February 2012

Day 10: Why Miguel Cabrera gets it

I am not going to go on my blog and complain about spring training. It was 86 degrees and sunny today in Lakeland, while it was maybe half that temperature back home.

That said, listening to Miguel Cabrera talk about Venezuelan food after his Wednesday workout, around lunchtime, was killing me.

“This thing, arepa, it’s like bread, but they make it with corn,” Cabrera told reporters when asked about his favorite food. “We put everything [in it]: Cheese, steak, everything. It’s so good, so I’ve got to stop.”

It makes me hungry just writing it. It has to make him hungry describing it.

Yet when another reporter asked him if he missed it, Cabrera was fine.

“No. Right now, no,” he said, pointing to his head.

Miguel Cabrera gets it. If he wants to make this move to third base work, if he wants to move better — and especially important, if he wants to remain a durable, productive player well into his 30s — he can’t eat like he used to.

“It’s hard to stop that,” he said. You eat all your life like that, and you’ve got to change.”

He’s serious about this. He has someone helping him out with that.

“It’s kind of helped me a little bit,” he said of his new diet. “You know, you’ve got to sacrifice, you’ve got to do it, and you’ve got to work hard to get better. That’s what I want, to get better every day and try to do my best.”

Cabrera didn’t get into too many specifics a couple weeks ago when he talked about his workout program and his weight and his move to third base, but that was then. As he moves around third base, as he moves around Tigers spring training, as he works out separately in the early morning, he’s in a very happy place. He’s a loud presence in team workouts, in a constructive way, encouraging guys, recognizing nice plays, teasing hitters who had to face Justin Verlander Wednesday morning.

When I wrote about Cabrera’s move to third base a few weeks ago, I wrote that it would be a challenge, but that his enthusiasm about the move and determination to make it work were the strongest points in his favor. I think his enthusiasm is more than even I expected.

“I’m happy,” he said, “because I’ve got Prince hitting behind me. We have a very good team. We’ve got a chance to win more games. I’m happy because I see Verlander, he’s more strong.

“I see a lot of things around me. I see these guys work hard [like] Peralta. I think when you’re around great guys like that who want to win, you enjoy it more. And like I said, I like to play third. They gave me a chance to play third again, so I don’t want to miss the opportunity. I want to do much better over there. I want to be in the best shape I can be to move around at third base.”

Just as encouraging for the Tigers, and especially for Cabrera’s agents, is the fact that he’s doing this while looking towards the second half of his career. He didn’t mention anyone by name, but he has seen injuries hamper players in their mid-30s. Carlos Guillen, one of Cabrera’s mentors, is a non-roster invite in Mariners camp. Magglio Ordonez, with whom Cabrera worked out the past two offseasons, might well be done despite his great shape.

Cabrera wasn’t around when Dmitri Young was a Tiger, but Young was in Venezuela this year trying to revive his career. Weight, among other things, took a toll on Young’s legs.

“Everybody talks about the knees,” said Cabrera, whose Tigers contract runs through 2015. “When you [get to] 30-something, you start to have problems with your knees, with your hamstrings, obliques, back. So you’ve got to see other players at 37, 36. They play for a long career and they don’t have injuries, and you have to look to them. They’re in good shape. So why don’t you do it? Why don’t you follow the right step? When you get to that age, if you’re lucky, if you have a chance to play to 37, 38, you’re still in your best shape.”

If Cabrera someday ends up in the Hall of Fame — look at the similar batters list on Cabrera’s baseball-reference page, and you see that path — this might be the defining point that gets him there. If this Tigers infield works, even to a respectable level, this might be a pretty important point to a Tigers championship season.

Actual workout note of the day: Justin Verlander continues to approach his spring training workouts with game-like intensity, and his second session against live hitters Wednesday was no different. He had a game-like tempo, he shook off signs once in a while so he could work on particular pitches, and (like most pitchers in camp) he declined to use the batting practice screen.

Hitters are catching up to pitchers, but not really to Verlander. So imagine Verlander’s surprise when 20-year-old Avisail Garcia smacked a comebacker that skirted Verlander’s feet along the ground on its way to center field. It was close enough that Verlander paused a few seconds and breathed a visible sign of relief, and an audible exclamation.

