This season, I am producing one minute features about the Tigers that will air on more than 30 radio stations around the state of Michigan.  The feature is called Mario's Minute and can also be found here.
 

                                                                       Joba Chamberlain
When Tigers reliever Joba Chamberlain was growing up in Lincoln Nebraska, he was involved in several sports as a youth.  He would soon find that his true love would be baseball.

As kids, people can have a profound effect on us and for Chamberlain that person was one of his teammates, Nate Raun.

Chamberlain and Raun became very close friends.  Two years later, Chamberlain would learn to live for the moment, when his friend Nate died of brain cancer.

Nate Raun wore number eight.  From that day forward, Chamberlain decided he would pay tribute to his buddy’s number.

Since he is a pitcher, he must wear a double-digit number.  Joba wore 62 with the Yankees.  Six plus two equals eight.

When Joba signed with the Tigers in the off season he selected 44.  And the tribute to Nate Raun continues.

 
 
Andy Dirks met the media this morning and talked about his pending surgery to repair a disc in his back.  It is a surgery that Brad Ausmus had several years back, and he provided some advice for Dirks.

"Right now it seems like a long, dark tunnel," Ausmus said.  "The first few weeks will be hard because you can't do anything, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

For his part, Dirks seemed upbeat in the clubhouse.  "The good news is that it's fixable and I should be back in a couple of months," he said.

Good news for shortstop Jose Iglesias.  Iglesias is suffering from shin splints an he ran for the first time yesterday.  

"A specialist watched him run yesterday and made some adjustments to his orthotics," Ausmus said.  "It seemed to relieve some of the pressure, it was a good sign yesterday."

Casey Crosby has been sidelined with elbow soreness, and Ausmus said he will face live hitters tomorrow for the first time.

Ausmus also revealed that his three college choices  as a kid were Dartmouth, Princeton and Harvard.  He was accepted to all three.  He eventually chose Dartmouth.

I'm sure we can all relate.
 
 
The Tigers host the Pirates at Joker Marchant Stadium today after beating the Cardinals 8-5 yesterday in Lakeland.

Nick Castellanos hit the Tigers first home run of spring camp, a solo shot to left.  Castellanos, who turns 22 today was a topic of conversation in manager Brad Ausmus' pre game media session.  Castellanos has shown that his strength is to stay up the middle and the other way, but yesterday's homer showed plenty of pop to the pull field.

"On the home run, he just reacted," Ausmus said.  "We want to make sure he stays with his strengths and continues to go the other way."

Phil Coke struggled out of the pen, allowing 3 runs on six hits in his inning of work, but Ausmus cautioned that he is more apt to lend credence to past performance than early spring outings.

Jose Iglesias continues to be hobbled by shin splints.  Some of it may have to do with the way Iglesias runs.  

"You can't really start messing with the way a guy runs," Ausmus said.  "We may try some orthotics to help minimize the stress."

The Tigers are trying to eliminate the pain at this point while making sure the injury does not reoccur.  

Justin Verlander remains on course to make his first spring start on Thursday against the Phillies in Lakeland.  If he progresses as expected he would make five spring starts and would likely be ready for opening day if Ausmus chooses to start him in the opener.

Rick Porcello will start today for the TIgers.  Also scheduled to pitch are Ian Krol, Joe Nathan, Bruce Rondon, and Joba Chamberlain.  It will be Porcello's second spring start after allowing one run in two innings and striking out thee in his first start last Thursday vs. Atlanta.





 

Spring Intrigue

02/09/2014

 
Spring training is just days away and the 2014 version of the Tigers will start the new season with the same level of expectation that has surrounded the club every year since Jim Leyland took command in 2006.

While Leyland has moved on,  Brad Ausmus takes over a loaded roster and the Tigers fully expect to win the Central  Division once again.  While the club is deep in talent,  it is a different mix this season and several intriguing questions surround the club as spring camp looms.

The Bullpen
Gone is Joaquin Benoit who performed admirably in the closer's role as the Tigers struggled in the early going to find someone to close out games.  The 9th inning this season is on lockdown.  Off season acquisition Joe Nathan brings his 341 career saves to Detroit, giving Ausmus the comfort of knowing he won't have to mix and match with the game on the line.  Beyond Nathan however, the pen has some questions.  One of last year's top bullpen performers is now in the rotation.  Drew Smyly takes his talents to the starting side and that gives the Tigers one more spot to fill.  The Tigers are hoping that newcomers Joba Chamberlain and Ian Krol can solidify a couple of those areas this spring and hopefully Bruce Rondon and his electric arm will remain healthy all year.  Phil Coke and Al Alburquerque hope for bounce-back seasons, but clearly the bullpen will be a topic of interest all spring.

