Lakeland, FL-   Spring training is different for everyone.  For the veteran player assured of a roster spot when the team heads north, the month and a half spent in Lakeland is a low pressure experience designed to get a player ready for opening day.  For Drew Smyly, Andy Oliver, and Duane Below, it has been a much different experience.

Smyly, Oliver and Below were battling for the fifth spot in the rotation until Oliver’s last two starts bumped him from the competition.  Barring a trade, the Tigers will select from a pitchers with no experience above Double-A, and one with just 29 innings of big league time.

Smyly has held up extremely well under the pressure of competition.  His ERA (2.84) is the best among the candidates.  Below’s ERA meanwhile jumped to 5.17 after his outing today against the Orioles.  Can Smyly actually win the competition?  It’s starting to look like it.

If the Tigers had their preference, they probably would have hoped the Oliver or Jacob Turner would have grabbed the spot.  Turner’s chances disappeared when he missed time with tendonitis.  After a good start, Oliver’s control, or lack thereof, bought him a ticket back to minor league camp.  While Below has more big league experience than Smyly, he has not pitched as well this spring. 

Smyly needs to start every fifth day, whether it’s in the major leagues or Toledo, so a spot in the big league bullpen seems very unlikely.  The Tigers have to weigh the dangers of rushing Smyly against giving him a shot in a rotation that has enough veteran presence to minimize the pressure.

All indications are that he should be able to handle the jump.  Smyly is described by pitching coach Jeff Jones as having a very confident, even temper.  Scouts feel he is ready for the job. 

As Jim Leyland says, if he selects Smyly, it would be a risk.  The skipper has not been afraid to take a talented  inexperienced player north in the past.  He might have to do it again this year.

With less than a week until opening day, we’ll find out soon enough.

 
 
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Miguel Cabrera and Al Alburquerque will both have injuries evaluated tomorrow,
Lakeland, FL-   Bullpens can be fickle.  Some years relievers fail to live up to expectations and some years a player will emerge to strengthen a pen.  Last season the Tigers anticipated the bullpen being a strength and it was.  Jose Valverde was perfect as the closer and Joaquin Benoit added a solid 8th inning option that funneled Papa Grande his 49 save opportunities.

While the two big pieces at the end of the pen received most of the ink, the Tigers turned up a diamond in a young man with big name and even bigger slider.  Al Alburquerque emerged as a swing and miss reliever that calmed many threats with his electric stuff. 

Alburquerque was called up from Toledo on April 14th last season and proceeded to put up all star numbers.  He struck out six of the nine batters he faced in a memorable outing in Cleveland and was off and running after that.  Stranding 90% of his inherited runners, Alburquerque gave Jim Leyland an unexpected weapon in his bullpen.

Forearm inflammation and a concussion however derailed what was destined to be a special season.  Elbow surgery in December has many wondering when he will be able to pitch in 2012. Alburquerque will be reevaluated tomorrow by doctors to determine if he can resume throwing.  To this point, all he has been able to do is work on his conditioning.  Tomorrow will be a big day for Al if he hopes to be able to rejoin the Tigers at some point after the all star break.

Tomorrow is also a big day for Miguel Cabrera.  The Tigers third baseman was in the clubhouse today, showing the signs of someone who is very bored and desperately wants to return to the field.

“I’ve been resting, doing nothing,” he said. 

If cleared by doctors tomorrow, Cabrera should be ready to resume baseball activities, which would put him on track to be in the lineup opening day.  Asked if he would be ready for the season opener against Boston if cleared, Cabrera said, “I’ll be ready.  Don’t worry.”

Cabrera was asked if he has looked at replays of the play and he said he had, many times.  Why?

 “I wanted to see if I did anything wrong,” he said.

I’m not sure if the outcome would have been any different with any other third baseman.

 
 
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Justin Verlander has had a strong spring.
Lakeland, FL- During last week’s broadcast against the Minnesota Twins we talked with Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson about the Twins need for a member of their staff to step up and become the ace that they have lacked. 

No such worry for the Tigers.

Justin Verlander is coming off one of the most dominant seasons for a pitcher in recent memory.   Cy Young and MVP awards now sit atop his mantle. 

The Tigers feel good about their chances every fifth day.  Every Contender needs a true ace and the Tigers are fortunate to have one of the best.  It’s almost incomprehensible to think what Verlander would have commanded on the open market as a free agent this past off season has the Tigers not locked him up to a five- year deal in January of 2010.

Las t season’s numbers were truly eye opening.  Verlander won the pitching Triple Crown, leading the league in wins (24), ERA (2.40) and strikeouts (250).  

Is there any pressure this year to match last season’s numbers?  Pitching coach Jeff Jones doesn’t think so.  “I don’t think there is any added pressure, he said.  “His bullpens are focused and everything he does is designed to win.  He wants to win a World Series more than worrying about topping last year’s stats.”

