Healthier Tigers eyeing better times in '09

February, 25, 2009
02/25/09
4:19
PM ET
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Brandon Inge's point is about expectation and reality.

"Last year, we were being talked about as a World Series team," Inge said of the Detroit Tigers. "There were some expectations that were realistic. We had some weaknesses that got overlooked because of the offseason moves.

"This spring, it is very different. People aren't jumping on our bandwagon; we finished last, we know it. But it's better. We're realistic, and we're getting a lot more work done."

"Hey," Jim Leyland said, "I hope everyone's picking us to finish last again."

Sorry, but that won't happen. If there's one team currently in Florida that might exceed winter expectations, it is the Tigers, who declined from 95 to 88 to 74 wins the past three seasons.

"A lot has to go right," Leyland said. "But we can be pretty good."

Detroit's fall last season could be attributed to three catagories: pitching, defense and injuries.

Justin Verlander, who made a run at the American League Cy Young Award in 2007, got into bad habits in spring training and finished 11-17. Jeremy Bonderman came down with a blood clot in his right arm and made just 12 starts. Nate Robertson finished with a 6.35 ERA. And Dontrelle Willis could not throw a strike. Only rookie Armando Galarraga's 13 wins kept the Detroit starters' ERA as low as 5.03.

Verlander has thrown the ball very well this spring and promises he has his arm slot back. Bonderman believes he will be back, healthy. Willis makes no promises, but he thinks he is on the road to rediscovering his delivery. "Until I do it," Willis said, "I don't think people want to hear me make excuses. Man, I stunk." The Tigers also added 14-game winner Edwin Jackson in an offseason trade with the Rays.

And on the radar is 20-year-old Rick Porcello, who was signed away from the University of North Carolina in August 2007 for more than $8 million. Porcello, a right-handed pitcher, was brought along slowly last season, throwing only 125 innings for Class A Lakeland. But his delivery, stuff and maturity have the coaching staff convined he can win in the AL right now, although the organization might hold off his arrival until June or July.

Porcello has been one of two major revelations thus far. The other has been Joel Zumaya, who is throwing smoke as he did in 2006. Zumaya and Fernando Rodney threw only 63 2/3 innings between them last season. But, healthy as they seem, they give Leyland a potentially dominant setup crew for new closer Brandon Lyon.

As for the defense, everyone realizes the Tigers had problems last season. Pudge Rodriguez and Edgar Renteria played like old players. The Carlos Guillen-Miguel Cabrera flip-flop also did not work right away.

Now they have what Leyland thinks is one of the best defensive left infields with a healthy Adam Everett and Inge, who is one of the premier defenders at third base. For Inge, getting out from behind the plate is really important.

"Catching, I couldn't think about hitting," Inge said. "I couldn't think about anything but the pitchers."

His career stat line shows that when Inge has caught, he has batted .199 with a .590 OPS and 27 homers in 1,149 at-bats. Playing anywhere but catcher, his career line is a .257 average, a .752 OPS and 69 homers in 2,112 at-bats.

Cabrera is making himself a good first baseman ("He may have the best baseball instincts on this team," says Leyland). Second baseman Placido Polanco is very good. Gerald Laird is an upgrade behind the plate, and Curtis Granderson is the centerpiece between Ordonez (right field) and Guillen (left field). They might need a defensive corner backup, but the improvement behind the pitching should make the staff better.

Then there are the injuries. Gary Sheffield batted .225 last season and had struggled for a year and a half with a bad shoulder, which he says is now healthy and strong.

"There's a lot to be excited about here," Verlander said. "But we need to stay under the radar and do it on the field."

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