With Opening Day almost upon us, rosters are starting to take shape.  Here is a look at how I see the Central Division.

1.  Detroit--Many were surprised last season, myself included, at how the Tigers were unable to seize command of the division until the final weeks of the season.  I can't see that happening again this season.  When it is all said and done, the Tigers will be celebrating a third consecutive Central Division crown.

The Tigers starting lineup can't be matched in the division, and perhaps the entire A.L.  Austin Jackson's numbers are trending up and the addition of Torii Hunter will give the Tigers two outstanding table-setters for the best 3-4-5 in the league.  Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez will have an opportunity to drive in a ton of runs.  Just how opposing managers will navigate through the middle of the Tigers lineup is a mystery to me.

Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly both had very good springs with Porcelllo winning the five spot and Smyly adding depth to the bullpen.  Doug Fister has had some command issues this spring and Justin Verlander gave up three home runs in one of his final spring starts, but once the bell rings, I would expect the starting five to revert to their respective track records.

The bullpen is not quite as settled, and I'm not just referring to the closer.  Phil Coke, Al Alburquerque and Bruce Rondon have not been particularly sharp.  Still, there is plenty of proven big league talent to get the job done.

2.  Kansas City--I know what you're thinking.  The Royals are a trendy pick.  That may be, but they do have a lot of talent on their squad.  Dayton Moore pulled the trigger on a gutsy deal that sent top prospect Wil Myers to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis.  The move signals that the Royals think they are ready to win right now.  Pitching, or lack thereof, has been an issue for the Royals.  That has changed with a legitimate ace at the top of their rotation.  The additions of Ervin Santana and Wade Davis has added depth, so much so, that Luke Hochevar and Bruce Chen are listed as bullpen pieces.

A lineup loaded with good young talent is also a big plus.  Alex Gordon has finally blossomed and the infield boasts budding stars Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Salvy Perez and Alcides Escobar.  Toss in the sweet swinging Billy Butler and there is plenty to be excited about for years to come.

The Royals established a club record in victories this spring, and while that means very little when the regular season starts, it does indicate that the team is headed in the right direction.

3.  Chicago--Chris Sale and Jake Peavy give the Sox a strong duo at the top of the rotation and power arms Addison Reed, Matt Thornton and Nate Jones anchor a potentially solid back end of the bullpen.  The Sox will miss A.J. Pierzynski both at the plate and behind it, but plenty of power remains with Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn and Dayan Viciedo.

Still, age and injuries are a concern in certain areas.  John Danks is on the D.L and Alex Rios is still a wild card.  Defense up the middle should be solid with Alexei Ramirez and Gordon Beckham and center fielder Alejandro De Aza, who also developed into a fine lead off hitter last season.

4.  Cleveland--The Indians are improved and Tribe fans are excited again.  A new manager (Terry Francona) and more power and speed with the additions of Drew Stubbs, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds has Cleveland talking baseball again.   Talented holdovers Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana add to the offense.  All well and good, but their rotation is still sub par. 

Ubaldo Jimenez has not recaptured his previous dominance and Justin Masterson is just not nearly consistent enough.  Cleveland does not have a starter to match division aces like Justin Verlander, Chris Sale and James Shields.  Pitching ultimately sinks the Tribe as it has in previous seasons.

5.  Minnesota--Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are still around, but the Twins are clearly several years away from raising any championship banners again.

The rotation has been rebuilt, but names like Worley, Pelfrey, Correia and Hendriks have to make you wonder how the Twins will survive.  They traded away two of their more valuable pieces in outfielders Denard Span and Ben Revere and Worley was one of the main pitching pieces acquired in return from the Phillies.  He will oppose Justin Verlander on opening day and he will have to be awfully good this season.

As the trading deadline approaches, Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau may be headed elsewhere.  The Twins have such a long way to go



 
 
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One of the rewarding things about covering spring training in Lakeland is walking into the clubhouse and seeing Al Kaline at his locker. 

Number Six has always been willing to share his expertise and today what started out as a general conversation about outfield prospect Nick Castellanos turned into an interesting session about Al's career and what drove him to become one of the great outfielder's in the game.

One of the things Castellanos will have to master as he makes the transition to the outfield is to apply himself mentally on defense.  Kaline believes that most young players tend to concentrate on their at bats.  He was able to succeeded because he had the ability to separate the two.

Kaline was a fixture in the Tigers outfield starting at a very young age.  At 18, he broke into the big leagues and carved out a career that lasted 22 seasons before he retired at age 39.

By the time Kaline called it a career, he had played in 18 All Star games, won a batting title in 1955 at the age of 20 and won 10 gold gloves.  Those numbers landed him in the Hall of Fame in 1980.  Not bad for a high school kid from Baltimore.