Heading into today, Verlander was down to two spring start and Jones says this is the point where Verlander will begin to morph into regular season mode.  “He’ll pump up the velocity and hone all of his pitches,” he said.

Today we saw evidence of just that.  After giving up two runs in the first, he settled in nicely, throwing five shutout innings.  Verlander threw a bevy of off speed pitches, including a very good change-up.  In the fourth inning, as Jones alluded to, Verlander pumped the fastball up to 95 MPH striking out Laynce Nix to end the inning.   Later he used a 96 MPH fastball to get Scott Podsednik to pop up ending a threat in the fifth.

Verlander’s first assignment will be a match-up against Jon Lester at Comerica Park on opening day.  All indications are that he’ll be ready.

 
 
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Tigers utility infielder Ramon Santiago.
Lakeland, FL- On a team full of stars, he blends in during batting practice almost undetected.  Names like Fielder, Young, Boesch and Cabrera draw the attention, bombing away to the delight of onlooking fans round after round.

Ramon Santiago meanwhile sneaks into the cage unnoticed.  From the left side, he delivers line drive after line drive to the outfield in a workmanlike manner.  A few minutes later, he jumps into the cage and from the right side duplicates his previous round. 

So while the Tigers mega stars draw the cameras and gargantuan paychecks, Santiago prepares himself for another season at the major league level in relative anonymity.  It has been that way for much of his career.  Come to the ballpark, give your team a hard day’s work and do it all over again the next day.

Yet, when you ask those around the ball club of Santiago’s worth to the team, you get a universal evaluation:  great teammate who understands his role and his value.

This spring, Brandon Inge and Ryan Raburn continue to battle for the starting spot at second base, but as the season progresses, it is Santiago that will be just as valuable.  The Tigers understand that and rewarded him with a 2-year contract this past November.

Santiago was thankful for the security, but realizes that free agency has its perks.  “It was my first time in free agency, so I had to explore it, but my desire was to stay here.”

So, he is still here.

The 2012 season will be Santiago’s ninth in a Tigers uniform.  A friendly smile and warm handshake make him an absolute joy to be around in the clubhouse.  His sons Raymond and Andres can be seen hanging out with dad in the locker room throughout the summer as well.  He’s one of those personalities that make you feel like you are part of his family.  He doesn’t need the headlines to be a good teammate.

“Don’t get me wrong, I want to play every day but I understand my role on this team,” he said.  “We have a lot of talent here and I understand how important preparation is for me to stay ready.”

In the past, part of that preparation was to play winter ball in his native Dominican Republic.  Last season with the Tigers making the playoffs and the season lasting in essence an additional month, Santiago did not play for the first time in his career.  “I feel stronger and fresher this spring,” he said.  “When I play winter ball I have no time to work out.  It was nice to have some off time.”

 To go with his new deal, Santiago apparently has a new nickname.  He is listed at 5’11” but has provided the Tigers with some sporadic power.  “A friend of mine heard you say on the broadcast that I have sneaky power so he had some t-shirts made with “sneaky” on the front,” he said.  “I like it, sneaky is a good nickname.”

A new deal, a new nickname, but still the same Ramon.  That won’t ever change.

 
 
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Drew Smyly cools down between innings in today's start at Tiger Town.
Lakeland, FL- On the back fields at Tiger Town today, there was plenty of buzz surrounding Field 1 where a group of Tigers minor leaguers were hosting a Braves Class A squad at noon.  Under normal circumstances it would have been a minor league game that would have melted into the afternoon heat.

Today’s tilt was different.  It featured 22-year-old Drew Smyly on the mound as he continued his bid to win the fifth spot in the Tigers rotation.

The schedule today featured an off-day for the big league club, so Smyly was sent to minor league camp to make the start.  Jim Leyland, Jeff Jones and Dave Dombrowski were all on hand, giving up part of their off-day to watch Smyly pitch.  As expected, the former Arkansas Razorback didn’t disappoint.

Smyly threw a total of 72 pitches, 62 in the game and ten more in the bullpen.  His final numbers:  4IP 3H 0R 1BB 8K.  The stress of pitching in front of a few dozen people in a minor league game certainly doesn’t compare to a big league start, but when three of those in attendance are named Leyland, Jones and Dombrowski, a certain level of anxiety exists.

Smyly has a reputation of possessing a “cool as a cucumber” demeanor and after his start, he proved it again.  “Everyone knows what’s at stake,” he said.  “The outcome is not in my hands, I just need to pitch.”  

“I feel honored that they took their off-day to see me pitch.”

