January 2013

Will Kenny Rogers return to camp as an instructor?

The Tigers have invited former ace Kenny Rogers to return for a second Spring Training as an instructor, but aren’t sure yet whether the schedule will allow it to happen.

You might remember that Rogers spent about a week in Lakeland last spring to work with pitchers on fielding and holding runners. It went well for both sides, and the Tigers are hoping to have him back.

“We are still working on the possibility,” Dave Dombrowski replied in an email Thursday. “It depends if it fits into his schedule. He has been invited.”

Rogers is a full-time dad and a part-time coach for his two kids back home in Texas, being around in a way he couldn’t be when he was pitching for a living. That’s one reason why he hasn’t considered trying out coaching on anything more than a cameo basis, and a reason why the schedules didn’t work out to bring him back until last spring.

Back on the Verlander (World Baseball Classic) watch

wbclogoRealistically, there are two things to watch for with Justin Verlander this spring, but with no contract talks going on (at least from what Verlander said last week), the World Baseball Classic is the one generating news. The latest update came Wednesday from CBSSports.com’s Jon Heyman, who cites sources saying USA Baseball officials are growing optimistic Verlander will opt to take part.

It’s slightly surprising, given what Verlander was saying last week about waiting to see how he feels in early throwing workouts. But with Kris Medlen and Andy Pettitte both reportedly out, Team USA desperately needs starting pitching, and it isn’t hard to envision pressure being applied to Verlander, who played for Team USA in international play when he was in college and enjoyed the experience.

Final rosters have to be set February 20, so Verlander has just about a week of formal workouts plus early throwing sessions to gauge his arm, which he said last week will be the determining factor for him. It’s not simply about making sure his arm is fine. If he’s going to pitch in the event, he said, he’s going to have to be able to throw without holding anything back or pacing himself. So he’s going to have to be ahead of schedule compared to his normal spring routine.

“In Spring Training games, you can afford to hold a little bit back,” Verlander said last Thursday. “But all of a sudden, you put yourself in a situation like that, and it’s pedal-to-the-metal. There’s no holding anything back. When you’re playing for your country, it means something.”

Add in the fact that Verlander began his throwing program later this offseason to let his arm rest after another long postseason run, and even Verlander admitted last Thursday that it should theoretically make him less likely to take part. But it’s hard to tell Verlander he can’t do something.

The Tigers don’t have a say in this one, and even if they did, they wouldn’t try to tell Verlander what to do. The decision is all his, and I expect he’ll get a slew of questions about it for the first week of camp.

Highlights from Leyland at TigerFest

Jim Leyland spent a good amount of time at TigerFest trying to caution about expectations — it’s OK for fans to have them, he said more than once, but the team has to be cautious about allowing those expectations to affect them.

“Expectations are high, and they should be,” Leyland said. “We just have to make sure we don’t get caught up in that.”

In fact, he called it his second-biggest concern behind figuring out what he’s going to do to close out games.

“Don’t put any extra pressure on yourself because they expect us to win,” Leyland said. “Well, we expect to win, too, but it’s not that easy. Just don’t get caught up in all the hoopla. Just come ready to do your job each and every day, play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”

Jim Leyland talks with reporters at TigerFest

Jim Leyland talks with reporters at TigerFest

That, of course, led to another discussion on his philosophy, and some of the carryover from his reaction to fan criticism last year. Even after a deep playoff run seemingly vindicated him from the hot seat he seemingly spent all summer keeping warm, Leyland still seemed to remember some of the critiques. He brought up the topic of lineups when somebody asked him whether Torii Hunter will hit second, and about team speed and better, more aggressive baserunning.

“I get a kick out of everybody referring to me as old, old school,” Leyland said. “If you think old school is doing things right, then I’m old school. I’m proud of that. That’s not old school to me. If you do things right, that has nothing to do with old school. You do things right. You respect the game. You respect the fans. You keep them entertained. You do things the right way. It has nothing to do with being old, even though I am old. That’s just the way it is.”