The one attribute that often separates a big leaguer from a prospect that fizzles in the minor leagues is mental toughness.   Kaline had it by the truckload.  It was that mental toughness that made him a gold glove outfielder.

We've all seen the little leaguer picking dandelions in the outfield waiting for a ball to come his way.  It's no different in the big leagues, minus the dandelions.

"You have to push yourself," he said.  "You can get bored in the outfield and you have to tell yourself that the next ball is coming to me.  It's not easy because you can take your at bats out to the field with you.  The really tough individuals separate a bad at bat and their responsibilities on defense."

That mental toughness and focus is also necessary if a player has any thoughts of being a quality major league hitter.

"I used to drive to the games at Tiger Stadium with Bill Freehan and he would tell me that I wasn't a good driving partner because I never said a word the entire ride," Kaline said.  Truth was, I was thinking about that night's pitcher and how he pitched me the last time I faced him.  We'd arrive at the stadium and I wouldn't remember anything about the drive.  I's a miracle I didn't get us killed,"

Kaline had a reputation as being stoic at the ballpark and it was a reputation born from focus.

"I was always criticized because I never smiled on the field," he said.  My wife always used to ask me why I would never wave to her in the stands.  That's how focused I was."

Kaline's focus and mental toughness was also the result of a fear of embarrassing himself on the field.  So to was his decision to retire when he did, instead of prolonging his career and collecting a paycheck.

He finished his career with 399 home runs and instead of coming back for one more year to reach 400, Kaline called it quits.  "I could see that I had lost my skills and I didn't want to hang around and embarrass myself," he said.  "I never wanted to take a paycheck if I felt I didn't earn it."

It's a refreshing attitude that isn't always prevalent in today's game. 

 
 
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Jim Leyland has made his opinion known on occasion.  When it comes to Alex Avila, Leyland wants his catcher to be a little more aggressive at the plate.  In other words, swing the bat.

Avila has had the highest on base percentage of any full time catcher in the American League each of the last two years.  A good part of that is his willingness to take a walk.

So, in the 7th inning of Thursday night's game against the Houston Astros in Lakeland, Avila took a hack at a 3-0 pitch and popped out to third base.  Oh well.

Regardless of whether or not he takes his manager's advice, Avila is hoping replicate his 2011 season when he was selected to represent the American League in the all star game.  Armed with a short, compact, powerful stroke, Avila hit .295 with 19 homers and 82 RBI's.  He walked at roughly the same rate last year, but his numbers dipped.

Perhaps Avila's drop off last season can be more attributed to the fact that he has played injured over the last year with a gimpy knee.  Toss in a healthy diet of mask-rattling foul tips and he has absorbed a real beating.

At the end of the season, Avila is typically so beat up that he is not usually found standing upright very often.  "I basically go from the bed to the couch and don't move the entire day," he said of his off season.  "The first three or four weeks, I'm pretty much a couch potato."

The signing of Brayan Pena will give Jim Leyland a chance to rest Avila more this season.  The good news is that Avila is in great shape this spring and feeling strong.  The depth of the Tigers line up will hing largely on Avila's numbers this season.

His bat is only half the story though.  Avila has developed into one of the top receivers in the league.  His skills behind the plate have sharpened and he does a marvelous job of leading one of the top pitching staffs in the game.

Avila has been impressed with what he has seen this spring.  "I haven't seen very many surprises," he said.  "Between our starting staff and relievers, everyone is throwing as well as we expected."

Of course one of the biggest questions in camp has been the uneven performance of rookie closer-in-waiting Bruce Rondon.  "Early on there was a lot of attention on him and he was trying to impress," Avila said.  "Once he starts to gain confidence, he can be a game changer."

As camp begins to wind down,  Avila might want to get his rest while he can.  Alex and his wife Kristina are expecting their first child in the next couple of weeks.  "It's going to be right around opening week in Detroit," he said.  "It's going to be a busy week for me."

You have no idea.



 
 
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Avisail Garcia's chances of breaking camp with the big league club took a hit yesterday when the talented prospect suffered a bruised heel trying to beat out a hit at first base.

Garcia lunged at the bag, causing the injury and concern for just how long he will be out of the lineup.

Garcia was on crutches this morning and the injury is considered more than just day-to-day.  "You hope for the best because those can be lingering," Jim Leyland said in his office this morning.

The skipper reiterated that his players are taught to run through the bag, not to lunge or slide head first.  "We tell them not to jump at the bag, you don't get there any quicker," he said.

For Garcia, a young player trying to make the team, adrenaline takes over.  "That can happen when you're playing hard," Leyland added.  "It was not a smart play." 

