February 2013

Friday’s notes: About that closer, coach Leyland …

Say this for Jim Leyland: If he wanted to show his patience with the media, his closer situation is giving him a pretty good test.

When camp opened earlier this week, Leyland tried to make his point from the get-go that he wouldn’t give daily updates on rookie Bruce Rondon or the Tigers’ closer situation in general. Since then, he has gotten a new question about it from a new set of writers each day, including Friday.

Another question didn’t take place during his media session, but Leyland said he was asked by somebody at some point what he thought of Rondon as the closer so far. Whoever asked it, Leyland said, also called him coach.

That’s a brutal reference for a lot of managers. Leyland, however, said he brushed it off.

“Coach never offends me,” Leyland said. “A lot of people take offense, but I don’t care.”

This is not the response one would expect from a supposed old-school manager.

Football, basketball and hockey teams have head coaches. College, high school and other amateur baseball teams have head coaches. Baseball teams also have hitting coaches, pitching coaches, base coaches and bullpen coaches. Many have strength and conditioning coaches. A few of them even have batting practice coaches. But at the professional level, the guy in charge is the manager, not the head coach.

The only other major sport where you commonly hear the term “manager” used is European football (soccer) when referring to some director or general manager duties, but also the on-field duties of the head coach.

That started a discussion.

“That doesn’t bother me at all,” Leyland said. “I know it affects some guys. I don’t give a care. What’s the difference? Who cares? I know I’m the manager. At least, I think I know.”

The rest of the first day of full-squad workouts wasn’t as busy as expected, simply because the weather forced the Tigers indoors for a lot of work. Other than playing catch and running a little, position players spent the morning in the indoor batting cages.

With that in mind, other notes from Friday …

  • As exciting as Spring Training can be for young players trying to make the team, there might be few players more excited to be here than Octavio Dotel. For the first time since 2008-2009, the well-traveled reliever did not have to change teams between seasons. “It’s very special,” Dotel said Friday morning, “and hopefully at the trade deadline [in July] I’m not going to be on the news.”
  • Count Dotel, by the way, among the Tigers raving about Rondon, but not for the physical attributes. “The good thing,” Dotel said, “is he listens.” Dotel has been talking with him about the attributes of a good closer. The key, he said, is to relax when you enter a game and be able to control your adrenaline.
  • Kenny Rogers arrived at camp Friday afternoon after workouts. The former Tigers starter expected to begin his guest instruction on Saturday, working with pitchers on fielding and holding baserunners. At age 48, he does not look different than he did when he retired in 2008.
  • As Friday’s main story on the home page explains, Miguel Cabrera arrived at camp not looking to rest on the laurels of a Triple Crown. As he talked about his focus in offseason workouts, it became clear he wants to do more at third base. He concentrated his efforts on lower-body strength and quickness, and he wants to get a better first step when he moves side-to-side so that he can get to more ground balls. He’s going to do the same extra work taking grounders early in the morning that he did last spring, until he heads out to the World Baseball Classic to play for Team Venezuela.
  • The lower-body strength is also interesting when you keep in mind that he’ll turn 30 years old in April. As players age, the same weight that they handled well when they were younger can become a burden on the knees. Considering he has been in the big leagues since he was 20, Cabrera has been amazingly durable his entire career, not just with Detroit. This could be a big step towards staying that way.

Early notes: Don’t look for a closer proclamation

Four days into Jim Leyland’s morning press briefings, he has been asked about his closer situation four different times, I believe from four different sets of writers. Each time, though, he has had some sort of new information. Today’s tidbit: Don’t expect an announcement at the end of Spring Training naming a closer.

“I doubt very much there’ll be anybody anointed out of Spring Training as the closer,” Leyland said.

If you remember back a few years, it’s similar to how he handled his closer situation in 2009. Though Leyland said at the end of  camp that Rodney would close on Opening Day, he wouldn’t name a closer after that. From April 1, 2009:

“You’ll probably make a big deal about naming Fernando Rodney the closer, but I really haven’t. He could be, but it might not be just one guy. There may be somebody else that’s involved at some point.”

Rodney ended up with 37 saves that year. Brandon Lyon, who was expected to be the closer until he had a rough spring, was next in line with three. So don’t necessarily read closer by committee if, indeed, the Tigers don’t name anybody.

When Leyland was asked what Phil Coke needs to do to have better success against right-handed hitters, Leyland took that as a question about whether Coke could close. It wasn’t the intent, but it did get an answer.

“I think he’ll probably close some games,” Leyland said. “But I would not go anointing a closer, because we don’t have one just yet.”

