March 10th, 2012

Game 8: Garcia makes an impression

Jim Leyland has been pretty vocal in his praise of Tigers prospects lately. He said Justin Henry has “turned into a prospect” as a left-handed hitting utility player, a commodity whose value Don Kelly has shown the last few years. He said Casey Crosby “could be a really good Major League pitcher” given some work with his command.

On Avisail Garcia, the 20-year-old Venezuelan outfielder with Miguel Cabrera’s body frame and a leadoff hitter’s speed, Leyland didn’t have to say much. Garcia’s play Saturday in just the later innings made his case for him.

“He’s got a great arm. He’s a very good outfielder. He’s a very good young talent,” Leyland said. “He got a big hit. He’s just a good young player. When he pops, it’s going to be big-time.”

He’s a distance from that yet, and the ultimate question with his Major League future will come down to whether he hits. His athletic ability, however, is unquestioned, though it got tested Saturday.

Garcia has made several running or sliding catches already this spring, and his loping journey to run down Jesus Flores’ flared fly ball in foul territory in shallow right field was one of the better ones given the distance he had to cover. But to then whirl and fire to third base was something else.

The throw was strong enough that he nearly got the ball to third base on the fly. Even with the short hop, he got it there easily ahead of the runner. But then, the runner might have frozen in shock anyway at the sight of the ball getting there.

Garcia didn’t have a doubt. He said through an interpreter that he knew the runner would go, and that he knew he had a play. Asked what he thought his chances were when he released the ball, he had a one-word answer: “Out.”

“That was a heckuva play,” Leyland said. “He’s a talented kid. He’s got talent.”

Asked what was bigger, his double play from right field or his double that put him on base for the tying run in the eighth inning, Garcia had another one-word answer: “Both.”

The double, too, showed off his athleticism; he was flying around first base as the ball hit the gap.

At some point, maybe in the first round of cuts, Garcia will head across the street to minor-league camp. But he has an excellent chance to open the season at Double-A Erie, where we should get a pretty good idea what kind of offense he’s got. The Florida State League, where Garcia spent last season at Class A Lakeland, tends to be more of a pitcher-friendly league. Between the smaller ballparks of the Eastern League and the friendly confines of Jerry Uht Park in Erie — including a hockey arena out beyond left field, he’s definitely headed to a hitter-friendly environment. He could be very fun to watch.

What we learned: Brandon Inge has some punch back in his bat at age 34, a strong suggestion that his offseason workout routine and added muscle has made at least some difference.

What to remember from Game 8: It isn’t just the stuff that Justin Verlander can throw that makes him good, or the attention he places on the most minute details. It’s also the muscle memory Verlander has built up in his mechanics that work, and his ability in recent years to fix himself and work back into a good form when he doesn’t have it at game’s start. After a first-inning in which he couldn’t locate much of anything to his standards, he rebounded in the second for back-to-back called third strikes on offspeed pitches.

Hey, it’s only Spring Training: The good news for Austin Jackson is that he seems to have a quicker swing. The bad news is that this quicker swing doesn’t do much good if he’s caught looking at strike three with his bat on his shoulder. He struck out looking in each of his first two plate appearances Saturday, then drew a walk in his third and final time up before being replaced by a pinch-runner. That means he didn’t put a ball in play today. He has struck out seven times in 17 plate appearances this camp, but he’s 4-for-7 when he puts the ball in play.

The highlight play you missed: If this game had been televised, Garcia’s throw from foul territory in right field to third base, nearly on the fly, would’ve been one of the best defensive plays you’ve seen in quite a while. As such, it fits this category. Since that was mentioned already, I’ll offer up a bonus: Alex Avila threw out Nationals speedster Roger Bernadina trying to steal second, and he did it with a one-hop throw that still beat Bernadina to second. Washington went 0-for-2 on stolen-base attempts off Avila.

Fun fact: Garcia was signed in 2007 for a $200,000 bonus.

None-game note of the day: Both Miguel Cabrera and Don Kelly were on the field early Saturday morning to take ground balls from the coaching staff. Some were off the fungo bat; others were thrown by a coach.

Looking ahead: The Tigers break up into split squads for the first time this spring, with both teams going on the road for 1:05pm ET games against the Phillies in Clearwater and the Astros in Kissimmee. For pitching assignments and travel rosters, please check the next entry down on this blog.

To-do list for Sunday: See how Drew Smyly reacts to Major League hitters in a starting assignment. He’ll be pitching against the Astros. Depending on Danny Worth and a side injury that Leyland mentioned, top prospect Nick Castellanos might also get a start at third for the Tigers if Danny Worth can’t go due to a strained side.

Breaking down Sunday’s travel rosters

A couple folks have asked who’s going where on Sunday, when the Tigers have two split squads going in two different directions. Here’s the breakdown of the regulars and prospects:

TIGERS VS. ASTROS at Kissimmee: Alex Avila, Brennan Boesch, Nick Castellanos, Prince Fielder, Avisail Garcia, Brandon Inge, Austin Jackson, Eric Patterson, Jhonny Peralta, Ryan Strieby, Danny Worth

TIGERS VS. PHILLIES at Clearwater: Miguel Cabrera, Andy Dirks, Justin Henry, Don Kelly, Ramon Santiago, Clete Thomas, Delmon Young.

