March 14th, 2012

Wednesday: The fifth starter race rolls along

Jim Leyland had an interesting way to describe what happens to prospects contending for big-league roster spots for the first time as they survive camp cuts and the once-crowded clubhouse begins to clear out:

“I always like to look — and shortly, the numbers are going to go down more — when you start to look at guys that are still here. Do they look like a deer in the headlights? If they do, you probably have the wrong guy. If they come in like they belong here and go about their business and everything, then you probably have the right guy.

“If they come in here all of a sudden and start looking around like, ‘Oh my god, there’s 18 pitchers left in and gosh, I’m one of them,’ if they start shaking like a dog [dropping] peat seeds, that’s not good.”

No, I imagine it’s not.

The contestants in the Tigers’ fifth-starter derby — you know, the four or five guys with seven Major League starts combined — are about to go through that. They probably would be nearing it soon if Jacob Turner hadn’t gotten tendinitis. But now that a week without picking up a baseball is going to set Turner back, putting possibly the most talented pitcher of the bunch in Triple-A Toledo to start the year — the spotlight is on the rest of these guys now. And Leyland, Jeff Jones and the rest of the Tigers coaching staff are going to find out some things.

“I am seeing more things developing,” Leyland said. “There’s too many things: Who are they pitching against? What kind of team did the other team bring? When did they come in? We’re not even close to the finished product yet.”

Leyland didn’t announce the starter for Saturday’s spring training game by name Wednesday, saying only that “one of the kids” will get it. According to Thursday’s game notes, it’s Adam Wilk, with Andy Oliver and Drew Smyly pitching in relief. If you assume everybody stays on turn — and there’s no reason to think otherwise right now — then one would assume that either Andy Oliver, Drew Smyly or Adam Wilk will make that start against the Cardinals at Joker Marchant Stadium.

Assuming they don’t pitch again before the Tigers’ lone off-day of the spring five days later, they’ll get maybe three more starts before the Tigers break camp — maybe, because the last turn would come on the next-to-last day on the Tigers’ Grapefruit League schedule. The longer this competition goes, and the less clarity it gains, the more attention it could likely gain. If Andy Oliver continues to pitch like he has the last couple outings, that could take care of itself.

And here’s the kicker: The prospective Tigers starters can look at each other every day in camp, but they’re arguably competing against guys who aren’t even in this camp. The Tigers have scouts out and about this spring. They reportedly have been watching Nationals lefty John Lannan (Isn’t that an automatic, considering his last start was against the Tigers in Lakeland?), among others.

I said it going into camp, and I still believe the Tigers want to fill that fifth spot in-house if at all possible. They have to develop another young starter or two at some point, and if you can’t do it with this team, when can you? (four established starters, potentially obscene amount of run support) If you need a stellar fifth starter to win this division, you have bigger problems than a fifth starter. But I also think the Tigers will be willing to do it if it gets to that point.

It all adds up to an interesting stretch coming up for these guys. It was interesting for Casey Crosby, who entered a bases-loaded jam with three straight left-handed hitters coming up and gave up an infield single and back-to-back walks, then pitched two dominant innings from there.

The Tigers won’t be evaluating daily, but they’re be watching.

What we learned Wednesday: Between Casey Crosby and Matt Hoffman, the Tigers are not short on young lefty relief options if it gets to that point. Also, the term “general soreness” can mean a lot of different things.

What to remember: If the Tigers were to take a third lefty reliever, Crosby could be an intriguing option. He certainly has Leyland’s attention after his performance Wednesday. … It’s also worth remembering the first appearance for right-hander Bruce Rondon, who hit 100 mph on the stadium radar gun. He couldn’t command it, walking three batters (one of them ended with ball four sailing over the catcher and umpire all the way to the backstop on the fly), but the raw ability is definitely there.

Hey, it’s only Spring Training: As Leyland admitted afterwards, this was an ugly game, even by spring training standards. The damage included 18 combined walks, three each by three difference relievers in this game, three hit batters, and an out on a sharp ground ball that hit a Mets baserunner who was headed for second base safely. The two teams also combined for 22 runners left on base, 11 different pitchers, and a 3:43 game time.

The highlight play you saw: The game was on ESPN, so if you were watching, you saw Delmon Young throw out a runner at home plate to get Casey Crosby out of that third-inning mess. As Jim Leyland said, “It’s not back to a cannon yet, but it’s back. It’s pretty good, and it’s got a chance to get that good, because he’s getting much extension.”