Other notes from this morning:

  • Leyland confirmed that Omar Infante will join Team Venezuela for the World Baseball Classic. A tweet a few weeks ago, supposedly from the head of the Venezuelan baseball federation, said Infante would be added to Venezuela’s roster, but nothing was official for a couple weeks after that. Now, apparently, it’s official. Infante is believed to be the only late addition. Miguel Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez and Octavio Dotel were on provisional rosters for their respective countries when provisional rosters were first announced in January.
  • Leyland said he’s shocked that Jose Valverde is still a free agent. “I’m shocked, totally shocked, and broken-hearted,” Leyland said. “I talked to a couple people and recommended him very highly.” He also called Valverde “one of the best teammates I’ve ever managed.”
  • That begs the question: If Leyland liked Valverde so much and recommended him, why didn’t the Tigers make a low-risk offer to bring him back? “I think the Tigers felt that it was just time,” Leyland said. “It was a rough period at the end.”
  • The Tigers have added a left-handed batting practice pitcher. Ed Hodge, a batting practice coach for the Astros for the previous three seasons under ex-manager Brad Mills, has joined the team. A lefty BP pitcher was a topic at the end of last season, mentioned by Delmon Young. Hitting coach Lloyd McClendon apparently knew about Hodge.

Peralta talks weight, declines comment on Bosch report

Jhonny Peralta opted to let last week’s statement from his attorney stand in regards to the SI.com report from earlier this month that his name was found in the records of Anthony Bosch and the Biogenesis clinic in Miami.

“I don’t have any comment for that,” Peralta said Wednesday afternoon. “I talked to my lawyer already, and I don’t have [any] comment. We can talk about this year coming up.”

Peralta’s attorney, Barry Boss, released a statement soon after the SI.com report. The statement quoted Peralta saying, “I have never used performance-enhancing drugs. Period. Anybody who says otherwise is lying.”

That was the one topic on which he declined comment. Everything else was open, including questions about his weight and his range. Peralta said he’s down to 215 pounds, compared with 227 last spring, and he could lose a few more before Opening Day.

“If I can be 210, it’s better for me,” Peralta said, “so I’m working out for that.”

The weight loss came partly at the suggestion of Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, Peralta said, and partly from himself.

“I worked [out] in the Dominican Republic,” Peralta said. “I have a strength trainer over there, and I’m working really hard this year to be how I’ve been [in the past]. I’ve lost about 20 pounds. I feel really good.”

Peralta said he also has a chef who has changed his diet. He stopped short of the cliche that he’s in the best shape of his life, but he said he’s in good enough shape that he felt a difference immediately once he started taking ground balls.

“I feel quicker,” Peralta said. “I feel lighter. Taking ground balls today in the field, I feel I’ve got a better move side to side.”

His goal is to stay at shortstop as he heads into the next phase of his career. He’ll turn 31 in May.

Morning notes: Don’t dismiss Pena’s potential role

Had a good talk this morning with backup catcher Brayan Pena, who discussed his defection from Cuba as a teenager while he was playing in a tournament in Venezuela, and later becoming an American citizen and settling in nearby Kissimmee. It’s an amazing journey he has been through, and joining a team with championship aspirations is the next chapter.

Jim Leyland said he talked with Pena yesterday. He said he has admired Pena’s game from afar the last several years, but hadn’t really talked much with him.

“He’s got a good feel for things,” Leyland said.

With a relatively young, but veteran switch-hitting catcher backing up Avila, it’s a good situation for the Tigers to have, and it’s one that kind of fell to them. They went into the offseason planning on Bryan Holaday backing up Avila, but wanting an insurance option (like what Omir Santos was) in case of injury. As it turns out, finding a veteran catcher willing to sign a minor-league deal with a contending team was tougher than finding a veteran catcher willing to sign a reasonable Major League deal to be a backup. And the Tigers liked Pena, so they changed course.

“We feel pretty good about our situation,” Leyland said, noting they still like Holaday a lot.

A scout who tracked the Royals quite a bit last year said this winter that Pena is a great pickup if he’s playing a couple days week and not every day. If he’s getting that kind of work and Alex Avila is catching 4-5 times a week, I think that’s a mix they’d take.