Other notes from Leyland’s talk with reporters early Saturday afternoon:

  • He didn’t call the closer’s job a competition, saying again that he might tinker with Bruce Rondon and others sharing opportunities.
    “I’m not afraid to tinker with it. I’m not afraid to mix and match,” Leyland said. “You just have to be careful, because this is a real sensitive subject. We have guys that can close a game, but I’m not sure other than potentially Rondon whether we have guys that can potentially close every game. In other words, Cokey can save a game, Benoit can save a game, Dotel can save a game, but I’m not sure if any of those guys can hold up day after day, physically or mentally, and I think that you have to be careful with that. So if I have to mix and match, I’ll mix and match. I’m not afraid.”
  • Leyland indicated he might bring Victor Martinez back gradually in Spring Training to give him time to adjust to not seeing live pitching for more than a year.
  • Hitting on the discussion above, Leyland indicated that he probably won’t have that much more aggressive of a baserunning team, mainly because of the talent he had. In his explanation, he sounded a little like legendary Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula and his ability to adapt to the talent he has. “Everybody thinks they need to be more aggressive,” Leyland said. “Well, we’re aggressive by hitting doubles and homers. If we had the 1959 Chicago White Sox, I’d run, I’d squeeze, I’d bunt, I’d do all those things. But we don’t have that type of team. And to me, smart managers take the talent that they have, and the manager adjusts to the player. You don’t ask a player to adjust to the manager. The manager adjusts to the type of team you have. I mean, that’s what smart managers do, I think.”
  • Leyland on his team’s potential to manufacture offense more often: “I think on the days when you run into a real nasty pitcher and you’re probably not hit a two- or three-run homer, then we might be able to manufacture a little bit more with this team than we have in the past. But we’re still not a big basestealing, hit-and-run team. We’re not that, because we’re going to end up opening bases for guys that we don’t want to open up bases for. They’re going to end up walking them.”

Highlights from Dombrowski at TigerFest

The return of TigerFest meant the return of Dave Dombrowski’s question-and-answer session with Tigers fans. This year, there weren’t any revelations or anything, but there were some interesting tidbits and a little insight on some of the team’s thinking heading into Spring Training. Here’s the short version:

  • As he did in West Michigan, Dombrowski called Bruce Rondon “the leading candidate” for the closer job, indicating that there’s a competition to some extent for the job. He did not get into the other options, though he stated they have a wealth of experienced relievers who can do the job. As manager Jim Leyland said later, they have a lot of guys who can close, but Rondon’s probably the one guy who could close full-time.
  • Dombrowski repeated another tidbit he noted earlier in the week, that the Venezuelan baseball federation is interested in having Rondon join the national team for the World Baseball Classic. That seems to be a new development Dombrowski said later Saturday that no official invite had been extended for Rondon or for Omar Infante, who supposedly was being added to the Team Venezuela roster a week ago.
  • A fan asked Dombrowski whether they were considering free-agent closer Brian Wilson, now the top closer option on the market after Rafael Soriano signed. Dombrowski didn’t want to get into details, but said that one problem is that Wilson wants to be assured he’s the closer wherever he signs. “We’re really not in that position to be able to make him that promise right now,” Dombrowski said. If they can’t offer him that right now, it’s hard to imagine that changing unless Rondon outright struggles in Spring Training.
  • Again, Dombrowski didn’t want to get into specifics when asked about a possible contract extension for Justin Verlander. “Anytime we have contract negotiations, we do those behind the scenes,” Dombrowski said. “We’ll see what happens, but we hope he’s here for a long time.”
  • Like others around baseball have said, Dombrowski doesn’t expect any changes to replay in Major League Baseball for the upcoming season. Eventually, he expects change to happen towards more use of replay. “We’re moving in that direction,” Dombrowski said. “Where that takes us, I’m not sure.”
  • For the first time I can remember, Dombrowski went into some detail on the organization’s view on players participating in the World Baseball Classic. “The growth of the game is intentional in many ways. I have no problem if a player decides that they want to leave if they’re in proper condition. Personally, you’d rather have them stay with your club, but I never try to talk anybody out of it, because I understand the importance. But from a club perspective, you always like to have your players with you if you can. But we’ve done pretty well in the years we’ve had it in the past.”

Verlander: “I would love to play my career here”

The Tigers began the Detroit portion for their winter caravan Thursday with a media luncheon, and as with last year, Justin Verlander was the center of attention once the interviews began. He talked about his upcoming appearance in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, his offseason workouts (he put off his throwing program this winter after a long season and didn’t began throwing until earlier this month) and the outlook for the team.

