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Tigers top prospect Jacob Turner.
With the sights, sounds and smells of spring training a little over a month and a half away, the Detroit Tigers continue to mull their options as to how they will fill out their rotation in 2012.  Gio Gonzalez is now off the table, Mark Buehrle is trying on his new South Beach duds and Yu Darvish is opening a no-fee checking account at a local Arlington bank as we speak.  However, free agent options remain on the market as do the in-house possibilities within the organization.

Free agent names such as Hiroki Kuroda, Roy Oswalt, and Edwin Jackson are still in play.  Tigers fans know what Jackson brings to the table.  He was an All Star with Detroit in 2009, winning 13 games and throwing over 200 innings.  Jackson is a horse and a good bet to throw 200 innings again in 2012.  He is also known for his high pitch counts.  The perplexing thing about Jackson is that for a player that is only 27  possessing his type of talent, he has already pitched for six different big league teams.

Kuroda also threw over 200 innings last year with the Dodgers and won 13 games with a 3.07 ERA.  He doesn't walk many and his lifetime ERA in four seasons with the Dodgers is 3.45.  Kuroda made $12 million last year with LA.

Oswalt is 34 years old and is coming off a five-year, $71 million deal.  He reportedly is looking for a one year deal to prove that he is healthy so that he can try free agency again next year.   Oswalt missed six weeks with back problems last season and made only 23 starts, posting a 3.69 ERA.  He won 2o games twice with the Astros and was a top of the rotation guy. 

Down on the farm, the contenders appear to be Jacob Turner, Andy Oliver, Adam Wilk, Duane Below and Drew Smyly.  Dave Dombrowski's preference though would be to sign a veteran guy to a one year deal.  All of the names mentioned above have pitched in the big leagues with the exception of Smyly.  

Turner and Oliver remain at the higher end of the prospect list, but an impressive spring could provide an opportunity for one of the other three.  Eventually, the plan is for Turner not only to be a part of the starting rotation, but to be a top end guy.  Every single scout that I have talked to predicts big things for Turner.  Remember though, he was drafted out of high school and won't turn 21 until next May. 

Smyly was reportedly one of the prospects the A's wanted included in a deal for Gio Gonzalez.  The left-hander won 11 games with a 2.06 ERA in his minor league time split with AA Erie and Class A Lakeland last season.

Regardless of what happens in the fifth spot, the Tigers feel very comfortable with their top four of Verlander, Fister, Scherzer and Porcello.  If that quartet pitches as expected, the fifth spot may only require an arm that can chew up his share of innings.

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Drew Smyly
 
 
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Tigers prospect Andy Oliver.
_ There is very little down time in professional baseball.  Each year, players endure a grueling schedule which begins in spring training every March and plods through the hot summer months.  When the season finally ends for the game’s top prospects, it’s time to play more baseball.  The winter leagues in Latin America and the Arizona Fall League gives each organization a chance to provide their prospects with additional at bats and innings.  This season the Tigers placed many of the organizations arms in winter ball to help speed up the maturation process and to assist in further evaluation.  Here is a look at how a few of the club’s arms have fared this winter:

One of the Tigers top prospects is left hander Andy Oliver who has had a couple of brief stints in Detroit the last two seasons.  A second round pick of the Tigers in 2009, Oliver came to Detroit in the same draft that produced Jacob Turner (first round).  A 6’3” lefty with a mid 90’s fastball, Oliver has struggled with his control in his two brief stints with Detroit.  This winter, it has been more of the same.  Pitching for the Salt River Rafters of the Arizona Fall League, Oliver walked 16 batters in 17 innings of work.  His WHIP of 2.06 was very high and helped lead to a 5.82 ERA this winter.

Casey Crosby has battled injuries in his career.  He had Tommy John surgery in 2007 and missed most of 2010 with elbow inflammation.  With a fastball that used to hit the upper 90’s, he still pitches in the mid 90’s despite the injuries.  This season at Erie, Crosby won nine games but more importantly made 25 starts, the most he has made since 2009 when he won 10 games at West Michigan.  Crosby had an ERA of 1.32 in the Arizona Fall League, but a WHIP of 1.61 still shows too many walks and hits.  Still, if Crosby remains healthy next season, he could be an intriguing talent to follow.

Luis Marte got his first big league opportunity this year after posting very impressive numbers in the minor leagues.  4-0 with a 1.92 ERA at two stops in the minors, Marte pitched mostly in relief and struck out an impressive 70 batters in 56 1/3 innings.  He features four pitches and his curveball last season opened some eyes in the minor leagues.  Marte pitched in the Dominican Winter League and struck out 16 in 20 innings with an impressive WHIP of 0.90.

After an impressive major league debut in 2011, Al Alburquerque was well on his way to Rookie of the Year consideration before a concussion and arm problems derailed his 2011 season.  Winter ball was going to give Alburquerque a chance to show he was healthy.  Unfortunately, Al pitched to one batter in the Domincan Winter League and left with elbow issues.  It turned out to be a big issue.  Alburquerque has a fracture in his elbow and a screw was inserted to stabilize the area.  He won’t pitch again until at least the middle of 2012.