“That wasn’t a little grounder,” Verlander confirmed. “That was hit hard.”

How close?

“Really close,” Verlander answered.

Actual workout note of the day, part 2: What breaks up a boring spring training workout better than sliding drills? No much, I say. Maybe sliding drills that involve Cabrera, Fielder and Delmon Young. Pictures below.

Non-workout note of the day: Leyland has a lengthy note of caution for reporters Wednesday not to jump to conclusions about the fifth starter. A lot of the candidates will get an inning on Friday against Florida Southern, followed by a piggyback start Wednesday against the Braves, but a different guy will get the start each time.

“I can promise you, the minute I find out about the starters, we’ll have a press conference and you’ll know it,” Leyland said. “I’ll announce it. You won’t have to worry about.”

Quote of the day: “Gold or old?” — Jim Leyland, when informed that former Red Sox manager turned ESPN analyst Terry Francona called him the gold standard of managers on television.

Verlander starts Monday, 5th starter Wednesday

The Tigers rotation is set for the first week or so of spring training, including the first look at the fifth starter competition.

Andy Oliver will start Friday’s exhibition against Florida Southern and lead a procession of young pitchers to pitch an inning apiece. Doug Fister will start the Major League spring training opener Saturday against the Braves at Disney World, then Max Scherzer will start Sunday in the back end of the home-and-home set.

Justin Verlander’s first start of 2012 will come Monday against the Blue Jays at Joker Marchant Stadium. Rick Porcello will make his first spring start Tuesday against the Marlins in Jupiter.

That leaves Wednesday as the fifth starter day. Jim Leyland didn’t say who would start, but said the order isn’t going to be important. It’s a piggyback day, meaning one starter will follow another and throw roughly to the same pitch count. A different candidate will start each time the fifth starter spot comes up.

Normally, you can take the spring training rotation, project it out every five days and figure out the pitching order for the first few games of the regular season. And sure enough, if you project Verlander out every five days, he’d be in line to pitch opening day on an extra day of rest, not that there was any doubt he’d pitch the opener anyway. But with scheduled off-days April 6 and 9, it’s very difficult to take this pitching order and figure out who will start the second and third games against the Red Sox April 7-8.

Day 9: Throw early, get a leg up

Justin Verlander began throwing sooner than usual before last season to shake his traditional early-season struggles and turned in an MVP season.

Rick Porcello began throwing earlier than usual this past offseason in hopes of strengthening his arm sooner and getting rid of some early struggles.

Max Scherzer began throwing Dec. 1 because his arm was bothering him when he waited until Jan 1.

Different reasons, but the same result: The offseason seems like it’s becoming less of an offseason for pitchers these days.

“My solution,” Scherzer said, “was more throwing.”

Ironically, these early stages of camp aren’t a big deal for Scherzer. Give him a couple of bullpen sessions and a couple of meetings with live hitters, and he’s good to go. But his problem was discomfort, not preparation. By letting his arm rest until January, he would have a tight arm when he got back to throwing.

“I just felt like everything would tighten up,” Scherzer said. “My arm would be so tight it would be something I worried about.”

That doesn’t mean he’s throwing off a mound or attacking hitters before Christmas dinner. But by doing enough throwing to keep his arm loose, it never tightened up. It left him about six weeks of shutdown time for his arm after an extended season, but that’s less of a concern.

By getting his arm ready sooner, he has more time now to work on his pitching — in this year’s case, honing a two-seamer.

Likewise, Porcello’s reasons were partly physical. Still, there was a results-oriented part to it as well.

“I’m trying to get as close to midseason form as I can,” Porcello said when camp began. “For me, it’s a little bit more to do with arm strength, making sure my arm strength is where I need it to be.”

Both guys talked with pitching coach Jeff Jones about their plans before they did it. Jones acknowledged trying to balance rest and work.

“It’s a fine line, there’s no question,” he said. “I spoke to Rick and he had told me he wanted to start throwing his bullpens a little earlier this year, and I said absolutely. He didn’t have a great spring last year, and he wants to do the things, I think, that he did at the end of the season, earlier this year. He wanted to just change his routine a little bit, which I don’t blame him.”

