), 4. Guillen, 5. Ordonez, 6. Casey, 7. Monroe, 8. Inge, 9. Wilson. Leyland says not to make anything out of his order today, although he did say he thought the idea of protecting a hitter with a quality hitter behind him was overrated. Batting Guillen ahead of Ordonez is a twist off of last year, but again, it’s early.

Most of the regulars will get one at-bat today. The only regulars slated to head to Port St. Lucie tomorrow are Granderson and Casey.

Giarratano and other news

The rest of the Tigers pitchers threw live batting practice today, and everything went as expected. Mike Maroth said everything felt fine, mixing in some curveballs and cutters with mostly fastballs and changeups, and the eight-minute session went surprisingly quick to him because he didn’t feel tired at the end. His next step is expected to be a two-inning start in Thursday’s spring home opener against the Phillies, though the spring rotation hasn’t been announced yet. And unlike last year, Maroth won’t spend tonight worrying about how his elbow will feel tomorrow.

Among the others throwing was Joel Zumaya, who mixed in some curveballs with his usual fastballs. He lost grip on one of the curves and hit Kevin Hooper in his elbow, giving him a good bruise, but Hooper said he’ll be fine. As he said, thank goodness it wasn’t the fastball.

And now, the rest of the story:

  • The first major injury of camp has befallen shortstop Tony Giaratano, who will have surgery on his right shoulder on Thursday. No idea on how long he’ll be out — new guidelines from Major League Baseball as a result of recent federal law restrict how much clubs can say about a player’s injury — but they’ll likely know more after the surgery. Short term, it doesn’t affect the Tigers too much, since they obviously have plenty of infielders at the big-league level. But depending on what happens with Carlos Guillen’s contract talks, if this is a long-term injury, it means there could be one less potential replacement for him next season should Guillen somehow end up going elsewhere as a free agent. Besides, from a human standpoint, it’s the last thing you want to see for Giarratano, who spend the offseason working his way back from knee surgery so he could be ready for camp. He’s a good kid, and it’s hard to believe it’s been almost two years since he made it to the Majors as an injury fill-in for Guillen.
  • Better news on Craig Dingman, who’s expected to resume full activity in a week after he was diagnosed with right shoulder fatigue rather than any structural damage. He’s been throwing quite a bit since coming down to Lakeland just after the new year.
  • Leyland cautioned again not to assume the last spot in the bullpen will go to a left-hander, though he indicated a second lefty reliever would be better for the staff. Club officials spent some time this morning watching Felix Heredia’s session, which seemed to go smoothly.
  • Leyland also backed up what was already assumed, that Edward Campusano will have to be able to get some big outs if he’s going to make the team. Leyland’s philosophy on Rule 5 draft picks is that he’d rather not try to slip them through a season if it places an undue burden on the rest of the pitching staff, unless the draft pick shows special talent.
  • Picture postcard day in Lakeland today, mostly sunny and in the 70s, which I know is probably the last thing you want to hear if you’re in the Midwest dealing with ice right now. If you’re coming down here anytime in the next couple weeks, though, hopefully it gives you another reason to count down the days, because the forecast looks much the same for a while. Actually, the sky is clouding up as I’m finishing writing this, so maybe this is karma.

I’m off tomorrow, so I’ll check back in for the Tigers against Florida Southern on Tuesday.

Friday

The doldrums of early Spring Training are starting to set in. A few days after pitchers and catchers started working out, you were looking forward to having the full squad in camp. Now that full-squad workouts are in full swing, Leyland is letting pitchers take batting practice to break up the pattern of bullpen sessions and fielding drills. The next step is to have hitters face pitchers, which will be coming up and give a better reading on how pitchers look. Then everyone will look forward to games next week. A few weeks after that (sooner for others), fans and players start looking forward to opening day.

It’s a progression in stages, and it’s starting. But whenever the doldrums start to set in, you also remind yourself that it’s much more boring with nothing going on in early January.

