February 2013

Saturday: Thinking positive thoughts for Belliard

I pulled into Joker Marchant Stadium this morning planning on writing about Bruce Rondon’s first outing of the spring. I spent most of the afternoon thinking about how coach Rafael Belliard traveling on the Tigers winter caravan last month just days after being diagnosed with prostate cancer, and days before he was scheduled for surgery to remove two tumors.

You won’t find a nicer guy on the team than Rafael Belliard. You won’t find anything but a smile on his face when he goes out to the field. And you won’t find a harder worker. You just won’t find him talked about very often because infield coaches don’t get much attention.

When Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder were fielding ground balls early in the morning last spring, Belliard was the one feeding the ground balls to them every day. When Brandon Inge and Ryan Raburn were trying to move to second base last year, that was Belliard’s task. When Jhonny Peralta needed work at shortstop, Belliard was the man.

When Peralta was getting extra work at shortstop in workouts last week, Belliard was the one working with him. Never mind that he couldn’t hit fungoes because he had just had surgery a couple weeks earlier.

When Belliard was diagnosed with prostate cancer in mid-January, he was thinking about his job when he tried to schedule surgery as soon as possible (he had it 13 days later). He also wanted to get it over with. When doctors realized from the tumors how aggressive the cancer was, it might have been a life-saving decision.

Baseball is a sport with good guys, and they don’t come better than Belliard. When spring training turns to midseason and you see the message time and again about prostate cancer awareness, about early detection being vital and about the importance of a routine physical exam, think about Rafael Belliard, whose season-ending exam as part of the team led to detection.

Here’s hoping the 95 percent chance of survival he cited becomes 100 percent, and that we see him congratulating Cabrera and Fielder as they round first base on home runs this summer. He’s in the dugout for now, but hopefully not for long.

Saturday: Tigers vs. Blue Jays

Unless the Twins start a left-hander like Scott Diamond, this is the Tigers’ Opening Day lineup. As promised, Jim Leyland will trot out his starters so that fans who made the trip to Florida this early to see Spring Training games can say they saw all the regulars. Normally, he’d do it in the Florida Southern exhibition, but with that exhibition moved back to March 16, he’ll do it against the Jays.

Another bonus: Fans will get to see Bruce Rondon in his first outing in his bid for the closer’s job. Leyland said Rondon will most likely pitch the fifth inning.

Remember, while this game will be on radio live at 97.1 FM in Detroit and MLB Gameday Audio online, the telecast will be on tape delay (unless you live in Canada, where you can watch on Sportsnet). MLB Network will have the re-broadcast at midnight ET.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Torii Hunter, RF
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B
  5. Victor Martinez, DH
  6. Andy Dirks, LF
  7. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  8. Alex Avila, C
  9. Omar Infante, 2B

P: Anibal Sanchez, Shawn Hill, Trevor Bell, Bruce Rondon, Ryan Robowski, Melvin Mercedes

BLUE JAYS

  1. Emilio Bonifacio, SS
  2. Maicer Izturis, 2B
  3. Brett Lawrie, 3B
  4. Adam Lind, 1B
  5. J.P. Arencibia, DH
  6. Josh Thole, C
  7. Moises Sierra, RF
  8. Anthony Gose, CF
  9. Ricardo Nanita, LF

P: Brandon Morrow, Brad Lincoln, Steve Delabar, Esmil Rogers, David Bush, Ramon Ortiz, Neil Wagner

Friday: Tigers at Braves (Happy Spring Training)

Gerald Laird played a big role in Rick Porcello’s development as a rookie in 2009, and caught him quite a bit again last year. Today, he gets to hit against the sinkerballer. He’s in the Braves starting lineup today, batting seventh eighth. So unless Porcello retires the side in order twice, he’ll face him.

Laird said during batting practice that he texted Porcello earlier in the week when he saw the pitching assignments. “I told him, ‘Don’t look at me in the batters box,'” Laird said. “You have a job to win.”

TIGERS

  1. Quintin Berry, CF
  2. Omar Infante, 2B
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B
  5. Victor Martinez, DH
  6. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  7. Brayan Pena, C
  8. Avisail Garcia, RF
  9. Nick Castellanos, LF

P: Rick Porcello, Luis Marte, Luke Putkonen, Jose Ortega, Darin Downs, Jose Alvarez, Kenny Faulk.

