March 2012

Could Tigers break camp with four starters?

It sounded like it wasn’t really an idea that interested Jim Leyland earlier this spring when he was first asked about it. Now that Opening Day is less than a week away, and the first game where they need a fifth starter is more than two weeks away, Leyland isn’t ruling out the potential that they could start the season with a four-man rotation and wait until they actually need their fifth starter April 14 before they call him out.

“We could,” he said.

How they would use that spot is another decision. The usual option is to carry an extra reliever. But in theory, the Tigers could carry an extra position player.

“If you decide to go with the one way, you could end up with an extra guy on the team,” Leyland said. “It might not be a pitcher. If you decide to go that way. That’s a big if.”

That question came up about a month ago. At that point, Leyland indicated they planned on taking 12 pitchers, but didn’t rule out the fifth starter staying back for a start in a minor-league game, saying that would be discussed.

“I think we’ll start the season with 12 pitchers,” Leyland said at the time. “I’d like to get everybody settled in.”

Leyland: “I know what my team is … pending.”

Jim Leyland was rubbing his temples as he talked with reporters before Saturday’s game. For someone who says he has a good idea about his final roster decisions, he looks like somebody stressing.

“I know what my team is, pending,” Leyland said. Then he emphasized again, “Pending.”

From his other comments, it doesn’t sound like there’s much disagreement on any of the likely choices.

“We’re all on the same page,” he said. “We’re got some things pending, obviously.”

That pending part is not a trade. To the best of his knowledge, he said, there are no trades in the works. So unless the Tigers are signing a free agent (and that’s highly unikely), the pending part would seem to be the waiver process, which they have to go through for guys who are out of minor-league options or guys who have the right to decline a minor-league assignment. Clete Thomas, for an example, would fit the first category, while Brandon Inge would fit both.

“We’re close,” he said at another point. “I just learned you have to be careful you don’t set things too early. … I mean, we pretty much know what our team is, but we could not say for sure.”

For what it’s worth, Drew Smyly is now officially listed as the probable starter for Monday’s home spring finale against the Blue Jays at Joker Marchant Stadium. That’s his turn in the spring rotation to pitch, having last pitched Wednesday against the Cardinals.

Inge, Laird both day-to-day

Gerald Laird was in the Tigers clubhouse Saturday morning and moving around fine. He indicated he thinks he could be ready in the next day or two. The Tigers seem to agree. Head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said Laird has a Grade 1 sprain of his left knee but should be fine.

“He’s basically a day-to-day guy for us,” Rand said.

As for the Brandon Inge update, he did not make the trip to Disney World today. He wasn’t seen in the clubhouse as the Tigers who weren’t on the trip headed out to work around 9:30, but he apparently stopped in to get treatment on his sore groin. Rand said he’s getting multiple treatments.

“The groin that he felt the other night at the end of the game, trying to beat out the double play ball, we’ve just kind of got to see where it takes us,” Rand said. “He’s a little bit better today. We’re keeping him off the field for a couple of days, just to give that a chance to come around. And hopefully he’ll be back for us in the next couple days.”

Saturday: Tigers at Braves

If you want to project a regular lineup except for Delmon Young, you’d be doing pretty good with this one. With Young not on the trip, Andy Dirks starts in left field and Brennan Boesch is the DH, with Clete Thomas in right field for the day.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Brennan Boesch, DH
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B
  5. Andy Dirks, LF
  6. Alex Avila, C
  7. Ryan Raburn, 2B
  8. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  9. Clete Thomas, RF

P: Justin Verlander

BRAVES

  1. Michael Bourn, CF
  2. Jack Wilson, 3B
  3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
  4. Dan Uggla, 2B
  5. Jason Heyward, RF
  6. Eric Hinske, LF
  7. David Ross, C
  8. Tyler Pastornicky, SS
  9. Tommy Hanson, P

So is anyone winning the 5th starter race?

Remember way back 24 hours ago when Jim Leyland was talking about how big of a day Friday was going to be for the Tigers?