Once the scrum died down, then came the discussion about his contract status. He has two years left on his current deal, usually the time when teams consider extensions for guys they want to keep. The Tigers have said very little about their plans on that. Verlander let his side be known.

“There haven’t been any talks,” Verlander said. “I’ve made no secret that I love Detroit. I grew up in front of these fans. I feel like I’ve been a big part of this city, and this city has become a big part of me. So I, obviously, would love to play my career here.

“I’ve made this point before, that the ultimate goal for me is the Hall of Fame, and I would like nothing better than to go into the Hall of Fame with the Old English D on my chest. That doesn’t happen too often nowadays, for somebody to play with a team through their whole career. You see Chipper Jones, what he did, that’s something special.  But, like I said, there’s been no talks yet.”

Asked if he’d prefer having those talks now or whether they might be put off until next offseason, Verlander said, “It doesn’t matter. I mean, that’s not up to me.”

When asked how important it would be to him if he became baseball’s first $200 million pitcher, Verlander let out a laugh.

“Loaded question there,” Verlander smiled as he pondered. “Well, you guys know me and how competitive I am with every aspect of everything. But I’m my own individual. I don’t look at anybody else and say he did this, he did that. It’s what I’m comfortable with when it comes to something like that. There’s been no discussions as of yet. Don’t know if there will be.”

The fact that there’s no public timetable for talks at this point doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen. If you remember back to this point three years ago, Verlander sounded back then like there was nothing close. Two weeks later, they had a deal.

A new deal now would be more complicated. Instead of a promising young pitcher on the rise, Verlander has arrived, now at the top of his profession. Still, the Tigers have a talent for putting together deals without prolonging talks.

In other news, Verlander said he has not yet decided whether he’ll pitch in the World Baseball Classic, where a potential spot is waiting for him on Team USA. How he feels in his bullpen sessions early in camp will help him decide, he says. If he does take part, he admits it would be hard not to go all-out against hitters, which would be a big  change from his usual Spring Training approach of every pitch with a purpose. That might be enough to keep him out.

“In Spring Training games, you can afford to hold a little bit back,” Verlander said. “But all of a sudden, you put yourself in a situation like that, and it’s pedal-to-the-metal. There’s no holding anything back. When you’re playing for your country, it means something.”

Pre-emptive Leyland contract post

Jim Leyland had a little fun as he walked by the reporters in the hallway of Fifth Third Field in Toledo on Wednesday night.

“You guys thought you got rid of me,” he said with a smile.

He didn’t have a whole lot of chance to take his shot as the Tigers were going through the playoffs and it became obvious the Tigers would extend his contract. So he got it in now.

Officially, his status wasn’t decided until the offseason began. The way Leyland sounded Wednesday, his status for 2014 will be on the same timetable. Again, he doesn’t expect it to happen until the season ends. As long as he’s going year to year with his contract, this is going to happen.

Leyland talks Smyly, Porcello, Dirks, Boesch, Garcia, Peralta at Hens Fandemonium

The 2013 Tigers winter caravan is unofficially underway with the Toledo Mud Hens Fandemonium and the West Michigan Whitecaps Winter Banquet. Here in Toledo, Jim Leyland has had his interview, his first with the local media since the winter meetings a month and a half ago. And as usual, he touched upon a lot of topics:

