February 16th, 2012

Thoughts from Leyland’s busy arrival

Tigers manager Jim Leyland doesn’t usually arrive here in Lakeland until the a day or two before the first official workout. The fact that Leyland reported Thursday, 2-3 days earlier than usual, was a big surprise. The fact that he did it in good spirits said a lot.

“I can’t say I’ve ever looked forward to a spring as much as this one,” Leyland said.

He said that soon after he said this: “I have a lot of business to take care of — big business.”

Leyland has a good team, and he knows it. He also knows he has a team that has a lot of potential issues to work out if they’re going to be really good, and a lot of questions to answer. What to do with Brandon Inge was already on the list. His move to second base adds a whole new facet to that.

Inge has never played second base in the big leagues, or the minors. He was a shortstop in college. He has demonstrated enough times that he’s a natural athlete, but even for him, this is a new one. And he’ll be trying it at age 34.

All he learned on the left side of the infield, he’s going to have to think in reverse. He’ll have to learn to turn the double play again, only on the blind side. He’ll have to know to cover the bag on relays from left field. He’ll have to develop a working knowledge with Prince Fielder on who goes for ground balls in the hole on the right side.

Inge’s athleticism, even at his age, will get him through quite a bit of this. He’s going to have to learn some more to really make it stick.

Oh, and he has to hit.

Keep in mind, this idea came from Inge. His agents knew about it and discussed it with the Tigers as well. It isn’t out of financial reasons; he has $6 million coming this year ($5.5 million salary, plus $500,000 buyout) no matter what happens from here. This is him trying to find a role.

Huge challenge? You bet. Impossible? I’m learning my lesson not to say that around the Tigers this winter, and I wouldn’t have said it here anyway.

In any case, what do the Tigers have to lose? They’re paying him the same either way, and Leyland said he’ll get Ryan Raburn the games he needs at second. Ramon Santiago will lose the most, but as Leyland pointed out, he has no question whether Santiago can be ready at second.

Believe it or not, there were other tidbits coming out of Leyland’s interview Thursday:

  • Leyland gave a target on Miguel Cabrera’s weight: “I want him at about 255.” Last reports suggested Cabrera will report at around that weight. Leyland suggested that’s about the weight he carried a few years ago. “I think that retains all his strength,” Leyland said, “plus gets him more quickness.”
  • Leyland said he’ll monitor how Cabrera is doing at third base.
  • Expect a lot more talk about increased intensity in early camp workouts, especially for the defense. Leyland wants to get closer to game speed than usual so that he can prepare Cabrera and Inge for what they might see.
  • Both Leyland and pitching coach Jeff Jones reiterated Thursday that they don’t want their fifth starter candidates treating this camp like a competition. “Don’t think of spring training like you’re trying to make the team,” Leyland said. “Think of spring training like you’re preparing yourself to get in the best possible shape to get ready to pitch wherever you’re supposed to pitch.”
  • Leyland’s reasoning on this: “Sometimes you don’t see the real guy if they know that they’re in that position. They go out first outing, they give up two or three runs and [they think], ‘Well, I’m done. I’ve got no chance to make it.'”
  • Another reminder from Leyland that Clete Thomas has a chance to make the team: “He’s an interesting guy for me who certainly hasn’t been written off by me. What’s he going to look like coming back healthy? This guy was a good player. … I think Thomas is a good, exciting player. I’ve always liked what he can do.”

La Russa to work with Tigers this spring

Twelve years after Tony La Russa and the Cardinals helped give Jim Leyland a chance to stay involved in the game after Leyland’s retirement as a manager, the Tigers are returning the nod.

La Russa, the longtime manager who retired after leading St. Louis to another World Series title last fall, will spend this Spring Training in camp with the Tigers in a non-uniform, non-official capacity. Leyland made the announcement while talking with reporters Thursday after arriving at Joker Marchant Stadium.

“Tony’s going to be down for a couple weeks,” Leyland said. “He’s going to work with Dave [Dombrowski] in the front office, and he’s going over to Jupiter for a few days and then go out to Arizona for a few days. He will not be in uniform.”

The friendship between Leyland and La Russa is well-known. La Russa hired Leyland out of the Tigers farm system, where he had managed for more than a decade, to join La Russa’s coaching staff with the White Sox in 1982. The experience helped Leyland earned his long-awaited chance to manage in the big leagues with the Pirates in 1986.

While La Russa went on to win a World Series title with Oakland in 1989, Leyland built a previously dormant Pirates club to perennial contention, leading them to three straight NL East titles from 1990-92. Leyland went on to win a World Series with the Florida Marlins in 1997.

After Leyland resigned from the Rockies managerial job after the 1999 season, citing burnout, he joined the Cardinals as a special assistant. Leyland regained his passion for managing, rejoined the ranks with the Tigers in 1996, and led Detroit to a World Series matchup against his former employers in St. Louis. The Cardinals won, earning La Russa his second title, then did it again this past season.

La Russa announced his retirement the day after the Cardinals held their championship parade, becoming the first manager to retire immediately after winning the World Series. He said he’d be open to another position in baseball, leading to speculation he’d join a front office, possibly back with the White Sox.

Once Joe Torre stepped down from his position with Major League Baseball to join a group bidding to purchase the Dodgers, speculation included La Russa possibly becoming Torre’s successor.