The Rotation's Health
The Tigers of 2013 boasted one of the game's best rotations.  They also had the good fortune of boasting one of the healthiest rotations as well.  The Tigers used just six different starting pitchers all year.  Jose Alvarez was the only pitcher not named Scherzer, Verlander, Sanchez, Fister or Porcello to make a start last season.  Three starters pitched over 200 innings.  With the off season deal sending Doug Fister to the Nationals, Smyly will slide into his spot and the Tigers will need to take the training wheels off Rick Porcello.  Many times over the last four years Porcello was willing and able to pitch deeper into games, but extreme caution was exercised.  The 25 year-old right hander will almost assuredly be allowed to stick around longer in his starts this year.  What remains to be seen is how healthy the starting five can stay this season, especially with a lack of starting depth in the minor leagues.

The Leadoff Hitter
For the last four years Austin Jackson has maned the leadoff spot in the Tigers lineup and served as the catalyst to a potent starting nine.  Yet, Jackson was never really considered a prototypical lead off hitter, he was just the best option the club had.  Now with Ian Kinsler aboard, Ausmus has a couple of options for that spot in the lineup.  I would expect Jackson to hit lower in the lineup this season, but one of the more intriguing parts of spring camp may be watching how the Tigers sort out the top two hitters ahead of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.  Also, if Kinsler does indeed take over as the primary leadoff man, where does Jackson land in the lineup?

 

Wally's New World

02/01/2014

 
PictureNew Tigers hitting coach Wally Joyner.
When Jim Leyland stepped down as Tigers manager following the 2014 season, it didn't take long for Dave Dombrowski to zero in on his replacement.  Former Tiger and 18-year major league vet Brad Ausmus was hired to lead the team.

While Ausmus had plenty of playing experience on his side, he had never managed.   Ausmus retained Gene Lamont as bench coach to help smooth the transition.  The other spots on the coaching staff were filled with Dave Clark, Darnell Coles, Jeff Jones and Omar Vizquel.  All more than qualified and more than capable.

Ausmus however still needed a hitting coach.  Former hitting coach Lloyd McClendon had departed to manage the Mariners and one night while sitting in his home in San Diego, Ausmus was thinking out loud, running through potential candidates.

Enter his wife Liz.  "How about Wally Joyner?" Liz said.

"Yeah, how about Wally Joyner?" Ausmus said.

And there you have it.  The Tigers had a new hitting coach.  Joyner's credentials of course run much deeper that the manager's wife's endorsement.  Joyner played 16 seasons in the big leagues, hitting over 200 home runs and had a lifetime batting average of .289.  

He is a former All Star and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1986.  If it wasn't for Jose Canseco's PED enhance season, Joyner would have won the award.

Joyner was slated to enter the 2014 season as the Phillies assistant hitting coach, but thanks in part to Liz Ausmus, he will have the lead job in Detroit.

He might want to send Liz some flowers.

 

His time is now

01/31/2014

 
PictureTigers top prospect Nick Castellanos.
The Tigers trade of Prince Fielder this off season was more than just a deal to give the Tigers payroll flexibility for the foreseeable future, it also had a ripple effect on other areas of the lineup.

With Fielder in Texas, the Tigers not only saved more than $75 million in payroll, but the move allowed Miguel Cabrera to move back to first base, a position that should be less taxing physically on the game's best hitter.

The deal also opened the door for the Tigers top prospect to get his first extended major league opportunity.  Nick Castellanos has shown that he is ready to get his big league career started.  Castellanos was the Futures Game MVP two seasons ago and last year his numbers jumped at Toledo where he hit 18 homers and knocked in a career best 76 runs.

Yet, it may be a position change that has the biggest effect on the young star.  With Fielder gone and Cabrera back at first base,  Castellanos slides to third after learning the finer points of outfield play the last two years.  The rookie makes no bones about his thoughts about learning to play left field.

"I hated it," he said.  "In the outfield there is too much time to think about why I swung at that slider in the dirt in my last at bat."  