Other winter numbers for Tigers farm hands:

Fu-Te Ni - Venezuela (0-3  4.50 in 5 starts)

Thad Weber - Venezuela (0-1  3.45 in 7 starts)

Brayan Villarreal-Venezuela (4-2  4.91 in 24 relief appearances)

 

 
 
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Cuban star Yoenis Cespedes
_ Heading into the winter meetings this year, there were high hopes that the Tigers would come away with an additional bat for an already solid lineup.  The bullpen was solidified with the acquisition of Octavio Dotel as a free agent.  Alex Avila was also pleased to learn that Gerald Laird was signed, assuring that the all star catcher won’t be running on fumes in September and October.  But, that extra bat did not materialized.  Yet.

The speculation surrounding the eventual destination of Cuban star Yoenis Cespedes has been swirling for months.  Most scouts agree that Cespedes is a five tool dynamo that will probably have an immediate impact in the big leagues.  Cespedes has been described as “boasting tremendous power,” and a “powerful throwing arm.”  Yet, because of the level of competition he has faced, it is difficult to project where he would eventually fit in the major league landscape.

Two of the more recent Cuban players to make the transition to the major leagues with strong success offer a contrast.   Kendrys Morales and Alexei Ramirez have become big league stars, but have followed different paths in the United States.    Morales was on his way to producing huge numbers before breaking his leg in a bizarre accident during a home plate celebration.  He arrived in the U.S. in his early 20’s and had over 1200 minor league at bats before taking off at the major league level.

Ramirez meanwhile joined the White Sox at age 26 without a minor league stay.  He hit .290 with 21 home runs his first year in Chicago.  Cespedes is also 26, so it is assumed that he would be more big league ready than Morales was.

Other Cuban position players to appear in the major leagues in recent years include Yunel Escobar, Brayan Pena and Dayan Viciedo.  None have had the hype of Cespedes.

To evaluate Cespedes, we could look at his World Baseball Classic numbers as a decent indicator against international competition.  In 2009 for Cuba in the WBC he was 11-24 (.458) with 2 homers and five RBI’s in six games.  But that’s hardly a large sample and only two of those games were against a strong team, the eventual champion Japan.  It is difficult to form an opinion based on competition.   That’s why most evaluations to this point have been based on his physical skill.

So, do the Tigers have a legitimate shot at landing Cespedes?  Many scouts feel that the Tigers are definitely in the mix and have been rumored to have as good of a shot as any club scouting him.  His physical tools would certainly fit nicely in the expansive outfield of Comerica Park.  That is if his pockets are not weighed down by the bucket loads of cash it will take to get him signed.  Estimates of up to $50MM to sign him have been floated.  Apparently the Tigers haven’t blinked.  Dave Dombrowski has seen him play and the Tigers have certainly done their due diligence.

So while we wait for the paperwork making Cespedes an international free agent to be finalized, check out his showcase video.  Unorthodox to say the least.  

 

 
 
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_ The recent trade of Ryan Perry  to the Washington Nationals did not come as much of a surprise following the acquisition of Octavio Dotel. 

With the Tigers, Perry could never find the consistency required of a late inning specialist in the big leagues.  For all of the talent and potential Perry possessed as a first round pick of the Tigers in 2008, his 2011 numbers amplified his struggles at the major league level.  An ERA over 5.00 and a WHIP of 1.6 may have forced the Tigers hand once Dotel was acquired.

At times Perry showed flashes of a future closer with an outstanding fastball and plus slider.  Yet, May 9th in Toronto remains one of the lasting memories of his consistency struggles. 

The Tigers brought Perry in to get some work in the 9th inning of a 10-2 game.  A blowout win became a nail-biting scene when Perry walked the first three batters he faced.  Before the nightmare inning was over, Perry had thrown 24 pitches and only seven for strikes.  He was finally removed from the game after hitting a batter and allowing three runs. 

Perry's lack of sharpness may have been attributed to the fact that he hadn't pitched in seven days, but he never really seemed to recover from that outing.  A twenty game trip to the minors never appeared to get Perry on track.  An ERA north of 5.00 in September and additional struggles in the post season may have sealed his fate.

With Joel Zumaya's injury problems over the last three years, the door was open for Perry to step into a set-up role and perhaps eventually the closers role.  That never materialized.

Dave Dombrowski said that maybe a change of scenery was best for Perry.  I would agree.  I found Ryan to be an upstanding guy who was a pleasure to be around.  I also think he is talented and will eventually put it together.  He'll just have to do it in a uniform other than one featuring the Old English D.

 
 
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Octavio Dotel joins a Tigers bullpen that has a lot of depth at the back end.
_While this year's winter meetings session was dominated by Albert Pujols talk, the Tigers flew under the radar as they fortified the back end of their bullpen by acquiring veteran Octavio Dotel to join Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde. 