  • Leyland correctly figures he’ll be asked more about the closer situation than anything else this week, and he said he’ll be following Bruce Rondon while he works this spring. One thing he’ll be trying to do is get an idea how he reacts to save opportunities, especially how he reacts after a bad outing. That, he said, will be the key to how he handles the job when the season begins. He’s hoping that opening the season on the road in Minnesota will allow him to get a save opportunity in without the pressure of the home crowd on him.
  • Leyland suggested he could ease Rondon in on the job. “We’ll give him an opportunity,” Leyland said. “We’re not going to get crazy with it. Hopefully he’ll save a couple, and if he looks real good, save another one, and if he looks a little fragile, maybe use someone else for a day and maybe break him in. It’s tough to do that with a closer, but I think you just use common sense and play it by ear.”
  • Leyland set the stage for a competition between Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly for the fifth spot in the rotation assuming the Tigers don’t make a move. “Smyly’s really good. I really like him, but Porcello’s really good too,” Leyland said. “I just wouldn’t be saying just turn the job over to Smyly automatically. Let’s just see what happens. Competition is great. I love competition.”
  • Leyland also suggested that the loser in the starting competition would have a spot open in the bullpen if he has his way. “Right now, if Smyly was the starter, as we stand right now, Porcello would be some sort of safety valve for us in the bullpen,” Leyland said. “If Porcello’s the starter, Smyly would be the left-hander in the bullpen right now, most likely, unless something would come up where they’d want him to go out and pitch more. That’s a nice luxury, but that’s a simple one. That’s not hard at all. I know we’ve got six. We probably don’t have seven right now.”
  • Another competition is going to be in left field, where Brennan Boesch (again, if the Tigers don’t make a move) will get his shot to beat out Andy Dirks. “I think you’re going to see Boesch and Dirks competing,” Leyland said. “I think that’s great. Brennan Boesch has done some pretty good things. Andy Dirks has done some pretty good things. So as this team stands right now, let’s compete.”
  • Leyland on Avisail Garcia’s situation in camp: “Well, I’ll put that one as an I-don’t-know,” Leyland said. “He hasn’t done very well in winter ball. He hasn’t hit very good. First of all, I’ll preface it by saying he’s a terrific prospect with the potential maybe to be a star player. And I think what we’ll have to decide, my boss will let me know, if he doesn’t want to take him and play him part time and not get enough at-bats. Obviously, he’s not going to be the everyday left fielder, most likely, at least not right now. So that’ll be a decision: Will he be that extra right-hander to platoon a little bit out there, or would we rather him play at Toledo and get a lot of at-bats? I don’t really know the answer just yet.”
  • Leyland stopped short of saying Dirks would be an everyday player, citing a concern about wearing him down. “I think you’d be pushing it to say that you could play him every day right now,” Leyland said. “I mean, I could, but you might get better results playing him most of the time. If him and Boesch compete for that spot in left field, who knows? Let’s open up the competition.”
  • Leyland sounded encouraged by the reports about Jhonny Peralta’s offseason work in south Florida. “Peralta’s going to look real good when he comes in,” Leyland said. “Peralta’s got a chance to play good.”
  • When asked if Boesch has a clean slate this year after a 2012 season to forget, Leyland said, “We all come in with a clean slate. Every one of us. Nobody care that we swept the Yankees.”
  • Leyland is not concerned about losing Miguel Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez and (likely) Omar Infante to the World Baseball Classic.

Ryan Raburn signs minor-league deal with Cleveland

Ryan Raburn robs Michael Young of a home run. (AP)By now, you’ve probably heard this, but it became official on Monday: Ryan Raburn is going to try to stay in the American League Central, signing with the Indians on a minor-league contract that includes an invitation to Spring Training with the big league club. My MLB.com counterpart in Cleveland, Jordan Bastian, has the details in his story.

From the Tigers standpoint, it really doesn’t make an impact. Detroit parted ways with the decision to not tender him a contract at the end of November. The Tigers weren’t going to bring him back on a minor-league deal, even though they’re looking for a right-handed bat to provide a presence against left-handed pitchers. The opportunities pretty well ran out last summer.

It would be nonetheless interesting if Raburn makes the Tribe roster and gets to face his old team, even if it’s a reserve role like the Indians are seeking at second and third base. When you look at some of the other names in camp that Bastian mentions, it’s a very winnable competition for Raburn if he hits like he did last Spring Training (six home runs by St. Patrick’s Day). From the story:

Cleveland’s projected infield includes first baseman Mark Reynolds, second baseman Jason Kipnis, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall. Utility man Mike Aviles is in line to fill the primary backup job for second, short and third.

Gomes and McGuiness will also be in Spring Training vying for utility roles, along with Cord Phelps and Mike McDade. Like Raburn, infielders Nate Spears and Luis Hernandez will also be in camp as non-roster invitees.

Regardless of how you feel about Raburn’s tenure in Detroit (Remember when everybody dogged Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008 for calling Raburn a scrub?), it would be nice to see Raburn get another shot in the big leagues before it’s too late. He turns 32 in April, and while his shortcomings are obvious, there’s more talent there than he has shown. When he heats up at the plate, the confidence makes him a complete different players. When he’s struggling, well, that carries over too.

