February 12th, 2013

Day 1: Rondon starts off camp firing

It took one day of spring training for Jim Leyland to put a cutoff on Bruce Rondon evaluations. As he put it, he’s not going to give daily updates on where Rondon stands.

For that matter, he isn’t planning on maintaining a scoreboard for the Rick Porcello/Drew Smyly competition for the fifth starter job, either.

“We know we have two guys capable of starting in the big leagues, and one of them is going to start for sure,” Leyland said Tuesday morning.

Leyland usually warns at some point early in every camp that he’s not going to do evaluations on guys fighting for jobs, trying to avoid having players read everything he says to try to gauge where they stand. Leyland just usually doesn’t put a halt on that this early. The flock of national writers already this week — four in the last two days, by my count — and the repeated questions about Rondon brought it on.

Now that formal workouts have started, reporters can get a look at Rondon for themselves. His first bullpen session Tuesday morning was impressive.

Rondon is big and imposing, but he doesn’t look as big as he’s listed. In fact, as I wrote in the notes on the site today, fellow relief prospect Melvin Mercedes looks bigger.

His fastball is imposing enough. Even this early in camp, he came out throwing fastballs — not necessarily game-speed fastballs like Joel Zumaya used to throw early in camp, but still pretty good. He had a smooth delivery that seemingly belied how hard he can throw. But then, you wouldn’t expect a violent delivery to show up in an early camp session.

It was enough to pique the curiosity for his later sessions, and especially his game appearances coming up. He certainly had the attention of Leyland, who stood a few feet away with pitching coach Jeff Jones for about half of Rondon’s session. He talked with assistant GM Al Avila about him as well, picking out stuff he noticed.

Look for a few more of these bullpen session on the back fields at Tigertown before live sessions against Tiger hitters begin. It’ll be fascinating to see who Leyland and his staff group up to face Rondon, at least the first time around. Remember, while his pitch quality isn’t in question, his command is something they’ll be watching.

A few more bullpen notes as we get underway with daily updates from Lakeland:

  • Though Leyland doesn’t guarantee they’ll break camp with two lefty relievers, he expects that theywill. That was in question this offseason with some of the moves they made (Daniel Schlereth nontendered, Matt Hoffman outrighted, no free agents added), as well as the willingness Leyland has to use Al Alburquerque and Brayan Vilarreal against left-handed hitters because of their swing-and-miss potential. “I think that we’ll have two left-handers in the bullpen,” Leyland said, “and Phil Coke will be one of them.”
  • Leyland said he felt like Luke Putkonen made “a lot of progress last year.” Whether he progresses into the conversation for a long relief spot remains to be seen.


Fielder helps unveil world’s largest baseball card

Prince Fielder card unveiledIf only this card came with a stick of gum.

Prince Fielder standing on cardWith Spring Training underway, the new sets of baseball cards are coming out. Topps decided to do something big to celebrate the unveiling of its Series 1 cards for 2013, so they went to Tigers slugger Prince Fielder, whose image graces the cover of the box. But unveiling the box set wouldn’t be enough, so they thought bigger.

In this case, they thought of a card nearly 90 feet tall and 60 feet wide, the largest card ever created and the equivalent of about 82,944 Topps cards. Then they thought of a ceremony to unveil it. So they came to Lakeland, where Fielder will be reporting to Tigers camp later this week, and invited about 75 kids from Lakeland City Baseball to Peterson Park on Lakeland’s south side, a few miles away from Joker Marchant Stadium.

The card pretty well engulfed center field when it was unveiled in a Tuesday morning ceremony.

“It is truly an honor and a thrill for me to be featured not only on the 2013 Topps Series 1 box, but also on the largest baseball card the world has ever seen,” Fielder said in a press release. “Baseball is back.”


Morning notes: Scherzer open to long-term deal

As it turns out, the Tigers didn’t really go to the 11th hour with Max Scherzer to avoid an arbitration hearing. Scherzer said his arbitration hearing was scheduled for Feb. 19, the next-to-last day of the arbitration period. He reached an agreement with the Tigers about two weeks ahead of that.

