Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Pre-Spring Training Preview

Today I’d like to share my 2009 Spring Training thoughts, pre-pitchers and catchers. This may seem redundant, as I’m planning to post a more formal season preview once we get closer to Opening Day, but I’ve got a good reason for it. Last year marked the first occasion where I paid a lot of attention to Spring Training, and it taught me a valuable lesson: If you get certain impressions or gut feelings from watching how your team is doing in Spring Training games, DON’T ignore them. Last year, everyone else was salivating over the Tigers offseason acquisitions and penciling their names into the World Series scorecards (Well, there were a few who, very late in Spring Training, picked the Indians to win the division title instead, but even they consistently gave the Tigers the wild card). Meanwhile, I was watching Spring Training and wondering why I wasn’t seeing what everybody else was seeing. Every once in a while, the famed offense would go on a tear, but there were many times where it did not, and the pitching wasn’t what everyone was saying it would be. I remember one Spring Training game in particular that probably should’ve been an alarm bell. It was against the Blue Jays, Dontrelle Willis kept walking people, someone gave up a bunch of runs (don’t remember who), and the Tigers offense (mostly intact that day) was pretty much stymied by Jesse Litsch and a bunch of Jays prospects. And there were several other games very much like that one. But no one else seemed worried (except maybe Jim Leyland a little bit), so I just chalked it up to me never having watched Spring Training before, assumed that that must have been what it always looked like, and didn’t mention my observations to anyone (later, I found out that in fact, Rod Allen had had pretty much the same observations I did). To be fair, not everyone’s individual performances in Spring Training correlated to their regular-season performances. Dontrelle Willis still couldn’t throw strikes and Justin Verlander was still wonky, but Nate Robertson had a really good Spring Training. You probably wouldn’t believe it now, but it’s true. On the other hand, Armando Galarraga was cut very early from the big league camp and Tim Byrdak was so horrible that the Tigers released him (he signed with Houston a few weeks later and actually had a rather decent season). Still, I have learned my lesson. I’m gonna trust my observations and I’ll put myself on the line and discuss them here. Now, I know not to put too much stock into the early Spring Training games cuz players are working on things that they might not be doing during a regular game. For example, I know there was one early Spring Training game last year where Jeremy Bonderman was not allowed to throw his slider because they were trying to get him to work on his changeup. Obviously, they would not do that during the regular season. But…I would guess that by, say, mid-March, we should be getting at least a realistic impression of how things are going. As such, I want to discuss a few things that are on my mind BEFORE they might be rendered irrelevant/obsolete or proven wrong in Spring Training.

Depth: This is a word that is used a LOT by the media/bloggers, who almost universally use it while saying that the Tigers have none. Based on my observations, I’m not sure that that is an entirely accurate assessment. At the very least, it’s inaccurate as a broad assessment. And I’d like to break it down into three specific areas that critics say have no depth: the starting rotation, the farm system, and the bullpen. Now, after the 2008 season ended, I heard a lot of people saying that the season was a failure because there was no depth in the starting rotation. I’m not really buying that, because the numbers just don’t seem to indicate that. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Armando Galarraga was, for all intents and purposes, the fourth starter. He won 13 games. Then let’s say make a collective fifth spot consisting of Zach Miner, Dontrelle Willis, Eddie Bonine, Chris Lambert, and Freddy Garcia. Those five combined to win 12 games. Now, I’d think that most people would say that getting 25 wins out of the back end of your rotation is very, very good, so that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that they weren’t getting the wins they needed out of Justin Verlander or Kenny Rogers, and I don’t care how great your farm system is, you’re not gonna replace those guys. It just ain’t gonna happen. The Yankees would never replace a struggling CC Sabathia with Ian Kennedy. The Red Sox would never replace a struggling Josh Beckett with [insert name of Red Sox pitching prospect]. At least, not over the course of one season, which is what we’re talking about here. Now, let’s move on to talking about the farm system. According to ESPN, only the Nationals and Astros have worse farm systems than the Tigers. Now, I don’t know a lot about the farm system, but I do know that just about everyone who was called up from either Erie or Toledo last year made a positive contribution. Clete Thomas did a good job subbing for Curtis Granderson at the start of the year. Matt Joyce did some nice things, as did Jeff Larish, Michael Hollimon and Dusty Ryan, although they could probably use a bit more seasoning in the minors. On the pitching side, Armando Galarraga was the big story, and Eddie Bonine gave them a bit of a lift during Interleague Play. Now could the Tigers contend with a team made up entirely of guys from Toledo and Erie? Probably not. But I’m not sure any team could. So I don’t think the farm system is quite as bad off as most people think it is. I don’t know other teams’ systems, so I couldn’t rank it, but at certain positions, there’s definitely depth. And right now, there are certainly quite a few outfielders and middle infielders slated for Erie and Toledo. I’m not saying the farm system is perfect. There’s definitely a lack of catching or pitching prospects at the higher levels, outside of Dusty Ryan and Rick Porcello, respectively. Which brings me to my last point about depth: the bullpen. This is an area that might be a problem if someone in the Tigers ‘pen struggles or is injured. We’ve all heard the names Ryan Perry, Cody Sattelwaite (sp?), and Casey Fien brought up as terrific young arms that are on the way up. I actually remember Casey Fien pitching an inning in a Spring Training game last year. If I recall correctly, he did a nice job, including striking out one of the Indians’ big hitters (Victor Martinez or Travis Hafner or someone like that). However, we’ve also been told that they probably won’t be ready until 2010. With that in mind, there isn’t a whole lot in the farm system that could help the big club in a setup or closer role except MAYBE Blaine Neal (Toledo’s closer…hey, it’s a long shot, but he WAS on the Olympic team). But that just feeds into my main point, which I’ll get to later.

