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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

5 Storylines heading into Tigers Spring Training

       Spring Training is right around the corner for the Detroit Tigers, with the fan-base staring to get their buzz back following a crushing four game sweep to the San Francisco Giants in the World Series. With Pitchers and Catchers reporting in 14 days, we take a look at the top 5 storylines surrounding the Tigers in Spring Training.

Who will become the 5th starter?
      The race to be the Tigers fifth starter has seemingly come down to incumbent Rick Porcello and lefty Drew Smyly.
     This past off-season, rumors have swirled about potential suitors in a trade package for Porcello, following the Tigers aggressive move to retain Anibal Sanchez on a 5 year $80 million dollar deal.

      The Tigers, however, sit in a pretty spot knowing they have more pitching then needed, a rare commodity in today’s era.

Will Smyly recapture his early season
form for the Tigers in 2013?
      Smyly came on strong in his inaugural big league season. in his first five starts, the Tigers won 4 of 5 while posting a 1.59 ERA after a no-decision on May 9th versus the Mariners. During those starts, Smyly compiled a strikeout per inning, impressive for a rookie.

      The following month and a half saw him posting 4 earned runs over and over while never racking over 6 innings in a single game. Through that final stretch, Smiley posted a 3.71 ERA while going 2-2. He finished the season with a 3.59 ERA as a starter, and a remarkable 8.3 strikeout per nine innings.

      Rick Porcello, as it would seem, has the edge heading into spring training. Dombrowski said earlier in the off-season that Porcello had the "leg up" in the race heading in. Obviously things change, but the Tigers seem comfortable heading into the spring with 6 starters barring a team meet their expectations in a trade package.

      "Smyly did such a good job for us last year and, ideally, you want a left-hander in your rotation," Dombrowski said. "So I don't know which way that will end up going, but Porcello would have to be a leader. And Porcello is a fine big-league pitcher. I mean, last year, I know he was down a little bit when you look at it, but you're looking at a guy who's 24 years of age that has won 45 games at the big-league level."

With trade rumors swirling, Porcello
is staying focused on winning the job.
     Porcello was far from great last season, posting a 10-12 mark with a 4.59 ERA in 31 starts. His ERA was the lowest since his 3.96 figure he posted as a rookie in 2009. In accordance, Porcello's ground ball rate was at 53.2%, while posting a career best 16 home-runs allowed. His strikeout rate has increased every season, mounting to 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings for the Tigers in 2012.

      No team makes it through a 162-game season without testing the depth of their pitching staff. Last season the Tigers had a combined 10 starts, outside of their 5-man rotation, by Adam Wilk, Jacob Turner, Casey Crosby and Duane Below. It’s safe to say few of those starts left the fan base feeling real good about them going forward.

      The Tigers would be wise to hold onto both Porcello and Smyly through the Trade Deadline and assessing their team needs then. Both have the potential to become modest additions to the bullpen, and could prove valuable down the stretch when depth becomes an issue in the starting rotation.

The Fourth Outfielder

      The Tigers have another welcomed problem in their outfield. It's overly crowded. With the addition of Torii Hunter and the emergence of Andy Dirks, Jim Leyland finds himself in an enviable situation. Austin Jackson will start, so too will Hunter. Dirks seems to have a leg up for the Left Field spot. This leaves Quintin Berry, Brennan Boesch, playoff hero Avisail Garcia and Rule 5 Draftee Jeff Kobernus to fight this one out.

Will Brennan Boesch recapture his potential?
      Boesch was thought to have been forming a breakout 2012 after slumping a bit in his second season. Instead, he posted a .240 average, .286 OBP with 22 Doubles, 12 Home-Runs, 54 RBI and a .659 OPS, while hitting.169 with 1 Home-Run and 6 RBI down the stretch forcing him out of the playoff roster.

      Through all this Boesch seems focused and hungry. Speaking to the Detroit News Boesch said, "The reflection on last year for me is over. As a young player, there are tough times when you learn what you have to do better. Those are growing pains.

      "But that's what I have done. I've made the adjustments. I've never been more excited. These off-seasons are huge to build on, and this off-season is the best one I've had as a player."

      Sounds like a hungry player. Boesch’s only problem? The skill set he brings to the club. Ideally the Tigers would like speed and defense off the bench in that fourth role. 

      Boesch, however, brings an average at best glove, with mediocre speed. 

      What he does bring is power and potential. Despite his struggles in 2012, he still managed 22 Doubles and 12 Home-Runs.

      "We've seen a really good Brennan Boesch and we've seen a Brennan Boesch that hasn't been quite as good. And if he's a really good Brennan Boesch, then he's a really good hitter, and he can force a lot of playing time and make some tough decisions," Dombrowski said. "And if not, we'll tackle that."