In Scherzer’s case, Jones said, “At the end of the season, even after the season ended, I think he did a little bit of throwing, so it wouldn’t be as long until he threw a ball again. I talked to him a week before the caravan and he said, ‘I feel like I’m way ahead of schedule. I feel great. My arm feels great. I’m really looking forward to getting going.'”

Different things work for different people. Duane Below arrived in Lakeland just after Jan. 1 to get his throwing program going. Adam Wilk threw later than usual so that he could rest his work after throwing more innings than usual.

Actual workout note of the day: Any concern that Joaquin Benoit might be falling behind schedule with his neck tightness seems to be gone. Benoit threw a full session to hitters on Tuesday, a day before he had been re-scheduled, and said he felt fine.

Non-workout note of the day: Verlander doesn’t throw his next session until Wednesday, but he was still on the back fields where pitchers throw. He alternated between batting cages watching Jacob Turner and Drew Smyly pitch, then stuck around to watch more pitchers. In fact, he seems to be spending more time watching other pitchers than any pitcher I can remember in camp. Pretty neat.

Quote of the day: “Here’s my basic philosophy on hitting: If you can hit a fastball, and hit a mistake breaking ball, you’ve got a chance.” — Jim Leyland

Look for pitching prospects in Fla. Southern game

Jim Leyland traditionally starts off the spring training schedule by pitching eight or nine guys for an inning each in the annual exhibition with Florida Southern College. This year, he’s going to do that with some of his younger pitchers in camp.

Leyland mentioned Andy Oliver, Casey Crosby and Drew Smyly among the guys who will pitch in Friday’s exhibition.

The starting lineup will include most of the regulars, who will get one at-bat before giving way to some of the younger position players.

The starting pitching schedule, Leyland said, is mapped out through spring training and beyond. He sat down with pitching coach Jeff Jones to work that out.

“We’ve got all the pitching mapped out through May, June, with one void there,” Leyland said.

The void, obviously, is for the fifth starter spot, which is open for competition here.

Tigers announce single-game ticket process

If you’ve bought (or tried to buy) Tigers home opener tickets before, that clock in your head was probably reminding you that single-game Tigers tickets go on sale the first Saturday morning in March. Right on time, tickets this year will go on sale this Saturday at 10am ET.

The process is similar to previous years with a few minor tweaks. Fans can buy tickets online at tigers.com, by phone at 866-66-TIGER, and in person at both the Comerica Park box office on Witherell Street and (new this year) at Hockeytown Authentics in Troy.

Once again, the Tigers are using a numbering system for early-bird fans at Comerica Park so that they don’t have to line up and wait overnight. This time, though, they’re doubling the number of numbered wristbands to 1,000. Fans can pick up a wristband at the box office on Friday as early as 3pm.

On Saturday, sometime between 8:15 and 8:30am, a fan will randomly draw a number that will determine where the line begins with the corresponding wristband. Fans who show up Saturday morning after the drawing will line up behind everybody with wristbands, who need to line up by 9:30. A wristband doesn’t guarantee tickets will be available for the games somebody wants, but it gives them a shot. Even for those fans waiting in line, the Tigers are encouraging fans to check the schedule online ahead of time to figure out which games they want to attend.

As for Opening Day tickets (April 5 against the Red Sox), the same rules apply as in past years, with up to four tickets available per fan.

Day 7: First serving of Big Potato

Jose Valverde doesn’t really talk a whole lot in spring training. When he does, well, he holds court.

So, while I wrote a piece for the site gauging Valverde’s chances of challenging Eric Gagne’s consecutive saves record, I didn’t really get into the Valverde personality. It doesn’t get muted for the spring.

He didn’t do anything like last October, when he supposedly guaranteed a Tigers win in the Division Series. But he also wasn’t completely serious, either.

“To be so serious, I would be old quick,” Valverde said. “I don’t want to be old.”

No danger.

When asked if he thinks he can reach Gagne’s record of 84 consecutive save opportunities converted, Valverde neither dodged nor hesitated.

“I don’t know,” he answered immediately. “Have to ask God first. I do whatever God tells me, and that’s it.”