BRAVES

  1. Andrelton Simmons, SS
  2. Jason Heyward, RF
  3. Justin Upton, LF
  4. Freddie Freeman, 1B
  5. B.J. Upton, CF
  6. Dan Uggla, 2B
  7. Juan Francisco, 3B
  8. Gerald Laird, C
  9. Blake DeWitt, DH

P: Tim Hudson, Craig Kimbrel, Luis Avilan, Cory Gearrin, Cristhian Martinez

Tigers Opening Day lineup pretty well set, too

Those projections you’ve been seeing for a potential Tigers Opening Day lineup were pretty well on, assuming they face a right-handed pitcher on April 1 in Minnesota.

Jim Leyland confirmed his plans Thursday, the day before the Tigers begin their Spring Training games and just hours after Leyland announced his lineup for Friday’s Spring Training opener against the Braves. That’s really early to be announcing an Opening Day lineup, but considering how few positional battles they have, Leyland figured he’d get it out of the way now.

If the Tigers face a right-hander April 1 at Target Field, their batting order will look like this:

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Torii Hunter, RF
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B
  5. Victor Martinez, DH
  6. Andy Dirks, LF
  7. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  8. Alex Avila, C
  9. Omar Infante, 2B

Again, it’s nothing that goes against what had already been projected.

“I even saw a few fans [online] who agreed with me on that,” Leyland joked.

If the Twins open with a lefty, such as Scott Diamond, Leyland will have a decision to make in left field, where he has been talking about looking for a right-handed hitting option. However, he could still end up starting Dirks.

Tigers lineup set for Spring Training opener

Even Jim Leyland is getting bored about workouts and live batting practice, because his lineup for Friday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Braves is set. It doesn’t have all the regulars, but it has the middle of the order. It includes Victor Martinez, who will play in a game for the first time since the 2011 ALCS in Texas.

Here’s the lineup:

  1. Quintin Berry, CF
  2. Omar Infante, 2B
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B
  5. Victor Martinez, DH
  6. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  7. Brayan Pena, C
  8. Avisail Garcia, RF
  9. Nick Castellanos, LF

P: Rick Porcello

Bruce Rondon will not make the trip. Relievers scheduled to go include Darin Downs, Luis Marte, Melvin Mercedes, Michael Morrison, Jose Ortega, Luke Putkonen, Jose Alvarez and Kenny Faulk.

The game won’t be televised, but it’ll be on radio at 97.1 FM in Detroit and online at MLB Gameday Audio.

Dotel apologizes to Cabrera, team for leadership quotes

Octavio Dotel said he apologized to Miguel Cabrera in front of the team for comments in a Yahoo Sports article in which he suggested Cabrera should take more a leadership role on the team.

“I just want to apologize to Miggy,” Dotel said Wednesday morning. “I’m really sorry, and I hope Miggy doesn’t hate me for that.”

Cabrera later told reporters, “It’s no big deal.”

Dotel was quoted in Yahoo saying Cabrera is “more about his game,” and mentioned other players such as Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander possibly taking a more vocal leadership role.

Dotel suggested the quotes were taken out of context.

“That’s not what I was trying to mean,” Dotel said.

You might remember the exchange between Dotel and Cabrera in the clubhouse in Oakland after the Tigers lost Game 4 of the AL Division Series. Dotel suggested in Spanish that Cabrera needed to talk to reporters and convey a sense of no panic on the team, and Cabrera didn’t talk. Dotel later told MLive.com that he suggested a team meeting but the efforts were rebuffed.

Though the Yahoo story said Dotel also asked for a team meeting after Game 2 of the World Series, Dotel said that wasn’t true.

“Never against the Giants,” Dotel said. “I was hoping [a meeting would happen].”

Jim Leyland said he had no problem getting apologies like that out in the open when a situation pops up.

“I think that kind of stuff’s great,” Leyland said. “I love that kind of stuff.”

The Yahoo article went on to ask whether the Tigers clubhouse needed more leadership, but made no mention of offseason acquisition Torii Hunter, whose leadership abilities have been praised. Victor Martinez, meanwhile, was mentioned only in passing in the article, though his absence last season left the Tigers looking in other directions for clubhouse leadership.