Pitching coach Jeff Jones was impressed with what he saw.  “His fastball was good, and he threw a lot of good breaking balls,” he said.  “I see a guy that is very sure of himself, not cocky.”

Would you say he has an even personality?  "Absolutely," Jones said. 

That personality has really seemed to help Smyly in his bid.  As the pressure cooker increases, Smyly remains calm.

So with the stretch run of spring training almost here, time is running short for the Tigers to make their choice on a fifth starter.  Smyly’s next start will be on the 27th against Houston in Kissimmee.  Another candidate, Duane Below, will pitch Sunday in Tampa against the Yankees. 

Despite yesterday’s rough outing against the Twins, Andy Oliver may still be the frontrunner for the final rotation spot, but Smyly is making things interesting.

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Daniel Fields prepares for an at bat during today's minor league game. Fields homered in the game.
 
 
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Drew Smyly will pitch Thursday in a minor league game.
Lakeland, FL- One inning into today’s start against the Minnesota Twins, Andy Oliver was looking like a man destined to snatch the fifth spot in the Tigers rotation.  A 1-2-3 inning under his belt and Oliver was looking like the pitcher that was rolling through spring training on his way to a big league destination. 

The balance of his start however provided a major speed bump.  Oliver’s achilles has been the lack of control at times, and with the pressure of competition for the fifth rotation spot heating up the final two weeks of camp, Oliver’s nemesis returned.  The five walks he allowed were ill-timed and by the time Jim Leyland brought the hook with him, Oliver had allowed three runs and five walks in 3 2/3 innings against the Twins.

While one bad outing this spring can’t erase the success Oliver has had to this point, it does shift the focus to Drew Smyly who will pitch against minor league hitters on the back fields at Tiger Town tomorrow at noon.

It presents an opportunity for Smyly to gain some ground in the race even though it is not a big league game in front of a Joker Marchant crowd.  Still, even though his family is in town, Jim Leyland will spend part of his off day tomorrow watching Smyly toe the slab.

Leyland will no doubt use the opportunity to work on his tan, but more importantly he will get another up close look at last year’s Tiger’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

Meanwhile, Duane Below pitched a scoreless inning today and will draw the Yankees in a start on Sunday in Tampa.  The skipper will be there to take that one in as well.

The Tigers insist that their fifth starter is in the organization and with trade prospects not exactly strong at this point, it appears someone within the organization will get a shot.  So, Drew Smyly, tomorrow it’s your turn.

 Andy Oliver, it was only one start.

 
 
Lakeland, FL- After much anticipation, the Tigers received news this morning on the condition of Miguel Cabrera after the bad hop heard ‘round the world.  Cabrera suffered a non-displaced fracture under his right eye and received eight stitches.  It could have been a lot worse.  As it stands, doctors have ordered Cabrera to take a week off and the injury will be further evaluated.

Cabrera was in good spirits in the locker room this morning.  He actually looked much better than I anticipated.  There was very little swelling and Cabrera said he has no pain. 

He joked with teammates and asked infield instructor Rafael Belliard his professional opinion.  Belliard has worked hard with Cabrera this spring.   “Raffy, what’s the deal?  Should I have stayed back or charged it,” he joked.  In reality, Cabrera didn’t even have time to react.

The good news is that his vision is fine and should not be an issue.

GM Dave Dombrowski is thankful that Cabrera was wearing sunglasses.  “There is no question the sunglasses helped him,” he said.  “The ball could have hit him right in the eye.”

Cabrera also feels that he is fortunate to escape without a major injury.  “Thanks God I had the glasses on,” he said. 

The fact that there are still a couple of weeks left in spring camp should give Cabrera enough time to be ready for the start of the season.  “I have a lot of confidence I will be ready for the open of the season,” he said.  "I can take a punch."

We all hope so.

 
 
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Delmon Young should be smiling a lot this season.
Lakeland, FL- Midway through spring camp, the focus on this Tigers team remains the fight for the fifth spot in the rotation, selecting a second baseman and the battle between Clete Thomas and Andy Dirks.  Meanwhile, Delmon Young is quietly tearing it up.

Young is drawing more notice as the spring continues, and his gaudy numbers solidify the thought that this offense is going to feature much more than the dynamic duo of Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera.  While those two pieces are the centerpiece of the Tigers lineup, Young appears to be primed for a dynamite season.  Physically he appears to be in great shape.  Yes, I know we say that about most players in spring training, but with Young, his off season work is really evident.

Young was acquired by the Tigers from the Twins last August and Delmon promptly announced his arrival with a home run in his first Tigers at bat off the Twins Francisco Liriano.  In just 40 games with the Tigers, Young hit eight homers and knocked in 32 runs.  Then came the post season.