If he gets there, he said, “I’ll be celebrating a lot.”

“I have started working right now for some dancing if I get 85 saves,” he proclaimed, much like he said he’d have a new dance in place if he saved the All-Star Game last summer.

When asked about the noise he creates in workouts, he indicated he has no place for peace and quiet.

“I want it to be noisy everywhere,” he said.

“I’ll be loud like crazy in my car, with music and everything,” he continued. “When my friend rides, he told me, ‘What are you doing? I said, ‘Do your thing. Let me do mine.'”

Other highlights …

  • On fatigue last year: “Me, it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been pitching, I never get tired. The Tigers pay me for that. How can I be tired?”
  • On credit to the bullpen for his success: “It’s not only the relievers, the starters too. Because all these guys like Porcello, JV, [if they don’t] go seven innings, I don’t do my job. I have to do it for everybody, not only for the relievers. I have to play for my third baseman, my first baseman, for the whole team.”
  • On whether he’s superstitious talking about his save streak: “I have a lot [of superstitions]. If I had to do all my superstitions right now, we’d be here until tomorrow. I have three pieces of gum in my pocket, my water all the time. I have a lot.”
  • On new teammate Octavio Dotel: “You know, Dotel is 21 years old right now. You have to take care of this guy. It’s great. Dotel is one of the guys I think everybody wants to play for. He’s played for a long time. He’s played for Houston, Oakland, the Yankees. He knows what he’s doing. I watched this guy pitching last year, and I feel great, because [the Cardinals] won the World Series last year [with him]. The Tigers have a chance to win the World Series.”
  • On his contract situation (he’s a free agent next winter): “You know, I have to play first. I have to do my job first. After that, I think about the contract.”

Actual workout note of the day: Again, Justin Verlander takes spring training seriously. How serious? He’ll shake off signs from his catcher, Alex Avila, if he wants to work on a particular pitch. And he did that a few times Sunday morning.

It was very much a game simulation for him, and he didn’t hide his frustration if a pitch didn’t go right. Still, as agitated as he can get, his stuff was evident.

Non-workout note of the day: Just when you thought Verlander’s offseason as a celebrity was over, he scores tickets to the NBA All-Star Game. Verlander managed to get courtside seats for the Sunday night showcase event in Orlando, and he brought Tigers catcher and noted Lakers fan Gerald Laird with him. I’m going to guess Verlander told Laird he couldn’t wear his Kobe Bryant jersey.

Quote of the day: “It’ll break my heart if he’s hurt again.” — Jim Leyland on Joel Zumaya, before learning Zumaya tore his ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and will need Tommy John surgery if he wants to try to pitch again.

Day 6: Turner, Smyly … Who’s more polished?

Jacob Turner and Drew Smyly have a budding rivalry going … in Tiger Woods Golf.

They’re not roommates here at spring training, but along with Casey Crosby, they’re hanging out and playing video games, much like Rick Porcello and Ryan Perry were doing a few years ago. Their trash talk carries over into the Tigers locker room, where Turner was razzing Smyly while he was being interviewed.

Turner has taken his fair share of rookie abuse for the past two spring trainings here, so he has finally earned the chance to dish it out. And yet Smyly, in his first spring training with the big club in just his second professional season, is nearly two years older than Turner.

The way they interact back up Jim Leyland’s feeling that this isn’t a competition for the fifth spot in the rotation. Nonetheless, they’re two talented pitching prospects who could break camp in the rotation, though they can’t both do it. And they come from vastly different routes to this point.

Turner just began his third season as a professional pitcher. He has started all three years in Major League camp with the Tigers after Detroit drafted him in the first round in 2009 (in fact, if you don’t count the compensation round, he’s the last Tigers first-round pick). He has logged more spring training time with the Tigers than any other starting candidate in this camp, and he has more Major League and minor league starts than Justin Verlander did before he cracked the Tigers rotation in 2006.

At age 20, he can face big-league hitters in workouts and not look overwhelmed at all. He sounds like somebody who has been through this before, even though he has only watched it.

“I think this one might be more exciting for me,” Turner said, “just because this is my third year and I’m more comfortable being around everything and I know what to expect, what’s going on. I’m definitely really excited for this spring, and we’ll see what happens.”

