February 2010

Inge ahead of schedule (surprise)

Nobody can really be surprised that Brandon Inge is trying to beat the timetable that would have him and his surgically repaired knees playing in Spring Training games by mid-March. He’s just that kind of athlete, and he gets that bored sitting around.

What might be surprising, though, are the reports that he’s hitting well. The bad habits he developed at the plate down the stretch last year to compensate for his knees were relatively easy to shake, Inge said, because they all involved his lower body rather than his hands.

He might get a chance to practice that hitting sooner than his fielding. Manager Jim Leyland said there’s a chance Inge could get some games at DH before he plays at third base.

“He has that foundation and everything. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue,” Leyland said of any bad habits in Inge’s hitting mechanics.

Inge agreed. He said he fought off an inside pitch that would’ve troubled him late last year, and he knew then that his lower body strength was back.

Leyland is already dreading the question over how many games Inge will play once the regular season arrives. His knees beg the debate over how often to rest him, but as Leyland readily points out, Inge wants to play every game.

“I can tell you he’s not going to play every game,” Leyland said, “but he goes bananas when he doesn’t play.”

More from today:

  • Interesting that Leyland says they have three starters set, rather than four, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the fourth spot is up for grabs. If Jeremy Bonderman remains healthy and has even a decent spring, that slot is his. Of all the high-contract, low-production starters, he’s in a little different position than Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis.
  • Rain forced the Tigers to work out indoors Saturday morning. That meant no live BP, with hitters swinging in the cages instead. Pitchers still got in their scheduled throwing work.
  • Leyland said he’s still debating what kind of lineup to trot out against Florida Southern in their annual exhibition next Tuesday. He usually has started his regulars and gotten them an at-bat before taking them out. But don’t expect Leyland to hold out Scott Sizemore for injury reasons. If he can’t play against Florida Southern, Leyland said, then he can’t play against Toronto the next day.
  • Jose Valverde will out of camp for a few days due to a death in his family.
  • Leyland said Justin Verlander has not paid up from their friendly PFP competition. “Nah, I’ll let him off the hook,” Leyland said. “He’s hurting a little bit for money now.”

Eyes on Granderson, or Granderson on eyes

Plenty has been speculated about why Curtis Granderson had certain struggles so much against lefties and got a late read on some fly balls. Some questioned his commitment to baseball, of all things. Others have questioned the coaching.

What hadn’t popped up was his eyessight, at least until recently. But Mark Feinsand of the NY Daily News has the story: Granderson is wearing contacts after being diagnosed with 20/30 vision.

When the trade was awaiting review of medical records, it was reported that one holdup was an eye exam the Yankees requested for Granderson, though he didn’t undergo one leading up to the trade. Once the trade was completed, though, the Yankees had him take another eye exam.

Granderson isn’t blaming eyesight for anything. It isn’t that 20/30 is necessarily bad eyesight. For a professional baseball player trying to recognize pitches coming out of a pitcher’s hand, or immediately read how well or how poorly a ball was hit off the bat, as Granderson struggled to do at times, it’s easy to see how even a little problem makes a huge difference.

For what it’s worth, the Tigers have players undergo eye exams each season around the start along with their physicals.

UPDATE: Leyland was asked about this on Friday morning. His answer was similar to the paragraph above.

“We had him all checked out, like we do all our guys,” Leyland said. He had a thorough eye examination and everything. I mean, he hit 30 home runs.”

Zumaya might well be back

Full disclosure: It’s spring training, not even in spring games. Zumaya didn’t even have a batter in the box against him until this morning. And because he started throwing bullpen sessions last month, he’s ahead of pretty much everybody else.

Now that we have that out of the way, I can say that Zumaya’s throwing is raising eyebrows among coaches and officials. His fastball looks like the fastball of old, with movement. And he’s mixing in his breaking ball well.

How good does he look? Jim Leyland, who warns against getting excited about bullpen sessions, is getting excited.

“I’m holding my breath,” Leyland said, “because that stuff is nasty.”

