Spring Postcard: Defensive-minded Tigers look to bounce back
After a horrendous '08 campaign, Detroit's concentrating on pitching and defense
Despite Detroit's struggling economy, Dombrowski's not worried about ticket sales
The Tigers have a few couple position battles at closer and fifth starter
1. Have you heard the one about pitching and defense winning championships?
In response, the Tigers changed pitching coaches (hiring longtime minor league instructor Rick Knapp away from the Twins), acquired two new catchers (Gerald Laird, Matt Treanor) and a new shortstop known exclusively for his defense (Adam Everett) and moved Brandon Inge to third base and Carlos Guillen to left field to shore up those positions.
2. Detroit's economy hasn't caught up to the Tigers -- yet.
"The economy in Detroit has been tough over the last couple years," he says.
Dombrowski says the Tigers are certainly "aware" of the economic climate, and he acknowledges that they're going to sell fewer season tickets than last year. But he also thinks that, given a strong on-field product, individual game ticket sales could come close to making up the difference. Last year's payroll was $138 million, the third-highest in baseball and some $40 million more than it was in 2007. This year it'll reportedly be about $125 million.
3. Talk about religious adherence to one's training ...
"My pastor was the one who said, 'Hey, we need to do this. We need to get you ready,' " says Everett.
The two ran three miles daily on trails, rather than a track or street, improving their pace from 30 minutes to 27 to 24 and eventually moving to sprints just before spring training.
In addition to closer, the Tigers' fifth starter slot will be hotly contested. While the closer candidates (Brandon Lyon, Fernando Rodney, Joel Zumaya) who don't get the job will still be called upon for regular duty in the seventh or eighth inning, the losers of the No. 5 starter gig may not be so lucky. Leyland has said that Zach Miner ought to break camp with the team, as either a starter or reliever, which means there's additional pressure on Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis, the other competitors. Both struggled mightily last year, Robertson at 7-11 with a 6.35 ERA in 168.2 innings over 28 starts and Willis at 0-2 with a 9.38 ERA in 24 innings over seven starts (never lasting more than 5.1 innings). But Leyland has said Willis is throwing very well, with good movement and great command so far in camp. And Robertson is the incumbent, a Tigers starter since 2004 who assumes accountability for his admittedly "bad" and "inconsistent" season in '08 but points to his durability (an average of 31 starts over the last four years). The great longshot is 20-year-old Rick Porcello (No. 21 on Baseball America's top 100 prospect list), who gave up a run on two hits while striking out a pair in his first spring appearance.
After injuries cost Jeremy Bonderman and Zumaya most of last season and Fernando Rodney the first two-and-a-half months, Leyland summed up his thoughts on the pitching staff thusly: "If it's healthy, I like it." ... Guillen got philosophical when discussing young pitching, saying, "Everyone looks good in the bullpen." ... Lyon recognizes that for three of the last five seasons he's entered the spring as the favorite to close but has had to battle for the job. "It's been the same way the last few years: go into spring training and compete for a role in the 'pen," he said. "It does feel the same, but it's better than not being able to compete for a role." ... Leyland was effusive in his praise for several young players. On Ryan Raburn: "I can't believe someone in the National League hasn't knocked down the door for him. He's a great double-switch guy. He brings a lot to the party." On Jeff Larish: "He's going to play around everywhere this spring. I'm a big fan of his. I would not be afraid to have him on this team." On Casper Wells: "This guy came out of nowhere. He's improved by leaps and bounds and we're hoping it continues. He can run, throw, he's got great power. Those are pretty good tools. This sounds corny, but he's probably the guy I'm most anxious to see [in games]."
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