Adding another bat to an already solid line up was a goal for Dave Dombrowski heading into the meetings, but so was solidifying the bullpen.  Consider the bullpen solidified.  Dotel brings a presence to the pen.  An arm that has closed games and  a guy who can still miss some bats, even at this point in his career.  Dotel is a 38 year-old veteran that pitched effectively for the Blue Jays and Cardinals last season.  Even into his late thirties, Dotel averaged more than a strikeout per inning.  The right hander struck out 62 in 54 innings of work last year combined in his two stops and boasted a WHIP of less than 1.00.

While Al Alburquerque provided the Tigers with a huge shot in the arm in 2011, a late season concussion and arm problems limited his use and effectiveness in the playoffs.  In my estimation, the lack of a healthy and dominant Alburquerque hurt the Tigers in the post season, specifically against the Rangers.  The addition of Dotels gives the bullpen depth.  It was a bullpen that posted a 7.11 ERA in the ALCS against Texas. 

A healthy Alburquerque will be a welcomed sight for the Tigers next year, especially when you include him in a group that now includes Dotel, Benoit and Valverde.  Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer have all shown an ability to pitch deep into games, but the grueling length of a major league season always rewards teams with deep bullpens.

 
 
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Laguna Beach just might become one of Albert Pujols' new hangouts.
 Albert Pujols is headed to Southern California.  Be honest, you didn’t see that one coming did you? Pujols is one of those players that just wouldn't look right in another uniform.  With a ten year deal in his back pocket though, we’ll have plenty of time to get used to seeing Albert in a Halo.  After all, the Angels prominent color is red so it shouldn't be a tough transition. 

Bet the Cards now wish they had extended Albert a couple of years ago.  Now, the biggest figure in the St. Louis sports landscape in a long time is gone.

With Pujols joining an offense in Anaheim that was challenged last year, the question now becomes whether or not any player is worth a 10 year risk? 
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What will the Angels get out of Pujols in the final three to four years of the contract?  Probably not nearly enough to justify 25 mil per season.  Pujols will be north of 40 when the deal expires and common sense tells us that even the game's best talents have difficulty beating father time at that age.  There have been some exceptions.  Harold Baines hit .312 with 25 homers and 103 RBI’s at age 40.  Pete Rose hit .338 with 208 hits at age 38.  Barry Bonds hit….never mind, bad example. 

By and large baseball skills diminish in the mid to late 30’s.  The Angels know the risk, but securing a face of the franchise for the next decade is apparently worth the gamble.  There have been disappointments for Arte Moreno in past meetings.  Miguel Cabrera and Carl Crawford come to mind.  This time Moreno hooked the big fish.

Moreno, new GM Jerry DiPoto and assistant GM Scott Servais have wasted little time in re sculpting the Halos.  The Rangers are on notice.


 
 
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_ August of 1994 seems like such a long time ago.  That’s good news for baseball.  When Randy Johnson struck out Ernie Young on the evening of August 11th to end that day’s baseball schedule, players walked off the job, touching off a work stoppage that would cancel the World Series for the first time in 90 years.

Regardless of whether you sided with players or the owners at the time (a salary cap being the main issue), one thing is for certain: the health of the game was impacted dramatically at the turnstiles.  It took more than a decade to get the average attendance back to pre-stoppage levels.

With 1994 as a backdrop, it was both refreshing and exciting this off season to see the game arrive at a new agreement, achieving labor peace through 2016.  The new deal will give major league baseball a stretch of 21 consecutive uninterrupted years.

My first season broadcasting in the major leagues was 1995 with the Angels.  At the time, there was no guarantee that there would even be a 1995.  In fact owners had decided that after major league players walked off the field, they would employ replacements.   Broadcasting spring training games that season with replacement players bordered on farcical.

I remember riding on the team bus from Angel Stadium to Dodger Stadium with those replacement players for the annual exhibition Freeway Series between the Angels and Dodgers.  Opening Day was literally days away.  Half way to LA, we received word that the work stoppage was over and the bus turned around and headed back to Anaheim.  The dream ended that day for the fill-ins, but fortunately for the sport, they never took the field in a regular season game.    Major league players returned to the field in time to play a 144 game schedule that season. 

Though the big leaguers were back, the damage had been done.  Attendance headed south for the next decade as fans showed their displeasure to both sides over a cancelled World Series.   Today, the game is flush with cash.  Most of those bitter feelings have disappeared and players and owners both seem to be reluctant to mess with a good thing.

The one lasting memory I still have from the ’94 work stoppage is the effect it had on the hard working individuals who relied on the extra income generated by working at the ballpark.  Vendors, ushers, parking attendants and the like all suffered financially.   It’s encouraging to see that the financial health of the game is strong and its popularity is flourishing.   And, those that depend on baseball can rest a little easier knowing the current agreement will last another five years.