Young connected for three home runs in the Division Series against the Yankees and followed that up with a pair of long balls in Game Five of the ALCS against the Rangers.  In total, Young’s five post season homers tied a club record established by Craig Monroe in 2006.

Fast forward to this year and Young appears to be having fun in the Tigers clubhouse lockering near Austin Jackson and Prince Fielder.  The main fact to consider is that Young will be a free agent after this season.  2012 will provide him with an opportunity.  The more runs he drives in this season, the more dollars he’ll drive into a new deal.  He is out to prove that his numbers in 2010 were legit.  He hit nearly .300 and drove in 112 runs with the Twins that year.

It’s very easy to get carried away with spring numbers, especially Young’s.  He has knocked in 15 runs in just 11 games and is hitting over .500.  In this offense however, he should flourish this year giving opposing managers fits navigating through the middle of the Tigers order.

Because of defensive considerations, Young may have to adjust to DH’ing a little more this year, but that shouldn’t keep him from having a big year.

 
 
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Tigers prospect Andy Oliver.
Lakeland, FL-  Pitching notes from camp today.  Jim Leyland is impressed with the strides Brayan Villarreal has made from last year.  Villarreal impressed last spring with his darting slider and competitive nature.  The native Venezuelan made the club out of spring training last year and pitched in 16 games with the big club before heading back to the minors.

The righthander has pitched 4 1/3 innings this spring without allowing a run and Leyland says the biggest difference he sees is improvement in his signature slider.  “He has his slider more under control this year,” said Leyland.  “Last year he tried to bury it.  He looks like a different guy.”

Jacob Turner meanwhile has made significant progress in his recovery from a little shoulder tendinitis.  There is still no specific time frame for his return, but time missed has made him a long shot to win the fifth spot in the rotation.

Lefty Andy Oliver has emerged as one of the favorites to win the fifth spot at this point in camp.  Control was a major issue for Oliver in the past, but strides are being made in that area.   Pitching Coach Jeff Jones said the Tigers have simplified his delivery and they have seen good results.   “He never really felt comfortable up here,” Jones said.   “We have changed his delivery to a three step delivery where he takes a step, brings his hands up, then down to his belt before delivering. “

If that explanation sounds familiar, it should.  It’s the same adjustment the Tigers made to Justin Verlander’s delivery two years ago.  Here is something else that should sound familiar.  “He’s getting a good feel for what velocity to pitch at,” Jones said.  “He’s learning you don’t have to give 100% on every pitch.”

That’s exactly the change Verlander has made in recent years.  JV went from throwing 95-96 MPH in the first inning to 91-92 MPH.  It’s an adjustment that clicks with some guys faster than others.  Also keep in mind that Oliver hasn't pitched professionally for very long.  Even though he played for a major college program at Oklahoma State, he has only two years of pro ball experience under his belt.

 
 
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Lakeland, FL-  After spending more than a week so far in spring camp, it’s clear that the anticipation for the 2012 Tigers season is off the charts.  Big crowds, great weather and excited fans have made this one of the best spring camps I have been a part of.  Add a dose of Prince Fielder and opening day can’t get here soon enough.

When the Tigers signed Fielder in the off season, it was clear Mike Ilitch meant business.  What wasn’t immediately clear was how Prince would fit.  The Tigers already had a superstar at first base in Miguel Cabrera and a small part of me wondered how two of the game’s giants would co-exist.

It didn’t take long for the answer to become clear.  Fielder and Cabrera seemingly have become best buddies.  An interview I did with the duo earlier in the week provided a glimpse of just how much they like each other.  I told Cabrera that not many mega stars would be willing to switch positions to accommodate the new guy.  Cabrera’s answer was really telling.  “He’s a superstar too," he said.  "He makes the team better.  We want to win.”

Still, this was Cabrera’s team.  His willingness to embrace the move to third speaks volumes.  You can also tell that Fielder appreciates Cabrera’s efforts to welcome him to the Tigers family.  Jim Leyland has to be ecstatic at how the chemistry of this team has developed.  When Cabrera is not singing the praises of Fielder, he is reminding people about the other superstar in our midst, Justin Verlander.  There is plenty of credit to go around.

The duo also seems genuinely excited about hitting back to back in the lineup.  As Cabrera said, “Pitchers see Prince behind me in the lineup; they have to bring it to me.”

 Now that’s a classic line.

Both Fielder and Cabrera know they will intimidate opponents on a nightly basis and they love it.  Fielder knows it can be an advantage.

 “Intimidation is part of the game and we have it,” he said. 

While they will spend the summer scaring the daylights out of opposing pitchers they have been more than accessible to fans this spring, often spend a good part of the day signing autographs.

Fielder and Cabrera have a chance to become part of something special here in Detroit.  All signs this spring point to the fact that they will have a lot of fun doing it.