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Tigers slugger Brennan Boesch.
The addition Of Prince Fielder to the Tigers lineup gives Miguel Cabrera the type of protection he enjoyed last year when Victor Martinez hit behind him.  So while Cabrera has to feel giddy at the thought of Fielder hitting behind him, how must Brennan Boesch feel right now?  Double giddy.

Boesch has displayed various skills since bursting on the scene as a rookie two years ago.  He can run, he can throw and he can hit for power.  Jim Leyland of course is most excited about Boesch’s ability to pepper the outfield seats with his mighty muscle.  Leyland also has an affinity for power in the second spot in the lineup.  So, assuming Boesch hits behind Austin Jackson and ahead of Cabrera and Fielder, he may be better positioned right now than anyone this side of Mark Zuckerberg’s broker.

Boesch is my pick to have a breakout season this year.  I know, going out on a limb there.  Regardless, Santa Monica’s favorite son must be licking his chops at the thought of how many opportunities he will get this season.  I would imagine that plenty of fastballs will be on the menu with Cabrera and Fielder sitting behind him in the lineup.  But let’s assume he sees fewer fastballs this year despite the protection following him.  Boesch showed good progress in 2011 with off-speed pitches.  When Boesch put a curveball in play last year, he hit .300.  When he swung at a change-up he hit .344.  Definite progress for a guy who struggled mightily at the end of his rookie season in 2010. 

Boesch also hit 11 of his 16 homers hitting third in the lineup last year right ahead of Cabrera.   His numbers this season should blossom with Cabby and Fielder lurking.  After an inconsistent, but promising rookie season in 2010, Boesch seemingly had taken the next step in his maturity adding almost 30 points to his average over 2010 and also had a jump in OBP, slugging and OPS.

While Fielder and Cabrera will garner most of the headlines in 2012, don’t be surprised to see Boesch blossom into one of the game’s next stars.

 
 
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Can Brandon Inge win the second base job?
Just as quickly as Prince Fielder became the biggest signing in the off season, one of the biggest questions of spring camp is whether or not Brandon Inge can play second base.  Fielder’s signing gives the Tigers lineup the best 3-4 combination in the game, but it also has a domino effect on a few other spots on the diamond.

With the arrival of Fielder, Miguel Cabrera’s new home is now third base and Brandon Inge is once again in search of a new position.  Inge made headlines with his request to play second base and the Tigers will give him every opportunity to win the job in Lakeland.

Can he switch gears at this point in his career and learn a position that he has never played before?  We’ll find out in the coming months, but Inge has two things going for him that will increase his chances:   He is a freakish athlete and Rafael Belliard.

Inge’s background is well known.  He was a shortstop in college and pitched as well at Virginia Commonwealth.  Professionally he has played all three outfield positions, catcher, and third.  I have a feeling if anyone on the club can handle a transition like this, it’s Inge. 

Yet, it is not as easy as it may seem on the surface.  Different footwork, different assignments on relays etc…  The fact that Inge is willing to give it a shot is a good start.  It would stand to reason that a guy that can play as many positions as Inge can, should be able to handle second base.  It’s more involved than that.

There is a big difference between showing up at Softball City in your summer beer league and giving it a go and actually performing on a big league field on a nightly basis.  That’s where Belliard comes in.

For 17 seasons, Belliard was known as one of the top defensive players in the game.  You can bet he’ll be joined at the hip with Inge all spring.  Most of Belliard’s experience in the major leagues came at the shortstop position, but he also played almost 1000 innings at second base.  He has a strong understanding of how to play in the middle of the diamond and the ability to teach it as well.

Belliard’s presence on the Tigers staff will likely be a key to the success of this adventure.  Yet, assuming Inge can make the transition defensively, the fact remains that he will still need to improve his offensive numbers to keep the job. 

The Tigers have options in Ramon Santiago, Danny Worth and Ryan Raburn.  All have their strengths, but if Inge can return to the .250 or .260 range with power, he could be a valuable piece.  That, however, will take a big turnaround from his .197 season in 2011.

The Tigers will also have to be sure this will work defensively.  With Cabrera moving back to third, infield defense will already be an issue. 

We are about to embark on an exciting spring with the addition of Fielder to a playoff team.   There are however plenty of storylines to keep it interesting.

 
 
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Tigers prospect Nick Castellanos.
_ The Detroit Tigers top prospect list is typically dotted with plenty of pitching talent.  This season, there is a good chance that three fifths of their rotation will be homegrown.  Jacob Turner has a strong chance to make a permanent jump to the big league rotation, but Drew Smyly , Andy Oliver and Casey Crosby  also show up on all current lists of the team’s top prospects. 

