Spring Postcard: Can power arms help Tigers forget collapse?
Justin Verlander led the major leagues in strikeouts in 2009 with 269
Rookie Austin Jackson will replace Curtis Granderson in center field
Detroit had a seven game AL Central lead in September but missed the playoffs
This spring, SI.com writers are filing postcards from all 30 major league spring training camps. To read all the postcards, click here.
1. Tigers with cheese
One thing you can say about the Tigers pitching staff -- they're going to throw hard. That, of course, starts with ace Justin Verlander, who led baseball with 269 strikeouts last year. Rick Porcello is just 21 and hasn't yet shown the ability to miss bats with his mid-to-upper 90s fastball, but it's a difficult pitch to hit. The Tigers added Max Scherzer, another starter who pumps his fastball into the upper 90s. And they are hoping for good health, finally, from Jeremy Bonderman, who only made one start last year. In his younger days, Bonderman threw in the upper 90s too, though years of wear may have taken a few mph off the fastball.
2. Return of the D-Train
Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson will make a combined $22 million this year. And they were a combined 3-7 with a 6.26 ERA in 2009. Willis has been a feel good story in spring training ... he talks about how he feels at peace and in his first five outings he allowed only one run. At this point, nobody really expects him to return to the form he showed in 2005, when he won 22 games with a 2.63 ERA and finished second in the Cy Young balloting. But as a lefty who relies on guile and command, he would offer a different look on a pitching staff with four power righties.
The Tigers -- after a few years of filling holes with veteran players like Placido Polanco, Ivan Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield and Edgar Renteria -- appear to be going with two rookies up the middle. Austin Jackson came over from New York in the Curtis Granderson deal and he will take Granderson's spot in center field and in the leadoff spot from Day 1. Jackson has hit the ball hard all spring.
And rookie Scott Sizemore will be the everyday second baseman. Sizemore this spring has already been called gritty, feisty, dogged and tenacious -- baseball synonyms for "hard-working middle infielder who probably won't hit much, at least early in the season."
Well, you have to start with those power arms, though coming into the season only Verlander has translated dominant stuff into dominant performance. Porcello had an excellent rookie season as a 20-year-old, going 14-9 with a 3.96 ERA, and scouts were talking excitedly about him during spring training. Teams coming in to play the Tigers will have to come in with extra bats.
Prospect Creating A Buzz
Maybe it's wishful thinking, but people in Detroit cannot stop talking about how much rookie Austin Jackson performs like a young Curtis Granderson. He has been hitting balls into gaps all spring, working for some walks and showing athleticism in center field. Obviously, it's just spring training, but the Tigers seem to think they might have gotten even more than they hoped for when they made the Granderson trade.
New Face, New Place
It's weird to see Johnny Damon in a Tigers uniform ... but how often have we said that in his career. It was weird to see him in a Red Sox uniform, then weird to see him in a Yankees uniform and so on. Damon is coming off what was probably his best offensive year -- he had a career high .489 slugging percentage to go with his usual allotment of numbers and was a perfect 12-for-12 in stolen bases. Damon is closing in on some pretty heady career numbers -- he's only 575 hits shy of 3,000, 49 doubles short of 500, 17 runs short of 1,500 and so on. His consistency and durability have allowed him to put a collection of numbers rare in baseball history. But he is 36 now and there's no guessing how much longer his body can hold up. Damon believes he has a few good years left in him, and all spring he has looked very much like himself.
Not Done Yet
At least, that's what the Tigers are hoping. Ordonez, like Damon, is 36 and for much of the 2009 season he looked to be absolutely done as an everyday player. On August 1st, he was hitting .258 and slugging .354 -- and there seemed no way the Tigers would bring him and his $18 million deal back (there was a $3 million team buyout). But the last 49 games, Ordonez hit .405/.464/.564 and he ended the season on a 13-game hitting streak during which he hit .490. The Tigers saw enough bring him back. Now they have to hope that it wasn't just a late-season mirage.
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