Smyly, as mentioned, is beginning his second pro season and his first big-league camp. When Turner was going through his first camp two years ago, Smyly was going through the SEC at the University of Arkansas. When Turner was on standby here as a possible postseason injury replacement if Detroit needed a starter, Smyly was pitching for Team USA in the Pan Am Games in Mexico.

“Now, I’m in the same big league camp as Justin Verlander and Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera,” Smyly said.

He isn’t a prototypical hard-throwing Tigers pick, but his polish by all accounts last year was impressive for somebody just beginning his career. He put that on display for Tigers coaches when he faced hitters for the first time, and they left impressed.

Smyly brought more experience into this camp than Turner did into his first one. Turner, however, brought more pro experience. Their experiences, so far, have been parallel. When the Tigers called up Turner from Double-A Erie for his Major League debut July 30, Smyly replaced him in Erie’s rotation that night, having been called up a few days earlier.

Bottom line, neither of them are here just for show, or just for experience. Either of these guys could break camp.

Someone check on Wilson Betemit: They’re actually separate items, but they add up to a brutal day for former Tigers. Joel Zumaya ended a live throwing session early at Twins camp on Saturday after reportedly feeling something in his elbow. Later, Scott Sizemore reportedly sprained his knee during infield drills at A’s camp. Meanwhile, Carlos Guillen has missed the last two days of Mariners workouts with calf tightness, according to Larry Stone of the Seattle Times. The M’s reportedly don’t believe it’s anything serious.

Actual workout item of the day: Both Turner and Smyly pitched against live hitters Saturday, and neither looked like green prospects. Turner went time and again to the outside corner with breaking pitches, trying to show he can spot it for a strike. Hitters made contact against him, but most of it on the ground. Smyly mixed pitches deceptively and got swings and misses from a group of hitters that included Gerald Laird, Audy Ciriaco and Jerad Head.

Actual workout item of the day, part 2: Daniel Schlereth came into camp looking to improve his fastball command, and Saturday was a start. Schlereth wasn’t completely pleased with it, but he was pretty upbeat, and he had coaches watching. He said he’s also throwing a slightly different slider with a little different movement.

Non-workout item of the day: Leyland stated the obvious on Saturday, that they haven’t decided anything on the open rotation spot and that they don’t have any favorites.

“We’re putting them all out there and we’re going to make a decision,” Leyland said. “We haven’t done that yet. We haven’t even played games. Nobody has a leg up on anybody.”

Quote of the day: “All-Northern Lakes League doesn’t usually send you to Canton.” — Leyland on his football career

Day 5: Inge finally joins the fray

The empty spot at Brandon Inge’s locker was filled on Friday. Now we’ll see what role he can fill on this team.

The thing about chronicling who reports early and who simply reports on time is that it’s all usually a distant memory by the time spring training games start. Camps work in stages — first who comes in early, then early impressions on pitchers, then full-squad workouts, then who impresses in spring training games, then the Opening Day roster talk. One stage might bleed into the next, but it usually doesn’t bleed far beyond that.

As long as I’ve known, Inge has been a guy who reports on time, but not especially early. It just doesn’t happen, and this situation probably wasn’t going to change that. Still, his line of reasoning for not doing it this year was telling.

“I didn’t want to take anything away from Prince Fielder, welcoming him,” Inge said. “Obviously I would welcome him in but … this [scene] right here, I didn’t want it to be anything against him. I knew he was coming in. I was just kind of laying low so I could talk to you guys on my own, get it out separately, not be a distraction to everyone in there, move on.”

In case you didn’t see the video (it’s on the Tigers site), you could judge what Inge meant by the crowd surrounding him in the photo.

As somebody on twitter pointed out to me, there’s almost a timeline of reporters’ tools in that picture — notepad, recorders, phone as recorder, flipcam, phone as flipcam, handheld recorder. All we needed was a reel-to-reel recorder and a boom mic and we could’ve sent this to the Newseum.