Leyland on bullpen decisions: Somebody won’t be happy

Aside from the infamous Ty Cobb photo with the tear in it, one of the fixtures in Jim Leyland’s office in spring training is a list of pitchers and position players. The pitchers’ list includes the side work they do in early workouts before the games begin.

One by one, Leyland looked down the list at potential bullpen candidates. By the time he got to the bottom of the list (alphabetically) with Brayan Villarreal, he had at least eight candidates for three or four open spots.

“If people are healthy, we’re going to have a real good problem on our hands,” Leyland said Wednesday morning, “because we’ve got a lot of guys. … This is not going to be easy, I’m telling you.”

The safe spots are the setup guys: Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel. After that, in no particular order, there’s Bruce Rondon, Al Alburquerque, Brayan Villarreal, Darin Downs, Duane Below, Drew Smyly (if he doesn’t make the rotation), Jose Ortega (who has earned praise from Leyland), Luis Marte (who made the team out of camp last year before getting hurt on the final day of Spring Training) and Kyle Lobstein (Rule 5 pick). That’s nine guys, and that includes just guys on the 40-man roster. If you try to make the case for non-roster lefty Jose Alvarez, who some in the organization consider a dark horse, there’s 10 for maybe four spots.

The questions are almost as numerous. Will the Tigers take both Alburquerque and Villarreal out of camp and go with two high-strikeout situation righties? If they do, would they still take a second lefty, since Leyland has shown a willingness to go to one of those guys against a left-handed hitter? How important is long relief for the Tigers in a year when the rotation is deep but they’re trying to watch the workload on their starters? How many seventh- and eighth-inning guys does Detroit need if there’s a closer by committee out of camp?

Fun stuff, and it took up most of Leyland’s morning media session today.

Porcello, Sanchez, Verlander start off Tigers spring slate

The main news out of Tigers camp Monday morning were the starting assignments for the first few games of the Grapefruit League. Remember, the Tigers don’t play their annual exhibition against Florida Southern until the middle of March. Instead, they’ll dive straight into Major League play by facing the Braves at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex on Friday.

Rick Porcello will start that game. Anibal Sanchez will start Saturday against the Blue Jays at Joker Marchant Stadium. Justin Verlander starts Sunday against the Phillies in Lakeland. All of those games start at 1:05pm ET, and all of them will be on 97.1 FM back in Detroit and online at MLB Gameday Audio.

Still to be slotted are Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Drew Smyly. The Tigers are trying to juggle six starters for five spots, and they’re trying to stretch out Casey Crosby’s innings as well to get him ready for a likely assignment in the rotation at Triple-A Toledo, so they’ll have some juggling to do. They have only one set of split-squad games, which comes up on March 2.

Early notes: Boesch day-to-day with oblique tightness

It’s all relative, but it’s a chilly morning by Florida standards in Lakeland, where Bruce Rondon is scheduled to throw to hitters this afternoon. One hitter who will not be taking part today is Brennan Boesch, who tweaked his right oblique while taking swings on Saturday.

It’s a precautionary move, Boesch said. Better to miss a few days now and be ready when games begin next weekend than to have this linger. Remember, Boesch was bothered by minor injuries last spring training, including lower back soreness and a bad ankle.

“It’s February. I don’t want to take any chances right now,” Boesch said. “Get it over with so I can get plenty of at-bats in Spring Training. …

“I’m optimistic I’ll be out there in the next day or two. The most important thing is not rushing it so I get all the at-bats I need in spring to compete and to prepare for the season.”

Other notes from Sunday morning:

  • Look for the Tigers to get Rule 5 pick Jeff Kobernus some time in left field this spring as they try to determine just how useful the speedy right-handed hitter can be as a utility player. Kobernus was almost exclusively a second baseman in the Nationals system the last four years, but said he did outfield work this winter to prepare. With his speed and his success against left-handed pitching in the minors (.326 last year at Double-A Harrisburg, .306 at Harrisburg in 2011), he definitely has manager Jim Leyland’s attention. “I think he’s a very interesting guy,” Leyland said, “and he will definitely get every possible look to see if he’s a fit or not.”
  • Leyland says they have 15 legitimate candidates for the bullpen, including sure things like Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel. It’s a good number to have, and potentially could give them some options at the end of camp as well as into the season, but the closer question is going to have an impact throughout the bullpen unless they have one guy who can take hold of the job.