As far as news and not-news on Friday:

  • Again, it’s just batting practice, but Brandon Inge and others were putting on shows on the practice fields. Jim Leyland spent a good amount of time again watching Cameron Maybin at the plate. He’s definitely impressed, though he still has no chance of making the jump to Detroit when this team breaks camp.
  • Leyland continues to caution not to expect great things out of Marcus Thames at first base. If he had that much potential there, as Leyland said, he would’ve done it before. Still, he’s comfortable enough that he doesn’t expect to use Ivan Rodriguez or Carlos Guillen at first. Thames continues to work out with the outfielders and first basemen, and Leon Durham joined in on giving him tips at first base. Durham is the hitting coach at Triple-A Toledo and a favorite hitting instructor for many who have come up through the Tigers system, but he also made the jump from the outfield to first base with the 1984 Cubs.
  • A month after Leyland’s comments on Neifi Perez, Leyland said Friday he thinks Perez struggled a bit from a loss of playing time. Perez, for his part, agreed with Leyland’s assessment that he didn’t get the job done last year. Perez obviously thinks he can play a lot better, and if he does, he’ll probably get the second utility job. Leyland called him a player he has to "get ready," as in get ready for the season.
  • Yes, as the photos suggest, Ramon Santiago is looking stronger. He said he did some extra training work this offseason and he tried to put on a little weight to prepare for how much he lost over the course of last season.

That Sheffield swing

Just about every player’s swing is distinctive, but there are a few around baseball that you really remember, that stand out in your mind both for how they look and how they produce. Gary Sheffield has one of those swings. Really, between that bat waggle and the sudden speed with which he turns on pitches, he might have THE distinctive swing.

Sheffield’s batting practice wasn’t one of those home-run derby performances you would think, because there’s a purpose to his hitting work. But to watch his swing up close on a practice field is a sight. You know his swing isn’t going to be the same on the first day of full-squad workouts as it will be come the regular season, but you can still see what’s different about it, and you can tell his wrist injury from last year hasn’t changed that. And when he unleashes that swing on a ball and pulls it over the left-field fence, you know why he can send a ball that far.

Other items from Wednesday:

  • Leyland enjoyed watching Sheffield, but he was raving about Curtis Granderson, who was spraying the field with line drives. Granderson said he’s trying to eliminate unnecessary motion from his swing and gain some quickness. He’s still a little closer to the plate, but it’s not as big of an emphasis as before.
  • Wonder why we keep saying Sean Casey is such a good character guy? He saw Marcus Thames trying to take ground balls at first base with a stiff new glove, and he gave Thames one of his backup gloves so that he’d have something worn-in to use.
  • Every player has reported to camp. The only notable absence Wednesday was Tony Giarratano, who Leyland said was having his shoulder checked out.

Tigers on Dmitri

Dmitri Young’s comments that he was disappointed in the Tigers releasing him did not sit well with manager Jim Leyland.

"I like Dmitri Young very much. In my opinion,
and Dmitri or anybody else can hold me totally responsible, Dmitri Young was
not an asset to our ballclub on the field last year, and he also needed to take
care of some very important issues for the welfare of Dmitri Young. And you can
hold me totally responsible for the dismissal of Dmitri Young. Don’t put it on
the organization. Don’t put it on anybody else. I did not feel that Dmitri’s
performance on the field was an asset to this organization, and it broke my
heart. We wanted a left-handed hitter all year.

"Dmitri Young was a guy that I
was counting on. The part that upsets me is this guy missed a lot of the season
taking care of a problem that he created, not that the Tigers created. So [his
comments are] very disappointing to me. But don’t put it on Dave [Dombrowski]. Don’t
put it on the organization. Put it on Jim Leyland. And to this day, I hope that
Dmitri Young has got his life intact because he’s a good guy, and I like him
very much. But he had some issues that needed to be taken care of, and it was
best for Dmitri Young, if you want to know the truth."

On the issues behind releasing him: "It really wasn’t an issue. I just felt like,
‘You know what? It’s just not working.’ I’m not looking to have a bone to pick
with anybody, but I think — and I was only here one year — knowing what went
on last year, for Dmitri to criticize the organization for lack of support, I think
it’s totally out of line. And I’ll leave it that."

"I really like him. But if you want to know the truth,
it appears that Dmitri feels the organization disappointed him. And I’m sorry
he feels that way, but I feel like Dmitri disappointed us. It’s a non-issue.
He’s got a new lease on life and he’s on another club now and I wish him the
best. And I mean that sincerely. The fact of the matter is that if Dmitri Young
was the Dmitri Young we knew that could hit like Dmitri Young could, he was the
left-handed hitter we needed. It didn’t turn out that way."