One member of the White Sox front office during La Russa’s time in Chicago was Dombrowski, then an assistant under general manager Roland Hemond. La Russa and Dombrowski were both let go around the same time by Hemond’s successor, Ken Harrelson, and both went on to success elsewhere.

Now, more than a quarter-century later, the time with Dombrowski could give La Russa the experience to decide whether he wants to try an executive role somewhere.

Inge to compete for job at second base

Brandon Inge is going to get a chance to compete for a spot in the Tigers lineup after all. It just won’t be at third base.

Inge has asked the Tigers for a chance to compete for the one relatively open infield spot — at second base. Manager Jim Leyland revealed the news Thursday upon his arrival at Joker Marchant Stadium, and said he’s going to give Inge his shot.

It’s a move seemingly out of left field rather than the infield, but it’s a chance for Inge to hold onto a starting spot and play a significant role on a team that’s favored to win the American League Central and compete for a pennant.

The original request, Leyland said, came from Inge to team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, who forwarded it to Leyland.

“I said I’m all for it. Absolutely,” Leyland said. “I’ll pay you that respect. If you want to compete for the second base job, compete for it. How it’s going to play out, I have no idea. So there’s some wrinkles in here that are pretty interesting.”

This is one wrinkle few saw coming. While Inge has played at third base, catcher and all three outfield spots over his 11-year Major League career, and was a standout shortstop and closer in college at Virginia Commonwealth, he has never played second base in a game. He worked out there in Spring Training years ago, but only in anticipation of superutility duty.

He’ll get a crash course this spring. Leyland said he plans on having Inge take the vast majority of his playing time at second along with Ryan Raburn.

“I know Inge can play third base in his sleep,” Leyland said, “so I’m going to focus him on nothing but second base. Later in the spring, depending on how everything looks, we’ll play him at third once in a while just to sharpen him up.

“But I’m going all-out on this second-base thing. We’ll give him an opportunity.”

New CoPa scoreboard: About 6,000 square feet

A Artist's rendering of the new Comerica Park scoreboard in replay mode.

The sellout crowd at Comerica Park will roar on Opening Day, taking in their first sights of Prince Fielder in a Tigers uniform and Justin Verlander back on the mound. They’ll take in the start of a new season, and they’ll bask in whatever sunlight they can find on an early April afternoon in Michigan.

Even if an overcast day shrouds the sun, though, they’ll still have some light to follow. Because if the Tigers’ renovation designs go to plan, the scoreboard that looms over left field should be beaming.

It will be 6,000 square feet of high-definition video and graphics, and it’s poised to become the fourth-biggest video board in Major League Baseball. And as workers put together the new board on the corner of Brush and Adams, it’s the biggest project Comerica Park has seen — aside from the team itself — since the Tigers moved in the fences and moved the bullpens in the mid 2000s.

It’s a big enough project that the Tigers had to cancel their annual fanfest event in January out of safety concerns around the ballpark. By all appearances, it should be worth the wait.

The scope of the project was apparent a while ago by the sight of an empty scoreboard structure. All of the boards, advertisements and lighting were stripped out, and even the ceramic Tigers that stood atop the board were taken down and sent out for treatment. The new board will be assembled in the coming weeks with plans to have everything together by the end of March.

When it makes its public debut April 5, it’ll be light years — pardon the pun — from the technology it replaced.

Most of the previous scoreboard dates back to the first days of the ballpark, debuting in 2000 as the largest scoreboard in the Majors at the time. Most of the lighting was based on bulbs, which was common around the big leagues then, with a 1000-foot video board for footage and replays.

Once vibrant multi-color LED scoreboards became available a few years later, teams began updating. The Tigers added LED boards along the facing of the second deck and the right-field fence in 2007, but were one of the few teams left still using the old-style scoreboards.

The new scoreboard, built and programmed by Daktronics, will be entirely LED. It’ll be wider than the old board, and it’ll actually be raised approximately 16 feet on the current structure so that it’s less obstructed from fans by the left-field upper deck.

Even the Tigers lettering on the top of the scoreboard will be dynamic, state-of-the-art LED, allowing for special effects and color changes that should outshine other big-league parks. Gone will be the 22-foot block lettering TIGERS, replaced by cursive lettering that will tower 36 feet over the scoreboard. The ceramic Tigers will return.

The smaller board hanging below the main board, where pitch counts and radar gun readings appear, will also be replaced. The new version will be twice as long, allowing for more information. Add in new boards along the club level where the line score usually appears, and all the boards in the park will be LED.

Daktronics is an industry leader, having their integrated supersystems (video and scoring) at 22 of 30 Major League ballparks.

Duane McLean, Tigers executive vice president of business operations, and team vice president for park operations Michael Healy listed a few reasons behind the upgrade. First and foremost, it will provide a better entertainment experience for fans, both with stats and video. It’s expected to provide increased visibility for advertising opportunities for sponsors.

“Every year there are discussions with ownership to assess how to upgrade the ballpark and enhance the fan experience,” McLean said. “The goal is to provide the best in-park atmosphere possible for the fans. The new HD video board and system integration is a significant upgrade to Comerica Park.”

Another advantage is the chance for the Tigers to expand their video presence at the park. Four stationary cameras, plus a roving camera, will be installed. In addition, the upgrades include replacing all of the 400 television screens in the ballpark with HDTV flat screens, from the club suites to the press box to the concourse.

Add up the changes, and they mean a vastly different look to the game, on the field and around it. With the kind of numbers this team could put up, the timing couldn’t be much better.