Inge has had some drama here over the years, from being displaced at catcher by Ivan Rodriguez in 2004, to winning the third-base job soon after, to losing his third base job four years ago to Miguel Cabrera, to getting it back, to getting re-signed at the end of the 2010 season, to this. He also has been known for being very good with the media. Friday was a side of Inge that didn’t want a scene. His interview took place outside the clubhouse, and it lasted just over six minutes before he was summoned to an infielders meeting.

His reasoning for the request to compete for the second-base job was up-front and pointed: Gotta try to win a job somewhere.

“I’m not going to play third,” he said. “Miggy’s there for right now. I’m not going to beat him out. So the only potential spot for me to try to win a position, I thought, was second base. I want playing time. I want to stay in Detroit. I love Detroit. So that was a pretty simple decision for me. That was my only option.”

No line about doing what’s best for the team. Nothing about a next phase to his career. This had a little bit of a self-preservation feel to it.

There also was a dose of realism about his situation.

“I just want to play, any spot I can get as far as trying to play on the field,” he said. “I’m happy for the opportunity, basically, to be able to earn some playing time. Nothing’s given. I had a rough year last year, so I don’t blame anyone for it. It’s pretty good. It gives me an opportunity to kind of step back up and earn from the beginning.”

He also said he doesn’t feel what happened last year takes away from the previous eight or nine years, but you get the idea.

His teammates, for what it’s worth, were pretty supportive. Ramon Santiago was quoted somewhere saying he has no problem with Inge competing for playing time at his spot. Justin Verlander was supportive.

“It’s great to have him back,” Verlander said. “I love Brandon to death. Whether he’s playing second base, playing third base, or helping any way he can, he’s an integral asset to this ballclub.”

The saga of Inge at second base won’t get the same attention as Cabrera’s move to third, but it won’t be ignored, either. He’s in great shape with added muscle, but most second basemen are lighter and more agile than most third basemen, so there’s still a big adjustment to make.

This part, the part about reporting to camp, is probably going to be forgotten pretty quickly. If Inge can’t make the move, or if he can’t hit, it’s not going to be because he didn’t get here early.

Actual workout item of the day: So far this week, Tigers batting practice usually has meant Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder trading long balls. And they had their share of decent shots today once live pitching transitioned to coaches’ BP. But two other hitters seemed to stand out Friday.

Brennan Boesch continued to strike the ball with authority, lofting a ball well into the trees beyond right field on one of the back fields. And Avisail Garcia looked so good that he caught Jim Leyland’s attention, prompting the manager to sit in on another BP session with him and watch him go to work.

“He’s a big, young guy,” Leyland said, “and he’s only going to get stronger.”

Garcia hit 11 homers here last summer for the Class A Lakeland Flying Tigers. It’ll be interesting to see how his power translates to the cozier confines of Double-A Erie and the Eastern League, assuming that’s where he ends up.

Actual workout item of the day, part 2: Ok, so yes, Cabrera was still the story of the workout. I wrote about Cabrera’s first day at third base on the site, but just as impressive was the workout he put in before the workouts.

Cabrera arrived around 7am ET, and was out on the field at Joker Marchant Stadium doing his separate workout program. That included sprints around the warning track with a resistance band around him, as you can see in the picture.

Non-actual workout item of the day: It wasn’t just the full squad that reported to the Tigers. Friday’s first full-squad workout attracted CBSSports.com’s Danny Knobler, Foxsports.com’s Ken Rosenthal, ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark, USA Today’s Seth Livingstone, Matt Crossman from The Sporting News, and an MLB Network crew that included Matt Yallof. So, yes, these guys are getting some attention.

Quote of the day: “I can’t worry about the numbers, but I think I can pitch better. That’s what I strive to do.” — Justin Verlander, when asked if he can think about improving upon last year.

Another quote of the day: “I’ll take two championships in nine years with Prince.” — Michael Lapanowski of Rochester, Mich., one of the many Tigers fans who made their way south to watch early workouts this week. It’s not really news that this team has a lot of fans who travel, but the number of fans who showed up for early workouts was surprising. Remembers, games don’t start until next weekend.