“It’s a lot of pins and needles right now, to be honest with you,” Leyland said Thursday night. “Hopefully we’ll be a little closer after tomorrow.”

After today’s outing Duane Below, it doesn’t feel much closer to a resolution on the fifth starter. The only way it feels closer is that the outings might be done — unless the decision goes to the final day, in which case Drew Smyly might be able to pitch Monday against the Blue Jays.

Regardless, with just a few days left, there’s no clearer sense of a favorite.

Of all the fifth starter candidates going into camp, Below seemed the least likely to battle control problems. He’s the guy with the combination of experience and command, with enough velocity blended in.

That’s what made his outing Friday all the more perplexing. If he had gotten hit around, the Tigers might have been able to live with that. Maybe if those walks had been lengthy battles with several foul balls, or if they had been spread out over the various innings, it would feel different. But in walking four Orioles in the second inning, all on five pitches, he showed a struggle trying to correct his mechanics in the middle of an inning. Instead of going to offspeed pitches to try to correct his fastball command, he kept firing fastballs throughout the inning, and they kept sailing high and outside to right-handed hitters.

So where does this leave the Tigers? It certainly leaves them without a favorite. Realistically, they’re left with nobody having stepped up to grab the spot. In the end, you can make a case that the tiebreaker might be as much philosophical as anything.

Statistically, Smyly was more effective, both in damage and command. Nobody, not even those who totally bought into Smyly as a realistic candidate, could’ve expected that out of this group. He arguably had the best stuff of them all, a fastball up to 94 mph to go with at least three offspeed pitches.

But before he’s anointed the deserving winner, ponder this question: If you commit to him to open the season, do you have to commit to him for the year (unless things go completely sideways)? If you’re going to open the season with a “placeholder” in the fifth spot until you can get more clarity, is that something Smyly can handle, or would he risk suffering some of the same problems Oliver has encountered the last couple years? Would Below, by virtue by his experience and starter/relief versatility, be better suited since he could jump to the bullpen to make way for somebody else?

Just throwing some thoughts out there, thoughts that completely my own.

One thing that might make you feel a little better about how all this unfolded is the fact that the Tigers won’t need a fifth starter until April 14.

Inge out with sore groin

As recently as Friday morning, Brandon Inge was on the travel roster for Friday’s trip to Sarasota to face the Orioles. But when the Tigers were taking batting practice before the game, Inge wasn’t out there. This time of year, an absence like that — especially a player with as much speculation surrounding him as Inge — creates suspicion.

In this case, manager Jim Leyland said it’s an injury situation. Inge supposedly had a sore groin that he tweaked trying to run out Thursday night’s game-ending double play.

“He had a little groin [injury] last night. That’s why he didn’t come,” Leyland said. “He was getting treated all day. That last ball of the game, running to first, coming out of the box, he felt it a little bit. But I don’t think it’s anything serious. It didn’t appear to be, but it was a little sore, so I scratched him from the trip.”

The Tigers have another road trip Saturday, this time to Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex for a game against the Braves. Every position player except Delmon Young is on the travel roster for that one, but we’ll see Saturday morning if Inge makes the trip.

Laird leaves with left knee sprain

Tigers backup catcher Gerald Laird left Friday’s game against the Orioles with what the team called a left knee sprain after colliding with first baseman Don Kelly on a pop-up.

Laird will be re-evaluated on Saturday, according to the team. He’ll be evaluated on a day-to-day basis from there, but Laird said he should be ready to go again in a couple days.

“It’s all right, right now,” he said. “It feels fine. My biggest goal is to be healthy for the season. I’m just glad I can make the season. Being a catcher, I don’t want to mess with the knees.”

The injury happened in the second inning with the Tigers holding a 3-0 lead. Starting pitcher Duane Below had walked the bases loaded before inducing a high pop-up from Jai Miller.

The ball went almost straight up, leaving Laird just a few steps to camp under it. With a sunny sky over Ed Smith Stadium, however, Don Kelly kept tracking it. Laird said he called for the ball, but that Kelly didn’t hear him.

Kelly continued to chase it until the last second. When he tried to duck away, he ran into Laird’s left knee as Laird made the catch.