Looking ahead: Justin Verlander will make his third start of the spring Thursday when the Baltimore Orioles come to Lakeland for a 1 p.m. ET game at Joker Marchant Stadium. Verlander has tossed six scoreless innings on four hits with no walks and five strikeouts so far this spring. Jose Valverde, Collin Balester, Joaquin Benoit and Tyler Stohr are also slated to pitch for Detroit.

To-do list for Thursday: Compare and contrast corner infield defenses in Baltimore and Detroit.

Leyland: Boesch “tweaked something,” probably lower back

The Tigers have put on their share of power displays during batting practice this spring, ever since camp started. Brennan Boesch became the first casualty of one.

Boesch was scratched from Wednesday’s Tigers starting lineup against the Mets with what was characterized as general soreness. But manager Jim Leyland’s explanation of it was simple enough.

“He hit one over the scoreboard [in batting practice] and tweaked something,” Leyland said Wednesday after the Tigers’ 7-6 win over the Mets. “He’ll probably play tomorrow.”

Trying to keep up with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in BP might do that.

Leyland’s explanation did enough to calm some nerves that grew out of the general soreness terminology, not to mention Boesch’s early exit a couple days ago. Boesch said Monday afternoon that he was fine, and that he was a healthy exit early on that game.

Boesch left the ballpark Wednesday before the clubhouse reopened.

Turner shut down for week with tendinitis (updated)

Tigers top prospect Jacob Turner, whose candidacy for Detroit’s fifth starter spot has been a struggle through the last couple outings, has been shut down from throwing for a week with what head athletic trainer Kevin Rand called tendinitis in his right shoulder.

Turner went through an examination with team doctors, Rand said.

“The other day in his outing, he had trouble getting loose and trouble finishing off his pitches,” Rand said. “So we’re basically shutting him down at this point in time to deal with a little bit of a tendinitis issue in his shoulder. We’re working on treatment, range of motion and strength until we feel comfortable putting him back out there.”

At the very least, that will cost him the next turn in the rotation, including the next edition of the fifth starter competition Saturday against the Cardinals at Joker Marchant Stadium. Whether he could be cleared to resume throwing and be ready again for the next rotation turn after that is questionable.

Manager Jim Leyland downplayed the concern over the setback Wednesday.

“For me, this is just a burp,” Leyland said.

When asked if this knocks Turner out of the fifth starter contest, Leyland said it did not. But he acknowledged it puts him behind.

“I would say it lessens his chances of being the fifth starter,” Leyland said. “Does it take him out? No.”

Turner struggled through his last outing on Monday, giving up a six-run inning to the Mets fueled by a Lucas Duda grand slam. Five of those runs were earned, thanks to Turner’s throwing error trying to start a double play.

Rand said Turner won’t pick up a baseball for a week.

“He was started on medication, and we’re going to let that run for a week,” Rand said.

Turner said Wednesday that Monday was the first time he had trouble “to that degree” getting his arm loose and extending his arm on his pitches. It had happened before, he acknowledged, but not nearly that bad.

“Being able to throw in the bullpen is great, but if you can’t get loose, that’s really the biggest thing,” Turner said. “And I just didn’t feel like I could.”

That carried into the game.

“I think anybody who was watching him felt that he wasn’t himself out there,” Rand said.

After that, he went through diagnostic tests. At this point, it doesn’t sound like anything more is scheduled.

“All our diagnostics we needed to do have been done,” Rand said.

Manager Jim Leyland said after that outing that Turner looked like he had “dead arm,” a term that was far more common in past years. Back then, it was the term for a period of spring training when pitchers were getting their arm in shape for game readiness. Now, with as much as time as pitchers put in throwing before they arrive at camp, it’s an almost rare term, and it’s a little more medical.

“Dead arm to me is just when you can’t put a finger on it,” Rand said. “You can’t say you’re sore in this [area], you really can’t pinpoint it, whether your arm’s tired, or you just don’t feel like it has any life. You feel like you just don’t have that pop [in your pitches]. And guys go through that in various stages.

“You don’t really hear as much of it anymore. Maybe we do a better job in assessing it, that type of thing. But players still go through it.”

Turner was clearly frustrated about the injury, but he surprisingly had a pretty good view of the big picture for him.

“It’s not the plan you want to go on, but at the same time, you want to get it taken care of now so that it doesn’t affect you during the season,” Turner said. “Obviously it’s frustrating, but at the same time, you want to get done with it now, get it out of the way.”

In other injury news, infielder Danny Worth remains day-to-day with soreness in his mid to lower back on his right side. He said Wednesday morning he felt a lot better and was hoping to take batting practice and infield work today, but probably won’t play in the game against the Mets.