February 17th, 2010

Leading off at leadoff: Austin Jackson

What if the Tigers signed Johnny Damon to help out the top of their batting order, and ended up batting rookie Austin Jackson up there anyway?

It’s not as far-fetched as you might think.

Though manager Jim Leyland said Wednesday he still hasn’t written out a set lineup and still doesn’t know what he’ll do with his top two spots, he sounded a little more committed than before to the idea of batting Jackson up top.

Jackson will get the first crack at leading off in Spring Training, as Leyland hinted at before. But he also sounded a little more confident that Jackson fits there.

“I’d like Jackson to lead off, if I could,” Leyland said. “I’m really kind of looking for a two hitter. But I think Jackson — if he’s here, and you’re going to play him some — he’s probably got to lead off. Probably, as we stand right now. But I don’t know that for a fact. We’ll find out.”
Admittedly, when he said that, he wasn’t including Damon in the thought process. As Leyland put it, “I don’t ever anticipate we’re going to get somebody.”

But he sure sounded like he was coming around on Jackson as a fit up there. And he definitely sounded like finding a No. 2 hitter, as the roster stands now, is a tougher decision for him.

“I have to figure out some kind of a two-hole hitter,” Leyland said. “I don’t know how that’s going to work out, unless you change our style of play. You hate to do it, although I think the game’s getting back to it, where the smaller things are meaning more again.

“Maybe you move some runners early on or something with the second hitter. Maybe you don’t just slug it like you do sometimes. Polanco was so good because he could drag a bunt or hit in the hole or hit-and-run or hit a home run. He was a really professional hitter.”

Maybe that’s something rookie Scott Sizemore can do. Maybe it’s something Adam Everett could do. Or maybe, if Johnny Damon does come to Detroit, it’s something he does.

Don’t read Leyland’s comments on the game changing, though, and figure that he’s angling towards it.

“I’m not saying I’m going to do that,” Leyland said. “I don’t want to do that.”

One thing for certain is that both Jackson and Sizemore, as long as they’re healthy, are going to get a lot of playing time this spring. It isn’t just about getting them acclimated to the big leagues as much as you can in Spring Training. It’s about Leyland and the coaching staff seeing them enough to judge them.

“I’ve never been a big Spring Training judge,” Leyland said, “but you have to do what you have to do.”

Coke could still end up a starter (updated)

Don’t discount the possibility that Phil Coke still opens the season in the Tigers rotation, despite what seemed like mixed signals on that notion last month.

You might remember that though team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski labeled Coke as a starting candidate at TigerFest, Leyland indicated he preferred to have Coke work out of the bullpen to begin Spring Training and then stretch out as a starter later if necessary.

Part of the reasoning there was that the Tigers already have three candidates for the fifth spot, and they can only stretch out so many pitchers as starters in a normal Spring Training schedule. They could already have to shift some starters to Minor League games on occasion simply to get innings.

On Wednesday, though, Leyland said he’s been “tossing and turning on what to do with Coke.”

Part of the reason is the potential need for a lefty starter if
neither Nate Robertson nor Dontrelle Willis win the job. Another reason
is the abundance of lefty relievers not named Phil Coke, such as Bobby
Seay, Fu-Te Ni, Brad Thomas and Daniel Schlereth.

For now, Leyland said, he’s going to “let that [question] hang for a while.”

In other words, he’s going to start out Coke in the bullpen, but leave open the possibility of stretching him out later in camp if need be. But he won’t make that decision until after the Spring Training games begin.

He’ll discuss the timing with pitching coach Rick Knapp.

“You’ve got to make sure it’s not too soon,” Leyland said, “but you’ve got to make sure it’s not too late.”

What does Coke think? Well, until he hears otherwise, he’s going to prepare as a starter.”

“The title doesn’t mean anything to me,” Coke said Wednesday. “They told me there’s an opportunity that I could start, so until they change my mind, that’s what I’m going to do.”
We might find out more about that from Leyland in the coming days.

Zumaya: "I'm probably on my last string"

I was out on vacation last week, but I’m back to work and back in Lakeland, where it almost feels like I was here a few weeks ago rather than last April. But that doesn’t compare with Joel Zumaya, who has been here since right after New Year’s weekend.

I’ll have more on Zumaya on the site tomorrow, but two things stood out that warranted mentioning. First was that this is the best his arm has felt in about 2 1/2 years, by his estimation. Second was the feeling that this might be his last shot in Detroit.

“I’m coming in to prove something,” Zumaya said Tuesday. “I’ve got a lot to prove. The last two years, I’ve been sitting on the shelf, so I’m probably on my last string right now. And I don’t want that last string to get pulled. That’s why I’m here [so early]. I’ve been here since January. I’ve been throwing and I’ve been getting a lot of complements. I’m actually proving something.”

He feels like he’s proving that he’s in good shape after surgery. And he feels like his health is no longer an issue.

“I’m not worried about the health situation anymore,” he said, “because if I had problems, I would’ve been on a rehab program right now. My offspeed pitches, I’m not really too worried about that, either, because my arm slot is totally different from where I was the last two years. It’s a lot higher. It’s actually where I’m supposed to be. I mean, the last two years, I’ve thrown with my arm slot a little low because I had that little issue. I’ve kept my mouth shut for a while. I just had to get this done and get cleaned up.

“Like I said, I’m fine.  My arm slot’s going to be a lot better. My offspeed is a lot sharper. The ball’s coming down to a point. It’s not coming flat.”

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