Laird held onto the ball as he tumbled to the ground, but he immediately clutched at his knee right afterward. Head athletic trainer Kevin Rand came out of the dugout to attend to him, and helped him off along with non-roster infielder Brandon Douglas. Laird was seemingly unable to put weight on his left leg.

“When I first felt it, it was something I didn’t feel before,” Laird said, “so I was kind of a little nervous more than anything. I’ve never had a knee injury. I was more nervous than anything. And then after a while I started getting the feeling back in my knee, and it felt better.”

The move came hours after the Tigers sent insurance catcher Omir Santos to minor-league camp for an expected starting role at Triple-A Toledo. Detroit can recall him in case of injury, but he would have to be placed on the 40-man roster to do so.

That no longer appears necessary.

“I’m fine,” Laird said. “It’s just a little sore, but that’s about it.”

Friday: Tigers at Orioles

As expected, Miguel Cabrera is in the lineup at third base. Jim Leyland said he doesn’t know how long he’ll be in the game, but he’ll be playing.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Brennan Boesch, RF
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Don Kelly, 1B
  5. Delmon Young, LF
  6. Ryan Raburn, 2B
  7. Clete Thomas, DH
  8. Ramon Santiago, SS
  9. Gerald Laird, C

P: Duane Below

ORIOLES

  1. Nolan Reimold, DH
  2. J.J. Hardy, SS
  3. Adam Jones, CF
  4. Matt Wieters, C
  5. Mark Reynolds, 3B
  6. Wilson Betemit, 1B
  7. Endy Chavez, LF
  8. Jai Miller, RF
  9. Robert Andino, 2B

P: Brian Matusz

Leyland: “A lot of pins and needles right now”

With Andy Oliver’s option to Toledo Thursday, the Tigers are one step closer to finalizing their roster, with two guys left competing for the starting job, four or five for the bullpen job by manager Jim Leyland’s count, and a few guys left for the final roster spot.

Leyland didn’t say those decisions are imminent — in fact, it’s possible that at least one could go down to the final day of camp — but he didn’t rule out the possibility of a roster move over the couple days while the Tigers are on the road. That in itself says a lot; the team normally prefers to make roster moves while the team’s at home and it’s easier to meet with players in the clubhouse.

“Things could happen,” Leyland said. “We’re close. We’ve still got some things to work out. … The wait’s almost over.”

He later hinted that something could happen after Friday’s game against the Orioles. For what it’s worth, Duane Below — competing for the starting spot along with Drew Smyly — is starting that game.

“It’s a lot of pins and needles right now, to be honest with you,” Leyland said. “Hopefully we’ll be a little closer after tomorrow.”

Boesch: “Getting to Detroit as fast as I can”

Brennan Boesch came to Spring Training ready to pick up the work on his swing that he began back home in California.

When he got that down a couple weeks ago, he started working on his approach.

After three homers in four days, including a rather mammoth shot to right-center Thursday night off Nationals right-hander Mitch Atkins, Boesch sounded like somebody ready to go north.

“I like to think that I build as Spring Training goes to a point where you feel like you have the swing where you want to be,” he said after the game. “And from then on, you’re playing and competing, and the swing’s no longer something you’re concerned about. It’s about getting good pitches and having a good approach in game situations. That’s when it starts to get fun, when you can trust your swing and start competing out there.”

Safe to say, he’s there.

“Yeah, I think most of us are at this point,” Boesch said. “Maybe some more than others, but for me, it’s just about getting to Detroit as quick as I can.”

Boesch said he hit a curveball — not a bad pitch by his view, but one that stayed up long enough for him to drive it.

He’s obviously going to keep getting at-bats down the stretch, but it’s about putting the finishing touches and stay fresh.

“If you’re not ready, there’s probably something physically wrong with you or you’ve been held back with an injury or tightness,” he said. “These last at-bats are really just fine-tuning, getting your legs under you, playing seven, eight, nine innings. But hittingwise, I think most guys are probably pretty prepared to start the season at this point.”

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