Inge: “I just want to play, any spot I can get”

Look for some video clips of Brandon Inge’s talk with reporters on the site later. Story is also coming. For now, here are some quotes from the six-minute session:

  • On  the move: “I just want to play, any spot I can get as far as trying to play on the field. I’m happy for the opportunity, basically, to be able to earn some playing time. Nothing’s given. I had a rough year last year, so I don’t blame anyone for it. It’s pretty good. it gives me an opportunity to kind of step back up and earn from the beginning. I don’t think last year takes away from anything I’ve done in the past eight or nine years. Obviously I had a bad year, and that’s fine. I accept it. I take responsibility for it. But I’m excited to be able to start fresh right now.”
  • On the Tigers’ decision: “It’s pretty simple for me, actually, if you think about it. Put yourself in a general manager’s position and not think as a player. I put myself in Mr. Dombrowski’s position and tried to figure out what I would do if I was in his shoes, and I respect that he’s going to go with Miggy. Miggy thinks he can do it at third. He’s going to go with him, and I respect that, because he’s sticking with his guys. Miggy’s done a lot to help the team. He’s a big part of the team, so he’s sticking behind him, showing faith in him that he can play third. And I appreciate that.”
  • Was his decision hard: “My decision, I’m not going to play third. Miggy’s there for right now. I’m not going to beat him out. So the only potential spot for me to try to win a position, I thought, was second base. I want playing time. I want to stay in Detroit. I love Detroit. So that was a pretty simple decision for me. That was my only option.”
  • Tough transition? “It’s not a big deal. Not at all. I played there in high school. I know that was a long time ago, but infield is infield. That’s kind of second nature for me. Learning the outfield cuts and the instinctive things, that’s why Spring Training’s going to be perfect for me, because you can get away with stuff in Spring Training and learn from your mistakes, so when you go into the season it’ll be second nature. It’s not like I’m learning a whole new sport, you know?”
  • Can he play it: “I know I can play it. I’m not thinking. I know I can play it. It’s just a matter of going out and working at it and working hard and getting there.”
  • Why not report to camp sooner: “I didn’t want to take anything away from Prince Fielder, welcoming him. Obviously I would welcome him in but … this right here, I didn’t want it to be anything against him. I knew he was coming in. I was just kind of laying low so I could talk to you guys on my own, get it out separately, not be a distraction to everyone in there, move on.”

Day 4: The case for Bobby Bo

Twenty-five years ago, a younger Jim Leyland made a midseason decision that his Pittsburgh Pirates would be a better team if they gave a young outfielder, Bobby Bonilla, a shot at third base. The Buccos had a veteran named Jim Morrison at the spot for the first half of the season, but at age 34, he wasn’t part of Pittsburgh’s plans. Thus, Morrison went to Detroit in an August trade, and Bonilla went to the hot corner.

A year later, Bonilla’s first full year at third, he made 32 errors. He also drove in 100 runs and hit 24 homers, and he was hitting .303 with a .925 OPS at the All-Star break. Thus, Bonilla unseated future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt as the National League starter at third in the All-Star Game.

Leyland moved him back to the outfield after 35 more errors in 1989, but for those two seasons, he was the Pirates’ best option. When Leyland took over in Florida in 1997, he had a similar decision to make once the Marlins signed Bonilla as a free agent.

Bonilla was a lot older at 34, and a lot bigger than he was the last time he played third for Leyland. Yet Leyland and Marlins made the choice that he was best off with Bonilla at the hot corner. They knew what they were giving up on defense, considering they had an aging Terry Pendleton at third for the previous two seasons. But add Bonilla to a lineup that included an outfield of Gary Sheffield, Moises Alou and Devon White, and the thought was that the offensive benefits outweighed the defensive miscues.

Bonilla made 22 errors at third with a fielding percentage and range factor that both ranked below league average. He also batted .297 with 17 homers and 96 RBIs.

Bobby Bo, as he was nicknamed, is now the example Leyland is using when asked about moving Miguel Cabrera to third. With national writers starting to stream in, it’s coming up pretty regularly.

“I’ve told everybody, and I’m going to say it one last time: We won the World Series [that year] – and I’m not talking about winning the World Series [this year], I’m not making any predictions, but I am making a point — in 1997, we won the World Series with Bobby Bonilla playing third base and everybody said that would never happen. And that’s the end of it.