Because heavy rain this morning waterlogged the back fields, pitchers threw to hitters on the stadium field today. Zumaya’s session drew a small crowd of fans and a number of players. Jose Valverde watched from behind the cage alongside Leyland and Dave Dombrowski. Justin Verlander watched from the side. Daniel Schlereth and his dad, Mark, watched from outside the dugout.

“The ball’s just flying out of his hand,” Leyland said earlier.

The results looked impressive. Zumaya threw a good number of breaking balls, and he seemed to be hitting his spots with it.

Seay not throwing quite yet

Reports that Bobby Seay was only going to miss three days of throwing were probably a bit optimistic. His arm is feeling pretty good today, but he hasn’t even started playing catch yet. He took a cortisone shot in his arm a few days ago, but he couldn’t have thrown.

The bursitis is located more around his biceps than his shoulder, which is good news. But at its worst, he could feel it right down to his bones. After trying to throw through it for the past several weeks, he’s going to have to get it cleared up.

Dontrelle: I'm no recruiter

Dontrelle Willis is no Lane Kiffin. Or John Calipari. Or whichever college coach you want to use as an example.

Point is, though Johnny Damon mentioned calling his friend Willis for his take on the Tigers and how Damon would received, right before Damon agreed to terms on his one-year contract, Willis isn’t taking credit, especially since Damon called him, not the other way around.

“I don’t recruit,” Willis said. “We’re just good friends. Our wives are good friends. He just asked me how the organization was. I just gave him my honest opinion, especially in my situation, where I haven’t played well for the organization. I still spoke highly about the guys in the clubhouse, guys in the training room, the coaching staff and the front office, because that’s how I really feel. That was just friend to friend.

“I’m sure it was a hard decision for him. He had so many teams bidding for him, and I wished him all the best, regardless of what he did. I guess my words spoke volumes for him. He called me back within an hour and said he’d see me this spring. I really appreciate that he took my words to heart, because they were heartfelt. I was just being totally honest about everybody. … It wasn’t really the conversation that everybody thought it was.”

Still, he has given opinions about organizations before, including when he was with the Marlins.

“As goofy as I am, I do have an attention to detail,” he said. “I’ve always been somebody who tries to pay attention as best as I can and watch my surroundings, and I have a good idea of personalities.”

Said Willis: “I told Johnny, ‘I haven’t been playing well, and they still treat me with a lot of respect, from top to bottom.'”

Leyland raving about prospects

What began as a drizzly morning here in Lakeland ended up a sun-soaked and warm afternoon, probably the first real sunscreen type of day since spring training began. Very good day for the Tigers to have their first full-squad workout, and manager Jim Leyland’s mood reflected it.

After one full-squad workout — and probably more important, one day of batting practice — Leyland was raving about the prospects the Tigers have coming up in the system.
“I can tell, we’ve got a lot of talent in this camp, down low [in the system] and up high. I mean, it was an eye-opener out there today.”

  • “There’s a lot of prospects, probably the most prospects I’ve ever had in a camp.”

  • “I can assure you that these guys will be in Detroit someday, a lot of them. I don’t know where I’ll be [at that time], but they will be.”

  • “There’s guys hitting balls over trees, way over trees. … When you have veterans doing double-takes to watch a kid hit, that’s usually a pretty good measuring stick.”

Leyland didn’t want to mention prospects by name when he was talking about this, but one can surmise that he was talking about, Ryan Strieby, Brennan Boesch and Casper Wells, among others. Wells reported to camp in noticeably strong shape after spending most of the winter working out with Strieby in Arizona at the API training facility. He almost looks like he’s got a linebacker’s build playing outfield.

What does this mean for Detroit? For now, probably nothing. Unless Wells makes a run and takes the CF job from Austin Jackson in camp, most of the hitting talent will be opening in Toledo, which has the chance for a really nice offense if you add in a healthy Jeff Larish and maybe Alex Avila. But keep it in mind as the summer unwinds and the Tigers get closer to next offseason, when Dombrowski suggested the Tigers will make more “adjustments.”