      Another note on Boesch's chances of making the club, is Victor Martinez. Dombrowski has stated he will be exclusively a DH, meaning he won't play versus NL clubs. Boesch has the power potential to bat fifth in these situations which potentially could aid his chances.

Can Berry find his early season form again?
      Quintin Berry seems to be the front runner. Despite a slump in the second half of last season, Berry provides a spark to the Tigers offense no one, including Jackson, can bring to the club on the base paths. His 6 Triples and 21 steals in 94 games in the lineup last season. His defense is above-average, with his ability to sacrifice his body for balls. A key to him making the team out of Spring ball could be an improvement in bunting. Leyland has shown time and again loyalty to those who can handle the bat in key situations, something Boesch was used in during his slumps.

      Don't sleep on Rule 5 Draft pick Jeff Kobernus. He is known as an athlete with plus speed, and mans both the infield and potentially the outfield as well.

      "We've tried to add some speed," Dombrowski said. "If he could be a guy that made our club, then all of a sudden you have a guy that can really run on the bench at that point, it gives you some versatility."

      "We not only like his ability to play second, but we think that perhaps, and he hasn't really done much of it, he could have some versatility where we might be able to move him to the outfield and get some playing time there," Dombrowski said.

Victor Martinez returns to the Lineup

V-Mart will be back for the Tigers in 2013.
      The Victor Martinez signing was questioned by many Tiger fans after Owner jumped at the bit to sign him. He answered that with a marvelous 2011 season in which he hit .330, .380 OBP, .470 Slug. with 12 Home-Runs and 103 RBI. He followed that by tearing his ACL and missing the entire 2012 season.

      Now we are in 2013, with the addition of Prince Fielder last season and Torii Hunter this season to hit in front of him. Ample opportunitys will present themselves as he hits behind the reigning AL MVP and Triple Crown winning Miguel Cabrera. 

      Martinez won't come back to full force, partially due to the injury and age, but if he can come return to being clutch and hovering around .300, the AL Central is in for a long season.

      Earlier in the off-season, Dombrowski made it clear he will be used exclusively as a DH, and won’t be counted on as a backup catcher or first baseman. "We do not look at him as a catcher at this point," Dombrowski told MLives Chris Iott. "We look at him as a DH, maybe play some first base if you give Prince a day off and decide to DH him, which doesn't happen very often. He can do that."

      It remains to be seen as to how the handle him versus the NL and if they end up back in the World Series. An extra hitter may be added for these scenarios.

Who will close for the Tigers in 2012?

      Dombrowski has been high on Bruce Rondon as his closer all off-season. 

Will Rondon be called upon to Close in 2013?
      "This guy is a special potential closer with the makeup of a closer," Dombrowski said. "Normally you're not going to thrust that in a young guy's hands and say automatically, 'That's your job,' but it would not surprise me if he earned that job. There are not many arms like this. And he cherishes that kind of role."

      Rondon is a flame throwing righty and has reportedly clocked in at 103 MPH. 

      He was 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA and nine strikeouts in eight innings for Triple-A Toledo late in the 2012 season. He went 1-0 with a 1.93 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings in Single-A Lakeland to start the season, and then went 0-1 with a 0.83 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings for Double-A Erie.

      "He’s a rare talent," Dombrowski said. "You would not believe the number of clubs that call me about Bruce Rondon."

      In 52 appearences in the minor leagues, Rondon has 29 saves.

      Octavio Dotel seems to be the leader if Rondon doesn't get the closing role. He performed very well down the stretch for the Tigers in the postseason. 

      The Tigers could also look to a closer by committee approach with a combination of relievers Joaquin Benoit, Al Albeurquerque, Phil Coke and Brayan Villarreal filling the role.

The Addition of Torii Hunter in the club house

      Not only does Hunter bring intangibles and talent to the Tigers 2-hole in the lineup, he also brings a sense of leadership and spirit to the Tigers locker room. 

      The Tigers went with seemingly a different number two hitter every month, and haven't filled that spot in the lineup since the departure of Placido Polanco. Hunter brings that and now adds to the most dangerous lineup in the American League.

      "It's a good fit for us with his speed and ability to make things happen," Dombrowski told MLives Josh Slagter. "(Manager Jim Leyland) just figures Torii did so well last year in that No. 2 spot. He's going to plan on hitting Hunter (there) to set the tempo, and then go with Cabrera, (Prince) Fielder and (Victor) Martinez."

      With Hunter solidifying the top of the order, it will be fun to see how much he influences the teammates around him.

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