February 21st, 2009

Scary diagnosis for ex-Tiger

Those of you who remember Jason Johnson’s two seasons in Detroit know about his dealings with diabetes. Now he has another serious health concern — melanoma of the right retina. It apparently was discovered during a routine eye exam when he went to the optometrist for a new contact lens prescription because his vision was blurred in his right eye.

From the MLB.com story:

Johnson was sent to the renowned Wills Eye Institute in
Philadelphia, where a certain amount of fear began to set in. His first
meeting with the staff featured a particularly memorable exchange with
a doctor.

“There are three things we do here — the first thing is to save your life,” she said.

Johnson gulped, thinking. Johnson said he thought, “I’m worried
about making a baseball team this year, and now I’m worried about my

The next two things they would do at Wills, she told him, were
to save Johnson’s eye and his vision, in that order. Another doctor
asked Johnson how financially stable he was, and Johnson felt shock —
was his baseball career over?

“What are you talking about?” Johnson recalls thinking. “That’s kind of a bad thing to start off with.”

Johnson was a non-roster invitee in Yankees camp trying to win a bullpen job. Now he has much bigger concerns. Needless to say, here’s hoping everything turns out as well as can be expected for Jason. The story goes on to say there’s a 98 percent recovery rate for people with his condition. But I thinks it also brings home the importance of scheduled eye exams. You just never think about something like cancer involving your eyes.

Good session for Dontrelle

Say what you want about pitchers being ahead of hitters at this point in camp, but the fact that Dontrelle Willis was pounding the strike zone means something. After his turn in live batting practice this morning, both Jim Leyland and Brandon Inge (who batted against him) said it’s the best they’ve seen from him since he joined the Tigers.

Willis’ delivery looked very controlled, more subdued, and his overall results were pretty consistent.

“What I wanted to do was throw everything in the zone and make them hit the ball,” Willis said.

For the most part, they didn’t hit it, which is expected at this point. But he didn’t have to do anything special to get it there.

“I’m sure Dontrelle walked off there today feeling pretty good about himself,” manager Jim Leyland said. “And he should.”

Ryan Perry also threw on Saturday. Not surprisingly, his velocity his impressive, while he seemed to be trying to get a firm grip on his command.

Willis and Perry were part of the third and final group of pitchers to throw their sessions. Every pitcher will get one more round of live BP, starting with Justin Verlander, Brandon Lyon, Zach Miner and others on Sunday. The difference Sunday is that Leyland will hold out most of his regulars, who will instead hit regular BP in the stadium. Leyland said he wants to do that to give them a day away from having to stand in against those guys.

In case you’re wondering about the rotation once games start, Sunday’s group of pitchers will be up to pitch in Wednesday’s Spring Training opener against the Braves. That will presumably include Verlander and Lyon.

Opening Day start vs. home opener start

The logical order to the rotation would have the top starter going on Opening Day, part of a four-game series at Toronto to begin the regular season. The fifth starter then would end up pitching the home opener April 10 against the Rangers, right?

“Not necessarily,” Jim Leyland answered.

He didn’t want to go into details, but it’s a unique scenario. It’s one thing to have a series on the road before starting at home, but another matter to open with a four-game series. And there’s certainly an ackowledgement that the home opener is huge in Detroit no matter when it falls, and it brings the type of energy level that isn’t simple for a pitcher to handle.

Justin Verlander would seemingly be the logical choice to open the season, despite the struggles last year. However, Jeremy Bonderman has started Opening Day twice (2005 and 2007). Armando Galarraga could also raise a case on the merits of leading the Tigers in wins last year.

However it turns out, the point is that it won’t necessarily be the winner of the Dontrelle Willis/Nate Robertson/Zach Miner/Rick Porcello competition who earns the home opener nod. But I would also expect the Tigers to send a front-line starter out against Roy Halladay April 6.

Everett will hit ninth

Jim Leyland pretty much confirmed that thought process Saturday morning. He has shown a talent for sacrifice bunts in the past, 22 of them in 2004 alone with the Astros, but I don’t think that’ll factor big into the Tigers’ plans. Brandon Inge will hit eighth.

Porcello still humble

If an eye-opening session of live batting practice Friday was supposed
to inflate Rick Porcello’s ego, it doesn’t seem to have had that
effect. He was flattered by the praise he was getting from teammates,
including Miguel Cabrera, but he definitely knows it was live batting
practice and not a game situation.

“It was pretty cool just to face him, even in live BP,” Porcello said Saturday morning.

It’ll be interesting to see how player opinions build on Porcello this spring. It’s always the manager’s decision, but the players often create the buzz, since they’re the ones chatting more often and more informally with reporters. Many Tigers have said they were impressed with Porcello from Friday. Some agreed with the comparison to Jeremy Bonderman from 2003, but not in terms of stuff. It’s more about mentality.

Jim Leyland said Saturday morning that a team can protect a pitcher on its staff, maybe a starter and/or a reliever, but that’s about it. There’s definitely the sense that the Tigers could take Porcello at age 20 if they felt he was ready, but that has yet to determined.