“I’m not really talking about it because I’m not going to get driven about this Cabrera thing at third base. If you guys are sitting in here and think – or if I sit here and think, more importantly – that there’s not going to be a ball go by once in a while, that’s not going to happen. We’re all crazy. I’m not going to make a big deal out of it. Some of you will, some of you won’t. But the fact of the matter is, as a manager when you put people there, you accept you believe you might get.”

He also brought up the Bonilla move in Pittsburgh.

“I had Bobby Bonilla at Pittsburgh,” he said. “He played third for me. He was fine. He played outfield, he played third, he had good hands and a good arm. It’s like I said: Everybody’s always looking for perfect players. There’s not very many. They want a Gold Glover at third, they want a Gold Glover at short. They want a guy who hits 25 home runs and knocks in 120 runs. If everybody had those it’d be boring.”

There are a lot of ways those moves can be compared and contrasted. The Pirates had a very good defensive infield in the late 80s aside from Bonilla, and the ’97 Marlins had a gifted young shortstop named Edgar Renteria, who became famous for his last hit of the season that year. But this is the case history. And one great thing about baseball is the treasure trove of statistics that can be used to look back on that time.

Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Normally, spring training isn’t the place for managers to talk about sign-stealing. For one, the games really aren’t that important. For another, the pitchers and catchers have enough of a task learning the signs, let alone trying to hide them well enough.

Still, the topic came up in Jim Leyland’s Thursday afternoon talk with reporters, when the question came up about catchers’ signs and the complexity involved in that. And as is often the case, the unexpected answer is the one that proves most interesting.

“I’ve always said that if a guy on second base can look in and get the sign, I have no problem with that,” Leyland said. “That’s pretty good. But if guys are getting signs off monitors and that, that’s just not good for the game, in my opinion.

“You shouldn’t have to make [signs] so sophisticated because you’re worried about somebody stealing on camera. If you think you need to sophisticate them up a little bit because some guy’s really good, that’s different. But I don’t believe you should be able to get signs with modern technology.”

That topic has come up in recent years, mainly from anonymous suspicions that some ballparks have cameras honed in from center field on the catcher to get the sign. Nothing has ever officially been proven.

Actual workout item of the day: As mentioned in the Tigers notes on the site, Austin Jackson continues to work on eliminating the leg kick in his swing mechanics, and he’s feeling pretty good about it so far. So does hitting coach Lloyd McClendon.

“I haven’t made that big of a change, other than quieting down the leg kick,” Jackson said Thursday. “It’s still there. It’s just not as high. It’s more just picking it up and putting it down now.”

He might still have the leg kick in some situations, but the idea is to get him quicker with his swing, especially in two-strike counts to cut down on his strikeout total.

Actual workout item of the day, part 2: Leyland continues to rave about a young pitcher with a breaking ball that is better than he expected. He is not naming the pitcher.

Non-workout item of the day: Leyland has no hesitation saying that Justin Verlander is the best pitcher he has ever managed, surpassing Kevin Brown. But can you guess the best all-around player he has managed?

It’s neither a former Pirate, Marlin nor Tiger.

“If you really got down to it – I’ve always slighted this guy not for any reason in particular – but I was thinking about that this morning. Probably the best tool player, total tools, was Larry Walker,” Leyland said. “Run, throw, hit, hit with power, great baserunner — he was a tremendous player.”

Leyland managed Walker for only one season, that 1999 campaign that ended with Leyland retiring. His numbers that year were incredible, leading the league in batting average, slugging and on-base percentages, with a 1.168 OPS. He hit 37 home runs, totaled 115 RBIs, stole 11 bases in 15 attempts and racked up 13 outfield assists.

“I’m not saying his results were better than anybody,” Leyland continued. “I’m not saying he was the best player, I’m just saying, if you judged five tools, if you looked at the five tools. Barry’s arm wasn’t quite as good. But if you look at the five tools, Larry Walker might be the best that I’ve had as far as tools. He was tremendous. A tremendous instinctive player.”

Quote of the day: Jim Leyland has said a lot of things this week about the expectations surrounding this team. Give him credit for coming up with a new line.

“I’d feel like I was a real [terrible] manager,” he said, “if somebody picked us last.”

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