Drew Smyly is starting against the Astros, followed by Phil Coke, Tyler Stohr, Darin Downs, Luis Marte and Brayan Villarreal. Rick Porcello will start against the Phillies, with Jose Ortega, Daniel Schlereth and Chris Bootcheck among those pitching in relief.

Jim Leyland is following the team to the Astros game so that he can watch Smyly.

Leyland: We can’t have innings for everybody (updated)

Update: Jim Leyland said after Saturday’s game that he is not close to deciding anything on the fifth starter spot, not even whittling down the candidates.

“I think at some point, you’ll probably eliminate two [candidates], and then go from there,” Leyland said. “But we’re not even close to that yet. I’m not any closer than I was at the start of camp. And that goes for starter and bullpen.”

The topic of getting pitchers enough innings came up before the game. Leyland confirmed that Matt Hoffman was good to get back into action after taking a comebacker off his knee last Sunday, and he branched into the topic of finding time for his pitchers.

“The problem we’re running into now: As the starting pitchers start to extend out a little bit, that means less innings available,” Leyland said. “So we’re trying to be real careful. Oliver’s going to pitch Monday. Smyly’s pitching tomorrow. We’re working through things, but we’re getting to the point … even from the get-go, you can’t get nine, 10 guys ready to start. It’s pretty impossible, but you try to do the best you can to get them out there.”

When asked if there comes a point where they just can’t have five guys battling for one open starting spot, Leyland answered, “That’s a good point. I would say that’s accurate.”

After Leyland’s later remarks, that point doesn’t seem to be close just yet.

“I don’t have a clue,” Leyland said. “I don’t think anybody does. In fact, we haven’t talked seriously about that yet.”

Saturday: Tigers vs. Nationals

Pretty standard lineup for the Detroiters today, save for Brandon Inge in the second spot. Don’t read too much into that, other than Jim Leyland looking to potentially get Inge an extra at-bat in these games without having to keep him in the field the whole game.

Ryan Perry is indeed on the travel roster for the Nationals. He’s scheduled to pitch at some point in this game.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Brandon Inge, 2B
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B
  5. Delmon Young, DH
  6. Brennan Boesch, RF
  7. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  8. Alex Avila, C
  9. Justin Henry, RF

P: Justin Verlander, Casey Crosby, Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit, Jose Valverde, Matt Hoffman (maybe).

NATIONALS

  1. Roger Bernadina, LF
  2. Steve Lombardozzi, 2B
  3. Danny Espinosa, SS
  4. Chad Tracy, 1B
  5. Jesus Flores, DH
  6. Mark Teahen, 3B
  7. Corey Brown, RF
  8. Jhonatan Solano, C
  9. Eury Perez, CF

P: John Lannan, Yunesky Maya, Tyler Clippard, Austin Bibens-Dirkx, Rafael Martin, Ryan Perry

Game 7: It had to end sometime

Maybe the Tigers really are ahead of everybody else this spring. Or at least they were.

Maybe the six days of live batting practice Tigers pitchers threw to Tigers hitters really did make a difference on both sides, giving the hitters a better sense of timing and the pitchers stronger command (Jacob Turner aside). Manager Jim Leyland isn’t going to have that much live BP next spring, but as long as they’re benefiting, he won’t apologize for it this time around.

The live BP was Jeff Jones’ idea in his first Spring Training as the pitching coach. He helped out Rick Knapp in years past, but this was his first spring really in charge of the program.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve swung the bats pretty good,” Leyland said Friday morning, before the loss. “They were throwing pretty hard to our hitters right off the bat.”

Maybe it did lead to an absolutely dominant week of Tigers baseball. And except for a regrettable pitch from Adam Wilk for a Carlos Ruiz three-run homer, and a bad inning for long relief candidate David Pauley, that Grapefruit League winning streak might be continuing, though it probably would’ve ended this weekend anyway with the split-squad matchups on Sunday.

The streak is over now after Friday’s 7-5 loss to the Phillies. Moreover, if the Tigers simply were ahead of other teams, that advantage is going to disappear quick. If they keep winning from here on out, especially down the stretch as rosters shrink and depth guys head to minor league camp, then they’re probably just plain better.

Keep in mind, Patterson today was probably the first case where a non-roster player was the primary source of the Tigers offense. The other exception might be Jerad Head in the low-scoring battle that opened the spring training schedule. Patterson was able to pounce on a couple of Halladay mistakes — one of them a cutter, the other a hanging changeup.

What we learned: Eric Patterson has some power, enough that pitchers have to stay honest.

What to remember from Game 7: The Tigers haven’t forgotten about David Pauley, but they haven’t handed him a spot either, which makes his struggle in the sixth inning a tough spot. Leyland said Pauley got hurt on two bad pitches they didn’t miss and two pretty good pitches that they managed to hit.

Hey, it’s only Spring Training: Patterson is not going to be a budding power hitter. He played in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League last year and still hit just five home runs between Triple-A Tucson and San Diego. He added a third hit later when he knocked a comebacker off the pitcher’s backside, and he singled for a fourth hit in the ninth inning.

The highlight play you missed: Don Kelly made a diving stop on Hunter Pence’s ground ball hit down the third base line. He couldn’t stop the base hit, though he tried to make the throw to first. The play, however, made a big impact on the Tigers infield defense.

 

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