The fact that they settled was long expected, though it looked unlikely at one point. The fact that they brought up the possibility of a long-term contract, on the other hand, was a big surprise.

“We talked about it,” Scherzer said Tuesday morning, “but we were more focused on just getting one year done. We wanted to hammer that out first before we even thought about doing anything [long-term].”

The fact that Scherzer would be open to a long-term is a surprise. Agent Scott Boras’ usual preference is to have his clients test free agency and use the market to maximize their value. It usually takes quite a deal to get away from that, though Boras clients have signed long-term before. Jered Weaver is a recent example.

Scherzer definitely expressed an openness to signing long-term, though he didn’t indicate any negotiations were taking place.

“My preference is I love Detroit. I love the city. I love being part of this organization,” Scherzer said. “I love being part of this organization because of the winning atmosphere that comes from the owner that goes down to the GM, that goes down to management, that goes down to everybody. Not every organization has that, and to be part of an organization that’s all about winning, it’s something you want to be a part of.

“And so, if they would want to include me in their long-term plans, I want to be a part of it because of the atmosphere and culture here in Detroit.”

The Bourn ultimatum: Tigers need to hold down running game

Jim Leyland’s planned focus on making Tigers pitchers improve holding baserunners just took on a lot more importance. Michael Bourn’s jump to the American League Central guaranteed it.

With Bourn’s four-year deal with the Cleveland Indians, the Tigers now have 18 matchups against the toughest speed merchant to hit the division since Juan Pierre stole 68 bases with the White Sox three years ago. Detroit survived his arrival for two reasons: He hit just .247 (19-for-77) against the Tigers in 2010, and he went just 4-for-9 in steal attempts against them that season. He fared much better the following year, victimizing the Tigers for six of his 27 stolen bases, but couldn’t do enough to turn the race.

The Tigers were in the middle of the pack among AL teams in allowing stolen bases in that 2011 season, giving up 119 stolen bases in 168 attempts. Those numbers jumped all around last season, up to 131 steals in 176 tries for a 74.4 percent success rate. Only the Indians (140) gave up more stolen bases among AL teams.

That said, by throwing out 25.6 of would-be basestealers, a four-percent drop from the previous season, the Tigers still had the sixth-best rate in the AL.

The Tigers were in the middle of the pack in pitcher pickoffs (14, 6th-best in AL) and pitcher caught stealing (10, tied for 4th).

Leyland believes they can do better, mainly on the numbers that show for their catchers. Get quicker to home plate and hold runners better, and Alex Avila will have a fighting chance to throw out more basestealers.

Not only did AL stolen base champion Mike Trout not swipe a base against the Tigers last year, he didn’t even attempt one. Of course, when six of his 11 hits against Detroit went for extra bases (including four home runs), he didn’t have much of a need.

A dozen players accounted for 49 of the 131 stolen bases off Tiger pitching last year, and they did so with an efficient rate of success. Alcides Escobar led the pack, going 7-for-8. Former Toledo Mud Hen Dewayne Wise went 6-for-7. Twins speedster Ben Revere, now a Phillie, went 5-for-7.

Alexei Ramirez (4-for-4), Michael Brantley (4-for-4), Rajai Davis (4-for-5) and Darin Mastroianni (4-for-5) were next on the list. Asdrubal Cabrera, Alejandro De Aza and Jarrod Dyson all went 3-for-3.

Just four players — Revere, Nelson Cruz, Erick Aybar and Jason Kipnis — were thrown out multiple times by the Tigers last season, twice each.

What does that mean for Bourn’s chances? Well, first, we’ll have to see how he adjusts to the American League after spending his entire career in the NL. As someone on Twitter pointed out, he can’t steal first, so the best way Tigers pitchers can counteract him is by getting him out. His strikeout high gives them something to look at. The only Tiger he has faced extensively is Anibal Sanchez, and he’s 6-for-18 as a hitter against him.