From president/GM Dave Dombrowski: "I always have liked Dmitri and continue to do so.
I feel for him, because he went through a tough situation. But I couldn’t disagree
with him more. I think the organization was behind him strongly. We helped him
a great deal. And because of the personal nature of it, I can’t get into all of
that. I know myself, because I was personally involved with a lot of that, we were
very patient with him and gave him an opportunity. And unfortunately for him,
he didn’t perform, and that’s why we gave him his release. But also I think at
that point, it was probably the best thing for him from a personal perspective,
because he was struggling through a lot of things."

Dmitri explained

Dmitri Young basically came clean on his year from **** today in an interview with a few outlets, including MLB.com. From the standpoint of someone who watched him most every day when he was around the team, the fact that he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes explains a lot, especially the mood swings. Talked with a couple of Dmitri’s friends on the team, and Sean Casey said he didn’t know about it until a reporter told him today. Craig Monroe had apparently found out at some point this offseason.

As for another reason for his release besides what we’ve written all along, that he was a clubhouse distraction, read down in Bill Ladson’s article towards the end:

Young, however, believes the Tigers should not have given him is
unconditional release last September. He said he was solid citizen
prior to 2006 and that the Tigers should have stood by him. But even if
the Tigers kept him, Young most likely would not have been involved in
the postseason because a Michigan court told him to stay in Detroit for
30 days
and take a breathalyzer test. He called that situation the
lowest point in his life.

Personally, I’m glad Dmitri got a second chance — not just in baseball but in life. I have no idea where it goes from here, especially with a National League club, but if anyone could use some better karma in his life, it’s this guy.

Still a little cold outside

The weather finally got the best of the Tigers on Sunday. It wasn’t the cold (the temperatures were actually a little warmer than Saturday) so much as the combination of cold and wind that forced them to throw inside the cages. Jordan Tata said he was tossing the ball with Virgil Vasquez outside in the wind and had trouble getting the ball to him. "I think the wind’s more dangerous than the cold, to be honest with you," Leyland said.

Of course, cold is relative, and by no means are the Tigers trying to relate this to Detroit’s winter weather. But this early in camp, the last thing they want is for somebody to tweak a muscle trying to run after standing around for a while. So they’re playing it safe.

Leyland was hoping to do some situational drills on the field Sunday, but he’ll have to push that back. The warm-up weatherwise supposedly begins Monday.

Other notes from a relatively slow Sunday:

  • Carlos Guillen said he won’t worry about negotiations on a new contract if they drag on into the season. Not surprisingly, he said Detroit is his first choice, but he’s also realistic about the business. "I don’t worry," he said, "because I knew where I started, in Houston (before trades to Seattle and Detroit). You know where you start, but you don’t know where you finish."
  • Interesting observations from Leyland on Omar Infante, who will be getting some outfield work this spring. It took him a while to figure Infante out, he said in the morning, but he likes him a lot. Asked later if he could see Infante as an everyday shortstop next year if the Tigers lose Guillen, Leyland said, "I would say that’s stretching it. I don’t know that, because I haven’t seen him enough. But right now, I would say that would be stretching it."
  • Marcus Thames is in town and is expected to start working right away at first base. Thames told Leyland that he’s been getting the hang of it while working out over the offseason.
  • Leyland said he’ll definitely take 12 pitchers out of camp this spring, leaving 13 spots for position players.
  • Brandon Inge came into camp on Sunday, no longer having to worry about work as an extra catcher, and Leyland said he sees room for Inge to improve on both sides. Defensively, he sounded like somebody who wants his third baseman to try fewer highlight plays. "He’s such a gifted athlete," Leyland said, "but sometimes there’s not a miracle play to be made."

For those who emailed me about Sleeth

"If he’s healthy, he’s a top prospect, there’s no question about that." – Jim Leyland on Kyle Sleeth

Considering Kyle Sleeth just about dropped off the prospect map over the last two years, that’s very high praise. He dropped from 20th to 30th on the Baseball America list of Tigers prospects this winter, behind Burke Badenhop and Preston Larrison among others. But he sounded very positive this week about how he’s feeling, and if he can carry over these bullpen sessions into games, he might yet have a chance to reach the big leagues.

