Optimism Abounds at Tiger Town


Spring training exhibition games start in less than a week, but fans of the Detroit Tigers not fortunate enough to make a trip to Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida to catch the club live will have to endure an agonizing wait–until March 14th–to watch them play on television. For now (unless meticulous photographic study of the new physiques of Miguel Cabrera and Brandon Inge appeals to you), there’s not much of anything tangible for baseball fans to analyze.

But the offseason signing of Prince Fielder has given way to plenty of enthusiasm and it builds every day as the season approaches. Fielder’s addition isn’t the only cause for cheerfulness, though; plenty of other stories out of the Tiger Town facilities have inspired optimism.

Reports from Jason Beck of MLB.com are that Jacob Turner and Drew Smyly both look polished and ready to pitch in the major leagues. The former, of course, is the Tigers’ top pitching prospect and has top of the rotation potential. This spring, though, he’s looking to improve even further by adding a slider to his plus repertoire that already includes a hard fastball, a sharp curveball, and a changeup that’s serviceable and progressing.

Another young hurler trying to add to his current store of pitches is Max Scherzer, who has reportedly focused his entire winter on the task of relearning to throw a two-seam fastball. He hopes the pitch will be effective at inducing groundballs when thrown inside to right-handed hitters. If he’s successful, the offering should complement his current arsenal of a four-seam fastball, slider, and changeup quite nicely.

Daniel Schlereth, likely to make the opening day roster as the second left-handed reliever on the depth chart behind Phil Coke, is also working on a new pitch; a changeup. ESPN’s Buster Olney noted that the grip Schlereth intends to use was learned from teammate Joaquin Benoit, who learned it himself from former pitcher and Detroit’s current minor league pitching coordinator Al Nipper.

Playing a card you expect to see from a workhorse like Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello started throwing in December, a month earlier than normal, in an effort to reach mid-season velocity with his fastball by April. Even after three full major league seasons, Porcello is still one of the youngest pitchers in the league at age 23. Last season, he was the third-youngest pitcher in baseball to qualify for the ERA title. Some believe he has yet to reach his full potential and that this could be the year he puts it all together.

Many have clamored for months about the apparent need for Dave Dombrowski to acquire a fifth starter, but as the season approaches, it seems more and more likely that out of six candidates, one will step up and fill the role quite effectively. As Chris Iott of MLive.com wrote last week, there’s certainly no need to panic about this perceived roster void.

Needless to say, the Tigers’ rotation is very talented and should be a strength this year as it was last. As glowing reports about the pitching staff roll out, one of the more exciting parts of training camp is the presence of former Tiger lefty Kenny Rogers, who has joined the club primarily to work on first base pickoff moves with the bevy of green left-handers vying for major league jobs.

Another veteran presence now with the squad is that of the newly retired future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, who will assist Detroit management in a non-official role for a few weeks as he prepares for a possible future position with Major League Baseball.

In position player news, Miguel Cabrera has lost weight and is working strenuously at making his position change to third base stick. Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com seems convinced that the move is meant to be and he wrote a glowing column on it after watching Cabrera’s first official workout as a third baseman since 2008 on Friday morning.

Not only is Cabrera taking to his position change well, but he’s also getting along quite nicely with the new superstar in town, Prince Fielder. Last week when Fielder arrived in camp, Jeff Seidel wrote on Freep.com of the “instant chemistry” between the pair. This probably doesn’t mean too much, but it’s at least a little encouraging to know that one of the most imposing lineup combinations in recent history isn’t going to cause the clubhouse any turmoil due to clashing egos.

While Cabrera works to get trimmer, Brandon Inge has added weight in muscle this offseason thanks to an intense workout regimen and former Michigan strength coach Mike Barwis. Love him or hate him, Inge being in better shape and trying his best to contribute can only help his club, especially considering that his club happens to be one that could use some defensive help on their infield.

Another encouraging item, and one that seems to have gone under the radar a bit; Austin Jackson is altering his plate approach. The idea is to reduce his high leg kick and shorten his swing with the goal of striking out less and making more contact. It’s an absolutely critical venture for Jackson and hitting coach Lloyd McClendon. If it works, Jackson will find himself a huge step closer to becoming a legitimate lead-off hitter. This is crucial because Detroit is desperate to create RBI opportunities for Cabrera and Fielder.

Brennan Boesch is set to start the season sandwiching Jackson and Cabrera in the batting order, and thus, his performance is also critical. Fortunately, he is yet another player whose bat could easily break out for the Tigers this year. Former general manager Jim Bowden, in fact, ranked him as the number one player “poised to erupt” in 2012. Bowden notes that Boesch’s production will profit immensely from the presence of the powerful combination of Cabrera and Fielder behind him. One could make a case that Delmon Young will experience similar benefits hitting behind the tandem in the fifth spot; our own John Parent did just that when he wrote Friday that we should expect a bounce-back year from Young.

By all accounts, we have a lot to look forward to as Tiger fans this year. Take this all with a grain of salt, though. In baseball, spring is a time of bliss; as I type this, Ozzie Guillen and the mercurial Miami Marlins appear to be getting along, Jim Crane’s Houston Astros have yet to lose even a single game, and the St. Louis Cardinals won’t lose too much offense after the departure of Albert Pujols.

Still, there’s not much bad news coming out of Lakeland and not much reason to doubt that Detroit will make a return trip to the playoffs as division champions. After that, who knows how far they can go? Can you tell I’m excited?