Other notes from this morning:

  • Ramon Santiago has reported to camp after playing winter ball well into January for Escogido in the Dominican League. It’s something the Tigers wanted him to do after he skipped winter ball last offseason and then struggled for much of the 2012 season. Between a good winter campaign and a tweak to his offseason workouts, he says he’s lighter than he was a year ago and feels more mobile. He plans to do moreagility work this spring with strength and conditioning coach Javair Gillett. Though nobody has said Santiago is guaranteed a roster spot out of camp, and there were rumors the Tigers were gauging trade interest for Santiago at the Winter Meetings in December, I think it would take an awful spring for Santiago to be cut. Leyland knows what he has with him, and he’d love to get the Santiago he had in 2011.
  • Leyland hasn’t eliminated Casey Crosby from consideration for a bullpen spot, but he plans on stretching out Crosby as a starter this spring and going from there. “We think he’s a top prospect,” Leyland said. “And who knows?”
  • While Leyland has his annual warning against reading too much from bullpen sessions, he did say he liked the sliders that Rick Porcello was throwing in his session yesterday. It’s a pitch he has been working on with pitching coach Jeff Jones, and might be the biggest benefit from the general mechanical work they’ve put in.
  • Leyland on Bruce Rondon: “He seems to have a good personality. He doesn’t seem to be star struck.”

More pitchers fielding practice this morning. Leyland is hitting ground balls to pitchers, which means at some point Justin Verlander is going to dare Leyland to try to hit a ground ball by him.

 

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.

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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.

Leyland on Rondon: I’ll take talent (sound familiar?)

Cover the same manager with the same team long enough, and you get a comfort zone. Jim Leyland fits that — in his phrasing, in his points of emphasis, sometimes even in his thought process. And then, every so often, he changes things up to keep people on their toes.

The first surprise from Leyland on Monday as he prepared for his eighth spring training as Tigers manager was the iPad on his desk. He owns a laptop, so he wasn’t unplugged in the past, and he made a point a year or two ago to say he keeps up with this blog. Now, he’s mobile. He isn’t on Twitter, but that’s probably more of a choice than a technological limit.

The second surprise came a few minutes later, when Leyland referred to himself in the third person for the first time I can remember. If he has done it before, it was only in a quick one-liner.

“Some writers in baseball, numbers guys and everything, don’t believe in the closer. But Jim Leyland does,” he said.

He was following up on a question over how many options he has to close a game if Bruce Rondon doesn’t win the job outright, and the line got a laugh.

So did a line about Bruce Rondon’s 102-mph fastball: “I love 100 mph like everybody but the state troopers.”

The root of the discussion, of course, was whether the Tigers can trust a 22-year-old rookie to handle ninth-inning leads for a team with World Series expectations. On that, Leyland went to a far more familiar refrain about 10 minutes later.

“I like talent,” Leyland said. “I don’t give a care how old they are.”

If that sounds familiar, it should. From 2006:

“You take experience. I’ll take talent, and I’ll take my chances.”

That, of course, was the year Leyland and the Tigers put rookies Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya on the opening day roster. They ended up helping Detroit to its first postseason berth in 19 years, and its first World Series berth since 1984.

“I’ve taken a few kids since I’ve been here,” Leyland said. “They’ve turned out pretty good.”

Neither of these lines means Leyland has anointed Rondon as the closer. As Leyland said, “There’s nothing that’s etched in stone with our closer. We think he’s a viable candidate.”

It’s possible, too, that Rondon makes the team and doesn’t win the closer job.

At the same time, while Leyland believes Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit and Phil Coke can close a game, he admittedly isn’t sure they can be the closer. Rondon, he said, has the chance to fill that role. He isn’t a one-pitch pitcher, Leyland said, echoing a point Dave Dombrowski made on Sunday.

“Am I concerned about it? Yes. Am I excited about it? Probably moreso,” Leyland said. “I’m really looking forward to it. I like talent. I’m excited about it, I really am, and I know that I’ve got enough pieces to mix and match a little bit if I have to.”

Verlander decides against World Baseball Classic

Justin Verlander wanted to get in a couple of throwing sessions before deciding whether to take part in the World Baseball Classic. After getting an idea how his arm feels last week, he has decided not to take part.

“I don’t want to have to feel rushed to catch up to where I need to be,” Verlander said.

Verlander threw a couple bullpen sessions before leaving for Pebble Beach last week. He called Team USA manager Joe Torre after that and said he didn’t feel like he could get ready in time.

Verlander said last month that he was undecided about taking part. Games begin in early March, but rosters have to be set by February 20.

“I knew it was going to be a long shot the whole time,” Verlander said, “but I wanted to give it a shot.”

Coincidentally, Team USA added Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez on Saturday. They still have a roster spot open for another pitcher, so they could have added Verlander and Gonzalez both.

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