Jeff Larish: We have been told by Jim Leyland that Larish is “definitely” in contention for the final roster spot. I can see the attraction. Larish is a left-handed power hitter, something the Tigers don’t have a lot of. However, I see a slight problem with this. Unless the Tigers want to go one pitcher short in their bullpen (which I don’t think they do), there is room for four bench players. Matt Treanor and Ramon Santiago are guaranteed spots, as is Marcus Thames unless he’s traded (which would be a mistake, in my opinion). That leaves one spot that will likely come down to either Larish or Ryan Raburn. And that’s where the problem arises. If they choose Larish, they will have no one to back up Curtis Granderson in centerfield. Granted, Brandon Inge could probably fill in for him in an emergency, but you can’t honestly expect Granderson to play every inning of every game. He’s gotta have a break sometime. Plus, as it stands right now, Larish is a natural first baseman who can play third base and that’s it. There’s been talk of him learning the corner outfield positions, but Raburn would still have more versatility (remember, he’s also been the emergency catcher the past couple years as well). Plus, Larish could probably use a little bit more time in Toledo, if you base your conclusions off of last year’s performance at the big league level.

Armando Galarraga: No matter how successful a pitcher’s rookie year has been, you have to hold your breath a little bit when he embarks on his second full season, and Galarraga’s no different. Most people aren’t anticipating a sophomore slump, but at the same time, we are talking about someone who wasn’t on anyone’s radar this time last year. I don’t have a concrete sense of how he’ll do, but I do have some thoughts. For one, I think that stellar opponent’s batting average is going to come up somewhat, and I have a very thorough reasoning for that. Galarraga owns righties. They hit, like, less than .200 against him. Therefore, opposing managers are going to load their lineups with lefties and switch-hitters, and the few right-handers that remain in the lineups are going to be top-of-the-line righties like Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols. As a result, he is probably going to get hit more. Also, this is the first year in which he has not pitched winter ball back in Venezuela, so you don’t know how that’ll affect him. However, his performance when he had runners on base last year was fantastic, and I think that will be the key. If he can keep that up, I think he’ll be fine. Now, if only he can figure out how to beat Minnesota…

The fifth spot in the rotation: I touched on this briefly last time, but I’d really like either Dontrelle Willis or Nate Robertson to show me something in Spring Training, cuz we really should have a lefty in the rotation. If Zach Miner pitches the best, so be it (and at the present time, I don’t really buy all the Rick Porcello talk; after all, he hasn’t pitched above A-ball and this is not 2003 like it was when Bonderman made a similar leap). But with all the good left-handed hitters in the AL Central (Sizemore, Morneau, Hafner, Mauer, Thome…need I go on?), a southpaw would be nice. And adding to that, I feel like one of them is due for a comeback, but I’m not sure which. I could be wrong, though.

Brandon Inge: I’ve already discussed how moving him back to third base is absolutely the right move and how trying to make him catch again was a grandiose mistake (personal preferences aside). I know a lot of fans are concerned about his offense and rightly so, given his past. As to whether he’ll bounce back at the plate now that he’s no longer behind it, I don’t have a good sense either way, but consider this: He began 2008 as the starting centerfielder in place of the injured Curtis Granderson, and also saw a fair amount of time at third base as a result of injuries to Sheffield and Cabrera. And he started the year hot. In fact, he was batting .300 and leading the team in RBIs for the first two weeks or so. It was only once he began catching more than his average and offensive production started to tank. Now, I’m not sure if there’s a connection there or not, but if there isn’t, it’s an amazing coincidence.

The bottom line: At this juncture, do I honestly believe the Tigers can contend? Absolutely. The ability is there. They have all the ability in the world to contend. Will they? I don’t know. I don’t really have an impression either way. At this point, my gut’s telling me that they’ll be better than they were last year. How much better remains to be seen.

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