Despite the injury, Garcia remains firmly planted on the Tigers radar. "We want him to be more aggressive at the plate, but I'm crazy about him," Leyland said.  "He's got it all.  He can play defense, he can run, now the last hurdle if finding out how much he will hit."

Garcia is hitting only .206 this spring with one homer and four RBI's, so the the next two weeks are critical.  At this point, he can only hope for a speedy recovery.  In the meantime, this should open up more looks for Rule 5 pick Jeff Kobernus.

 
 
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Brennan Boesch was released today by the Tigers.
In his first at bat as a Tiger, Brennan Boesch drilled an opposite field double off the left field wall in Texas against Rich Harden in April of 2010.  Boesch would then hit .345 in May and .337 in June, earning American League Rookie of the Month honors.

Now, three years later, Boesch is no longer a Tiger and is looking for a job.  The Tigers released Boesch today, the victim of a numbers crunch in the outfield and some big numbers in his contract.

General Manager Dave Dombrowski tried to trade Boesch, but the reported $2.3 million deal he signed in the off season made it difficult.  Other teams are likely waiting for him to clear waivers before attempting to sign him at a more reasonable deal.

The Tigers apparently felt he could recapture the old magic when they signed him to the off season deal as opposed to non-tendering him.  An oblique injury has limited him to just 16 at bats so far this spring and with a logjam of corner outfielders which include newly signed Torii Hunter, Quintin Berry, Andy Dirks and prospects Nick Castellanos and Avisail Garcia, the a move seemed inevitable.

When Boesch exploded on to the scene in 2010, it seemed like he was destined to become an impact big league bat.  Yet, injuries and the inability to avoid long stretches of slumping numbers eventually took a toll on his Tigers career.  Manager Jim Leyland on occasion would talk about how he couldn't get Boesch to relax.

It is a great example of how difficult the game of baseball can really be.  From his high flying debut to the disappointment of being left off the World Series roster last season, Boesch has had his share of highs and lows already in his career.

We know this, Boesch is a quality individual and he still possesses of truck load of potential.  Teams should be lined up to give him another shot.

 
 
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Rick Porcello is having a dominant spring.
You'll have to excuse Rick Porcello if he came into camp this spring with a bit of a chip on his shoulder.  The Tigers right hander became the subject of trade talks the second Anibal Sanchez re-signed with the Tigers in the off season.

Porcello's work this spring has given the Tigers an embarrassment of riches in the pitching department.  Through four spring starts, he as posted an impressive 2.08 ERA, allowing just three runs in 13 innings of work.  More impressively, Porcello has not issued a walk and has 14 strikeouts over that span.

Porcello seems like a different pitcher this spring.  An adjustment to his breaking ball has fueled the improved numbers.  Scrapping his slider for a curve ball this spring has paved the way for what will hopefully be the next step in his big league career.  But why the change?

"The last couple of years, the breaking ball has been inconsistent," he said.  "This spring I wanted to work on one breaking ball so I can have more conviction throwing it."

Despite winning 10 or more games in each of his first four major league seasons, Porcello knows there is more that he can offer and he intends to make good on that potential this season. 

"I definitely feel I have more in me than I displayed last year," he said.    "I need to be pitching deeper into games and I think the second half of last year I struggled with that.   This year I feel great and I am ready to go."

While Porcello is only 24 years old, it seems like he has been around much longer.  Should we consider him a grizzly veteran at this point in his career?  "I don't know, Verlander just turned 30 and he's starting to lose his hair a little bit," he joked.

Smart comments aside, the Tigers have a tremendous cross section of talent in the rotation.  Porcello is strengthening his bid to snatch a spot in the starting five with each spring outing.  Regardless of whether it's Porcello or Drew Smyly, the staff will be a major strength of the 2013 Tigers.

"I think from top to bottom we have guys that have great stuff and great track records," he said.  "Obviously on paper it looks outstanding, but we’ve got to go out there on the field and stay healthy."




 
 
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Max Scherzer is off to a great start in Lakeland.
For much of the past five years, Justin Verlander has held the title of staff ace, and deservedly so.  Verlander of course has an MVP and Cy Young trophy on his rather cluttered mantle.  Toss in a couple of no-hitters, and you can understand why he has become a face of the franchise.

Yet, as the 2013 season approaches, the Tigers may be morphing into a staff that consists of co-aces.  

Max Scherzer is taking that next step and is having quite a spring.  On Friday, he faced 11 batters and struck out six in a start in Lakeland against the Mets.  He allowed only two balls out of the infield.

Scherzer continues to improve as a big league starter and if the second half of 2012 was any indication, we may be in for a big season from the hard-throwing right hander.  Scherzer established a career high in victories with 16 last season, but it was his performance after the all star break that opened eyes.