Anyway, on to some notes …

  • Speaking of youngsters, Scott Sizemore did everything that every other infielder did on the first formal workout for position players. He’s still coming along with the ankle, but it isn’t limiting what he can do. No definitive word yet over whether he’ll be able to start at second when games begin in a week, but it’s looking upbeat. “He needs to get at-bats,” Leyland said. “He needs to play second base this spring a lot.”
  • The Tigers designated Casey Fien for assignment to make room for Johnny Damon on the 40-man roster, but Fien isn’t leaving camp just yet. He’s just going across the street. Though he’s technically in limbo until he’s either claimed on waivers, traded or outrighted, he can work out at the Tigers’ minor league facility across the street. The team has invited and encouraged him to do so.
  • In addition to talking with Carlos Guillen about his role, Leyland said he talked with Johnny Damon about his situation and whether he feels more comfortable batting leadoff or hitting second. Damon said he’s fine either way, but that they involve two different approaches. He doesn’t hit for as high of an average or reach base to the same percentage hitting second compared to leadoff, but he can do some other things in his game.
  • Leyland didn’t really want to talk about Ryan Raburn’s situation this morning after just discussing Guillen, but he said in the afternoon that Raburn will work out in the infield as well as the outfield now that full-squad workouts are underway. That’s a change from the offseason, when Leyland said he wanted Raburn to focus on being an outfielder. Raburn and Don Kelly are probably going to see work at basically every position but shortstop, catcher and pitcher this spring.
  • Strieby, by the way, is going to see time at both 1B and OF this spring. He’ll most likely be an outfielder in Toledo as he tries to make the transition away from Miguel Cabrera’s position and into a spot where he could actually see some playing time in Detroit.

D-Train plays recruiter for Damon

On one hand, if you believe Johnny Damon’s statements that Detroit is where he wanted to play all along once he knew he wasn’t heading back to the Yankees, then he shouldn’t have needed much recruiting from Dontrelle Willis. On the other hand, he did call Dontrelle Willis.

Yes, Dontrelle Willis became a recruiter for Damon, even if he didn’t intend to be.

Willis and Damon know each other from Team USA at the 2006 World Baseball Classic. He wasn’t the only player Damon knew on the Tigers; he knows Phil Coke from the Yankees last year, but Coke didn’t have his phone number.

So he called Willis. Damon wanted to ask someone on the club how players and fans would react to his arrival.

“After I got off the phone with him, I was like, ‘This is going to work,'” Damon said. “And we’re expecting bigger things from him. He’s obviously going to battle to get back to form. And even he said, ‘This is a great place to play, you’re going to enjoy it.’ Said all the right things to me, and I was like, ‘Wow.’

“Scott [Boras] called me about two minutes after that and asked if we were good to go. And I said, ‘Absolutely.'”

Leyland the recruiter? Well, sort of

The White Sox had A.J. Pierzynski and Hawk Harrelson to give their pitch to Johnny Damon on the golf course. The Tigers had manager Jim Leyland … sort of.

It wasn’t a recruiting pitch on the phone, but it was Leyland who had what was believed to be the one bit of direct contact between Damon and the Tigers. It was 15-minute phone call late last week at the suggestion of Dave Dombrowski and Scott Boras, and it was a simple conversation about how Leyland saw Damon fitting on the club.

“I don’t think in any way, shape or form I had a factor in his decision,” Leyland said Monday morning. “But we had a very honest conversation.”

At the end of the conversation, Leyland said he told Damon that he had to do what’s best for him. That ended up being the Tigers, but Leyland isn’t going anywhere near the credit for the signing.

“I ‘d have to say that Mr. Ilitch was quite a bit more influential to Johnny Damon than Jim Leyland was,” Leyland said.

Reactions around baseball to Damon deal

The Tigers haven’t officially announced their one-year contract with Johnny Damon yet, but others around baseball have their first impressions nonetheless, including within the Tigers clubhouse.

We already knew Phil Coke and Austin Jackson thought a lot of Damon, their former teammate in New York and new teammate in Detroit. But so is Magglio Ordonez, who has never played on the same team as Damon but will probably hit behind him.

“It’s huge for this team,” Ordonez said. “We need him batting first or second. Right now we don’t have a leadoff hitter. I think he’s going to be a big help.”