For what it’s worth, Cleveland has been a good place for him. In fact, he has more hits at Progressive Field (28) than at any Major League ballpark besides Comerica Park (174) and U.S. Cellular Field (46). Actually, when you look at his splits, he has been an amazingly efficient hitter on the road in the AL Central compared with everywhere else (including at home).

Will Infante play in the World Baseball Classic?

Among the surprises with last week’s unveiling of the World Baseball Classic provisional rosters was only two Tigers on Team Venezuela. It wasn’t as big of a surprise as, say, no Tigers on Team USA, but Detroit had candidates beyond Miguel Cabrera and Anibal Sanchez. Omar Infante, in particular, was much rumored for a spot on the club. The one obstacle was the fact that the Venezuelan infield is pretty stacked.

Whether something has changed is up in the air. A tweet from the man in charge of the Venezuela baseball federation suggested Infante is joining the squad.

I double checked with two baseball writers in Venezuela, and they both said it’s legit, that Infante will be the 21st player on the roster (their provisional roster had just 20).

Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Monday afternoon that while there have been rumors it would happen, there’s nothing official yet. At this point, that might just be a matter of time.

One potential reason for the delay might have been Infante’s offseason recovery from the left wrist injury he suffered in Game 4 of the World Series. He was reportedly cleared to begin playing winter ball for Caribes de Anzoategui last week, and he’s on track to be ready for full work in Spring Training.

A report from the Venezuelan sports publication Lider en Deportes suggested Infante could play some outfield in the World Baseball Classic, a throwback to his younger days as a superutility player before he became an everyday second baseman again a couple years ago. That, however, is way unofficial, and it could depend on the rest of Venezuela’s infield. Pablo Sandoval was reportedly hospitalized with colitis, but rejoined his winter league team a few days ago.

Tigers arbitration roundup: Avila, Fister, Jackson, Porcello, Boesch, Coke signed

Friday afternoon was the deadline for teams and arbitration-eligible players to exchange salary numbers, which usually makes it a good artificial deadline for the two sides to settle. It doesn’t mean that the two sides can’t keep negotiating after that; in fact, sometimes having numbers in front of them helps to define a middle ground and find a number for compromise. It’s just a lot more hassle, and more risk that a player might be so put off by a low number that they want to see a case through, so teams prefer to get deals done now.

With that in mind, six of the seven arbitration-eligible Tigers have agreed to terms:

  • Alex Avila and the Tigers have agreed on a one-year, $2.95 million deal to avoid arbitration, a source confirmed. He was eligible for arbitration for the first time.
  • Doug Fister, also a first-time arbitration eligible, settled with the Tigers for a one-year, $4 million deal, according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com.
  • Austin Jackson, also eligible for arbitration for the first time in his promising career, agreed to a one-year contract worth $3.5 million. A source confirmed Heyman’s original report.
  • Rick Porcello, who was up for arbitration for the second time, has agreed to terms on a one-year, $5.1 million deal, first reported by MLB Trade Rumors. That’s a big move for the Tigers, whether they trade Porcello or keep him. Porcello could’ve made things tougher on the club if he wanted.
  • Brennan Boesch will make $2.3 million on a one-year contract, MLB.com has learned.
  • Phil Coke, who was eligible for arbitration for the second time, will make $1.85 million, up from $1.1 million last year.

That leaves Max Scherzer as the only arbitration case left. They exchanged numbers today — the Tigers offering $6.05 million, Scherzer asking for $7.4 million, according to Heyman.

If you’re keeping track of what this means for the Tigers payroll, the signings so far add up to $19.65 million, compared with the $6.22 million they combined to make last year. Thus, the payroll bump is about $13.43 million, pending Scherzer. If the Tigers and Scherzer settle around the midpoint between their submitted offers, the total payroll bump from arbitration cases will work out to around $16.4 million.

Like Jackson and Boesch, Scherzer is a Scott Boras client, though that doesn’t make an arbitration case any more likely than with another agent. In fact, the Tigers have had pretty good success settling cases with Boras’ clients before going to arbitration. It’s the long-term deals to avoid free agency that are trickier, since Boras usually recommends that players test the open market.