Scherzer was 8-2 in the second half last year with a 2.69 ERA.  His strikeout to walk ratio was 4:1 as he cut through American League lineups with ease.

As the Tigers struggled to find traction in the final two months of the year, Scherzer was doing his part.  Max posted a 2.07 ERA in August and September.

As Scherzer took his game to the next level, his secret to success was really very simple.  "I think all of my pitches got better, " he said.  "My slider, the curveball and especially my fastball command."

While his slider is one of the better breaking balls in he American League, Scherzer said he is working on adding another pitch to his arsenal this spring.  "Around the middle of last season I tried to throw more of a curveball to help me against lefties," he said.  "I'm working on that as well this spring."

Sherzer did not make his first start this spring until March 3rd.  With the World Baseball Classic being played this spring, camp started earlier and there are more games on the schedule.  Yet, Scherzer made it a point to wait an extra week to make his first start.

"We got down here a week early and I wanted to make sure I didn't increase my workload," he said.  "We just lined it up like last year when I made my first start March 4th.  It seemed to make sense to take the same approach as last year."

If that strategy provides similar results to last season, we're all for it.

 
 
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Closer candidate Bruce Rondon
We knew there was a chance it could happen, and it has.  Bruce Rondon has come out of the gates very slowly this spring and the overwhelming storyline for a team destined for a storybook season continues to center around the closer.

Bruce Rondon threw a side session under the scrutiny of Pitching Coach Jeff Jones and a slight tweak was made to his delivery.  Nothing earth-shattering, but a change nonetheless.  The hope is Rondon has enough time to get straightened out and claim the role of closer. 

It is far to early to know if it will shake out that way, but one thing is for certain, predictably the skipper is already tiring of the question.  Our job is to find out where the organization stands on the issue and report it to the fans, but if I'm Jim Leyland, I'm probably hoping the media will let this thing breath a bit.

Including today, the Tigers still have 24 more spring games to play, not to mention the opportunities minor league camp games will afford.  It's just not possible at this point to get concrete answers.

"I never came into spring training thinking it's a slam dunk that Bruce Rondon would be the closer," Leyland said earlier today.  "If he's not ready, the Detroit Tigers will be just fine."

Rondon's early struggles have opened the door to speculation as to what the Tigers will do to fill the position.  Everything from trades, to converting Rick Porcello into a closer have been speculated.

The Porcello idea elicited a quick response.  "Highly unlikely," Leyland said.

So, do the Tigers have any in-house solutions?  If you watched our telecast on Monday, you saw a pretty impressive performance from Al Alburquerque.  Why couldn't he do it?

Brayan Villarreal has the equipment as well.  It's easy to look at dominant raw stuff and think that a guy has what it takes to close games, but Leyland warns of other factors.  "You have consider how they will hold up," he said.

Alburquerque is coming off elbow surgery and Villarreal possesses a max effort delivery for a pitcher with a small frame and small hands.  Caution has to be exercised in order to navigate them through the rigors of a major league season.

The other consideration is the mental aspect of the game.  "I've got a lot of guys that have the stuff to do it, but do they have the mentality,?" Leyland said.  "The 25th, 26th and 27th outs are different."

Rondon does not have a lot of experience to draw upon.  He has pitched only eight innings above Double-A, but last season was named the Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Year.  He was 2-1 with a 1.53 ERA and 29 saves at three different levels.

"Look at his numbers last year, they were good," said Leyland.  "But up here we have three tiers on the stadiums."

This situation will take care of itself.  Whether through a trade, bullpen by committee or Rondon putting it together in the coming weeks.  Whatever the outcome, there is no sense in trying to speculate every day on how this will play out.


 

 
 
Tiger hitting coach Lloyd talks about the Tigers offense in this spring training audio.
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Some notes today from the skipper's office prior to today's spring training game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Joker Marchant Stadium.

Brennan Boesch felt a little bit better and was going to hit on the field during batting practice today, but the Tigers decided against it because of the cold, windy weather in Lakeland..Boesch is still recovering from an oblique injury...Quintin Berry will possibly be back tomorrow as he looks to bounce back from some knee inflammation..Leyland has been impressed with Drew Smyly who is making a bid to join the rotation in the fifth spot.  Leyland feels that Smyly's changeup is better this year and he looks more settled. Last season Smyly was trying to win a job, but this year he has a confidence about him..  "He knows how good the hitters are and that he can get them out," said Leyland.  "He has a good feel for hitters for a young guy."  As for the WBC, Leyland has not said much to the participants from the Tigers club.  He did tell them to enjoy the experience, but also to be mindful of their work habits and continue to prepared for the start of the regular season.

Later tonight look for my podcast to be posted.  I'll talk with Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon to get his thoughts on what can be expected from this year's Tigers offense.