Saturday’s notes: Veteran players make Leyland’s camp work

LeylandmeetingOne of the oft-repeated messages when Jim Leyland came on board as Tigers manager seven years ago, and again as he went along, was having veteran players buy into the program. If the veteran players follow the message, the younger players would buy in. Of course, the Tigers didn’t have an roster of veteran players back then (Pudge, Magglio, Polanco, Guillen, Kenny Rogers, Todd Jones), but they had enough youngsters making significant contributions (Verlander, Zumaya, Granderson, Rodney, Craig Monroe, Bonderman) that they needed guys to lead.

As the years went on and the Tigers added more players, the roster balance tilted more veteran, but they still had younger guys who had to follow the program — Cabrera was really important on that end.

Fast forward to 2013, and the Tigers have a heavily veteran roster but still key young players. And the last few days, they’ve had to make some adjustments due to the weather. The latest was the decision to move Sunday’s workout back two hours to wait for the weather to warm up tomorrow morning. So instead of working out at 10am, they’ll work at noon, which means they won’t finish up until mid-afternoon. That can ruin a lot of Sunday afternoon post-workout plans.

Leyland told his players at the start of Saturday’s workout to make sure they had advance notice. After Saturday’s workout, he made a point to acknowledge his appreciation by repeating his old adage.

“When you manage, that’s the biggest plus you can get,” Leyland said. “When your veteran players buy into the program — and we’re fortunate that we’ve got good veterans — trust me when I tell you it takes a load off the mind of the manager. That just sets a precedence for everybody else. I think that’s one of the big keys to managing. When your veteran players buy into the program, you’ve got something going.

“I was a little concerned because I threw it on them. I don’t know if somebody had something planned. Everybody was, no problem. Nobody complaining. And I told them we’d be here for them if they had something else. We’d come in and do something [with them early] if they absolutely had to, but everybody was terrific. And it’s common sense.”

At that point, Leyland brought out his iPad to pull up the weather forecast for Sunday.

“I don’t want to sophisticate you guys,” he joked.

I’m not saying Leyland hasn’t had veterans unhappy with him over the years, because he has. Pudge obviously wasn’t happy with playing time at the end. Carlos Guillen’s remarks at the end of the 2009 season are a very public example in what was a particularly rough year, and others have had their turns since and kept it private. Yet never has player discontent become widespread and morphed into player mutiny, the kind that got Manny Acta fired in Cleveland and many others before him. With the kind of clubhouse the Tigers have now — with Victor Martinez, Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter and Octavio Dotel on board — you’d have to seriously, egregiously mess something up to turn that clubhouse sour. I’m not sure you could sabotage that clubhouse if you tried.

Anyway, you get the idea. More notes from a relatively slow Saturday:

  • As I wrote in the notes on the site earlier, don’t be surprised if you don’t hear much about Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer the next few days. They won’t be facing hitters in the first round of live batting practice that runs through Monday. Instead, they’ll throw an extra side session and go in the second round that begins Tuesday.
  • Phil Coke did not take part in Saturday’s workout. He was in the clubhouse in the morning, then left for what Leyland later called a personal matter.
  • The first Tigers pitcher for Leyland to single out in this camp was Jose Ortega, the high-strikeout, high-walk, high-ERA reliever from Triple-A Toledo the last couple years who made a cameo appearance in Detroit last season. “He’s throwing great,” Leyland said. “Oh boy, he’s got nasty stuff.” And then Leyland said it’s an example of why not to get carried away with early spring throwing.
  • With that last note in mind, Bruce Rondon is scheduled to face hitters on Sunday. I will probably write the crap out of it.
  • Had a great conversation with the always-positive Duane Below, who’s using his being left off the September and postseason rosters as motivation for this spring. Leyland said they’re still trying to decide whether to stretch out his innings for potential starter duty in Toledo or go all-in with him as a relief candidate. They’re already planning to stretch out Casey Crosby, and they can’t stretch out everybody, Leyland pointed out. Below said he’s ready either way.
  • One more note on Below: After the Tigers optioned him to Toledo in mid-August, he had a chance to watch Rondon face hitters. In fact, he was charting pitches and radar gun readings one night when Rondon was facing Louisville. Rondon hit 103 mph on the radar gun Below was watching, he said. And that’s at the end of a long season that included three different minor-league teams and a Futures Game appearance.
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