There is another name that is often talked about as one of the best prospects in the game.  The above mentioned pitchers have gotten their fair share of ink, but Nick Castellanos has a chance to become one of the few position players produced by the club in quite a while.

Where Castellanos falls on the list of the game’s top prospects differs.  For instance he is ranked #51 on MLB.com’s top 100, but # 37 on Keith Law’s list.  Regardless, one thing most evaluators agree on is that the young third baseman has a bright future and a chance to be on a big league roster in the near future.

The first thing you have to realize about Castellanos is that he will be only 20 years old this season.  Drafted out of high school in the first round of the 2010 draft, Castellanos had a strong season at West Michigan in 2011.  He knocked in 76 runs while hitting a solid .312, but he is still relatively inexperienced as a professional.

According to one scout outside of the organization who saw him play in a six game stretch last season, the hype is warranted.   Castellanos showed good plate discipline, the ability to hit to all fields and power that projects to improve as he matures.    He projects as possessing 20+ homer power in the big leagues.  Castellanos took off in the second half last year, hitting .331 after the all star break and his plate discipline improved as his walk total nearly doubled.  He is showing that he is becoming a quick study.

Defensively, Castellanos was a shortstop in high school and his transition to third base in pro ball continues.  He committed 23 errors last season, but scouts see good range and a strong arm which should serve him well as he strives to improve his defense.

With Miguel Cabrera moving to third base with the big club this year, it remains to be seen where Castellanos fits on the field when he is ready to make the jump to the major leagues.  For the time being, his progress in the minor leagues has been both encouraging and exciting.  Just one reason the Tigers were reluctant to throw him into a deal for Gio Gonzalez this off season.

 

 

 
 
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Comerica Park will be rockin' in 2012
The addition of Prince Fielder to the Tigers this off season has fans thinking this could be the year.  Yet, memories of 2008 have many feeling very cautious.  You remember the 2008 season.  The Tigers had traded for Miguel Cabrera that winter and an already stout lineup looked unstoppable.  The lineup featured Curtis Granderson, Pudge Rodriguez, Placido Polanco, Gary Sheffield and Magglio Ordonez.  Add Carlos Guillen and Edgar Renteria and Tigers fans felt 2008 would be the year the Motor City would celebrate its first World Series title since 1984.

The optimism of spring training quickly gave way to an 0-7 start to the regular season.  The vaunted offense was sputtering and Miguel Cabrera struggled in his Tigers debut hitting .100 in the seven game streak.  Clearly, the loaded Tigers were feeling the pressure of bloated expectations.   If nothing else, the 2008 version of the Tigers were proof positive that there are no guarantees in baseball.

While 2008 serves as a cautionary backdrop, the chances of a relapse are minimal in my mind.  Two things stand out to me when comparing the two teams:  the 2012 Tigers have better pitching and the rest of the Central Division clearly seems to be a step behind the Tigers.

The 2008 Tigers featured a rotation of Kenny Rogers, Nate Robertson, Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander and Armando Galarraga.  Of that group, only Galarraga finished above .500.  That club also featured Dontrelle Willis who never regained his previous success, and a Verlander that finished 11-17 and seemed to struggle as staff ace.  Today, as we know, Verlander is not only a staff ace, but perhaps the best pitcher in baseball.

It goes beyond Verlander though.  Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello all finished over .500  in 2011 and the quartet combined for 61 wins, 64 if you count Fister's Seattle numbers.  The rotation in 2012 will feature four pitchers that could easily win 15 games which gives them a marked advantage over the 2008 group.  The bullpen in 2012 is also decidedly better than the 2008 pen which featured Todd Jones and very few other major pieces.  Unless of course you count Kyle Farnsworth's ability to body slam opposing players.

While the Central Division was not exactly a juggernaut in 2008, it did feature Twins and White Sox teams that were much more potent.  This off season, the Twins lost Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer and their pitching staff is devoid of a true ace.  Joe Mauer is coming off an injury plagued season and Justin Morneau wasn't able to shake off a concussion and underwent four surgeries last year.  Questions remain as to how much they will contribute this season.

The White Sox meanwhile appear to be in rebuilding mode despite giving John Danks a five year deal.  Carlos Quentin, closer Sergio Santos and key reliever Jason Frasor are gone.

Mark Buehrle is a Marlin and so is Ozzie Guillen.  The Sox will need a monster comeback season from Adam Dunn.

The Indians have some good young talent, but Fausto Carmona's scam was uncovered in the off season and Manny Acta's squad proved in the second half last season that it is not quite ready to overtake the Tigers.  The Royals are building a future winner, but lack pitching depth to hang around all season.

So while 2008 has some concerned over a possible relapse, this team is too deep to let it happen.  2012 promises to be one of the more fun summers in Detroit this side of 2006.