Ordonez is probably going to like anybody who can get on base and move runners in front of him. Though he batted .291 with runners in scoring position last year, he drove in just 50 runs, He had fewer runners in scoring position during his at-bats than the average Major League player, according to baseball-reference.com. It’s the first time that has happened to him since 2006.

More reactions from outside the Tigers clubhouse, courtesy of MLB.com reporters Bryan Hoch, Dick Kaegel and Scott Merkin:

Yankees manager Joe Girardi: “I’m happy for him that he found out where he’s going to go. For players, that’s an anxious time, trying to figure out where you’re going to be. Usually it doesn’t go on this long. I wish Johnny luck. Johnny was good for us here. We all miss Johnny. This is the hard part of the game. I’ll root for Johnny, except when he’s playing against us.”

Royals manager Trey Hillman: “Arguably he had one of his best years ever last year. Some people are going to argue that it was the ballpark (new Yankee Stadium) that he was playing in (or) his comfort level and the support cast that was around him playing for the Yankees. Even with Johnny being a veteran at the age he’s at, I wouldn’t discount anything that he brings to that team in a bigger ballpark.  He’s a guy that’s been making adjustments his whole career. He’s needs to flatten that swing out a little bit and hit more line drives instead of those fly balls over that short porch in Yankee Stadium. He’ll make the adjustment. That’s the way we’ll approach him – another dangerous tool for Jim Leyland in that lineup.”

White Sox pitcher Jake Peavy: “I wanted him on my team. Johnny Damon is a winner. Johnny
going to Detroit makes Detroit quite a bit better. It probably takes an
inexperienced guy out of their lineup in front of [Miguel] Cabrera,
[Magglio] Ordonez and [Carlos] Guillen.”

White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski: “I look at it as a positive that we got as close as we could to
getting Damon. Knowing him and knowing that he would
not want to leave Florida for Spring Training, to get him to entertain
the idea was a huge step. So, we did everything we could and in our power to get him here. Family
won out. He has four young kids and he didn’t want to uproot and move
them. We like what we have as a club. We added a lot of pieces.”

Sunday roundup

Lots of stuff today, so I’ll round it up for the moment:

  • Leyland wasn’t commenting on Johnny Damon, but he did comment on how Carlos Guillen could be affected. To that, he said it will not be an issue: “Carlos Guillen will hit fifth for the Tigers this year. And he’ll get all the at-bats he wants, trust me. So you can nip that in the bud. I’m not going to get into details right now about anything else. But Carlos Guillen, I can assure you — and I hope I see it in headlines — he will be a major factor in our success this year, and he will get all the at-bats that he wants. For us to be good, he has to be good.”
  • Tigers confirmed that Kenny Rogers will join the club as an instructor March 2-5, and possibility for another short stint later in the month. Expect Kenny to do some fielding and pickoff instruction while he’s here. “He’s going to work,” Leyland said. “I have the utmost respect for Kenny, and Kenny made it perfectly clear he’s not coming over to say hello to Bondo and Nate.”
  • Bobby Seay has been shut down for a few days with bursitis and tendinitis in his throwing shoulder, which might explain why his first bullpen session the other day felt so foreign to him.
  • With Seay out, Andy Oliver has been added to the spring training roster as a non-roster invitee. He threw a bullpen session Sunday under the watch of pitching coach Rick Knapp, and looked pretty impressive. Not sure what Seay’s situation has to do with Oliver, but they were announced in tandem.
  • Gerald Laird’s legal situation has been resolved. He is pleading no contest to his January arrest and having the matter dropped in exchange for attending anger management classes, which he has done. He reported to camp Sunday morning after taking a red-eye flight from Los Angeles, where he attended his sister’s wedding Saturday. He arrived to catch Justin Verlander in midseason form. Ouch.
  • Magglio Ordonez is drawing compliments for the shape that he’s in. He said he went to a training facility over the offseason and did a lot of lower-body work, including agility drills. But he looks stronger in his arms and upper body, too. “I hate to get too excited,” Leyland said, “but I would be shocked if he doesn’t have a big year.”