Sleeth is a good example about the value of stockpiling pitching prospects. Leyland talked Saturday about how you can never have enough pitching, both because it gives you insurance for injuries or to replace veteran starters when their price rises too high, and because it gives you pieces to trade to fill other needs. I’ve always looked at it as playing the odds. As many pitching prospects as a team can have, only some of them are going to pan out in the big leagues. Some will get injured, some won’t be able to make the jump at some point, and some just won’t fit in even if they get to the Majors.

The more prospects you have, the more the odds turn in your favor. If someone doesn’t make it, someone else will. There’s still a long way to go before anyone can determine if Sleeth will make it that far, either as a starter or a reliever. But if he can get back on track after this long recovery, he’ll have gotten further than other Tigers first-round picks.

Other notes from Saturday:

  • Though Leyland said both Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney could eventually become closers, he hopes they don’t have to do it this year, because he Todd Jones to be an effective in that role.
  • While Leyland was impressed with a lot of young arms throwing Saturday, he had particular praise for Andrew Miller. "This guy’s a blue-chipper, there’s no question about that," he said. "It’s not going to be long for him, I don’t think." Look for Miller to be one of the pitchers who comes in to pitch in spring games right after the starter goes out, at least until he’s sent down.
  • Other than Roman Colon’s neck, the only injury in camp is a sprained ankle for Virgil Vasquez, and it’s not prevented him from taking part in workouts.
  • If you read the notebook on the site today, Leyland’s statement about how important the farm system has become is very interesting. It’s a very realistic sign about how teams have to look at pitching nowadays with the free-agent market values so high. If they can’t sign somebody, they can move one of their young arms in there. Leyland didn’t go into names, but the Tigers will eventually have a decision to make on Kenny Rogers, whose contract ends after this season and who would very much like to return for 2008. If Miller is ready, that decision becomes very interesting. Mike Maroth’s contract is also up next winter, but the Tigers can keep him for another year by offering him arbitration.

Pitchers fielding practice

The Tigers today completed what might rank among the most watched sessions of PFP in modern big-league history — certainly most watched by the media. Manager Jim Leyland said he indeed considered not having it on the first day as he had threatened, but changed his mind when pitching coach Chuck Hernandez suggested that delaying it would add to the attention. This way, they got it out of the way early, dispensed with some of the attention, and they can go about their business with less of a crowd starting Saturday. Plus it helps them not think about last year from here on out, as Leyland wants them to do.

The players for the most part weren’t wrapped up in the attention, though they were wrapped up in long sleeves with temperatures in the upper 40s. They were taking it with good humor, including Joel Zumaya, who didn’t have to worry about whether to throw to first or third.

So how was PFP? It was pretty routine. Guys line up at each base and a coach hits ground balls or hoppers to them. Some guys fielded them cleanly. Some guys saw a ground ball or two go through their legs. Some guys (Kenny Rogers) make a diving lunge to their left to catch a line drive. But it wasn’t an ordeal. As Leyland said afterwards, his players had no trouble fielding ground balls during the World Series; it was throwing the ball that was the problem.

Reporting day

A little cool spell settled in here in Lakeland on Thursday, but of course it’s all relative. As I’d meant to post on Thursday, if ever Detroit needed a reminder that spring is around the corner, it’s now. Same with a lot of cities on the East Coast.

I know there’s a lot of excitement around pitchers and catchers reporting to camp, but like the weather, reporting day is kind of relative. It was a very laid-back atmosphere in the clubhouse today, in part because many guys have been in town working out for a while. The first team workouts are different, because you’re getting everybody on the same field.

What stuck out to me today was a comment Mike Maroth made, that he pitched well when he wasn’t feeling his best because of the elbow. He wasn’t trying to do too much with the stuff he had, and he wasn’t overthrowing. That’s how he explained why he could pitch so well for a month and a half while bone chips were floating in his elbow and leaving him no idea how he’d feel from one start to the next.

That’s basically Maroth in a nutshell. He’s not cocky, but he’s not really a guy who gets into stretches with no confidence. He plugs along with the stuff he has, and there’s a value for that on a pitching staff. As Kyle Sleeth explained earlier in what he learned from the last two years, there’s a lesson to be learned by pitching well without your best stuff.

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