Castellanos did what he had to do to get to the big leagues by making the switch to the outfield in 2012, but his move back to third clearly makes him more comfortable on the field.  The addition of Omar Vizquel to the major league coaching staff will also provide Castellanos with a future Hall of Fame mentor to lean on.

While the Tigers have cultivated plenty of pitching prospects the past decade, Castellanos represents the best position player coming out of the system in a long while.  

He also has ties to the Motor City which makes him motivated to make Tigers fans proud.  His mother's family is from Detroit.  His grandfather is a retired Detroit firefighter.  Making good on this opportunity is important to Castellanos.  

Yet, it is a calm outer demeanor that makes him intriguing.  One would think the pressure of delivering on his enormous potential would be sizable, but Castellanos has a calmness about him that almost assures success.

"To be honest, it's not really pressure," he said.  "At the end of the day, it's just baseball."

The Tigers lineup also gives Castellanos an opportunity to just blend in.   Weapons like Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Torii Hunter and Austin Jackson should go a long way to help diffuse any pressure.

 

Omar Vizquel

01/28/2014

 
PictureOmar Vizquel
When you spend 24 years in the big leagues as a player and you win 11 Gold Gloves and pile up over 2800 hits, you tend to ooze street cred.  

For Omar Vizquel, 2014 will provide him with his first real stepping stone to a future managing gig. Meanwhile, spending time with him during the Tigers Caravan and TigerFest provided me with a real glimpse of his value to the 2014 Tigers.

The 46 year-old Vizquel looks like he could easily still play the game at its highest level. While his body is still equipped to withstand the rigors of a big league season, his mind is not.

Vizquel talked about his transition to coaching during TigerFest after a marvelous playing career ended with Toronto in 2012.  

"Physically I can still play at this level," he said.  "My mind was just not ready to be a part-time player."

So, Vizquel has started the clock on a likely Hall of Fame induction in five years.  In the interim, he has his eyes set on an eventual career as a big league manager.  After serving as a minor league instructor with the Angels last season, Vizquel was hired as the first base coach and infield instructor at the big league level for the Tigers.

"My goal is to be a big league manager," Vizquel said.  "Being a coach at the major league level is the first step."

The Vizquel hire also gives the Tigers a top notch mentor for two of the more talented young infielders in the big leagues.  He will have an opportunity to guide shortstop Jose Iglesias and newcomer Nick Castellanos at third base.

Iglesias is the Tigers flashy shortstop acquired from the Red Sox last season and his talent seems endless.  Yet, the mentor-mentee relationship that Vizquel and Iglesias share was on display last weekend. During an interview with both at TigerFest, I asked Vizquel about the importance of the shortstop's relationship with the second baseman.  Before he would answer the question, Vizquel looked to Iglesias and said, "I want to hear how Jose answers that."

So it's clear that Vizquel will push Iglesias to become a better player both physically and mentally.  He'll have the same effect on Castellanos as well.

The Tigers have added a valuable piece to the coaching staff, and spending a weekend with Vizquel provided a sneak peek to the energy and expertise he will provide the organization.


 
 
Max Scherzer heads a list of six Tigers that filed for free agency on Tuesday.  The Tigers right hander turned in the finest season of his big league career last year, winning a league high 21 games and pacing the A.L. with a WHIP of 0.970.

Scherzer is expected to double his salary in 2014.  He is in his 3rd arbitration-eligible season and potentially becomes a free agent following the 2014 season.

Friday is the deadline for players and their teams to exchange arbitration figures.  Also filing for the Tigers were pitchers Rick Porcello and Al Alburquerque, outfielders Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks, and catcher Alex Avila.


Other big names around baseball filed as well, including Clayton Kershaw, Chris Davis, David Price, Pedro Alvarez and Aroldis Chapman.


 
 
Picture
Justin Verlander's offseason routine took a U-turn in December when he suffered a core muscle injury while working out.  Today, Verlander had surgery to repair the injury.  The rehab will take six weeks which, will push Verlander's availability to the third week of February.  

The Tigers first full squad workout is scheduled for February the 18th, while pitchers and catchers report on the 14th.

While the Tigers are hopeful he will be ready to participate around the 20th of February (six weeks), he will be further examined at that time to evaluate his progress. 

On the surface, that timetable would give Verlander plenty of time to get ready for the start of the 2014 season, but Verlander's off season program was accelerated in previous seasons to fight against slow starts in the month of April.  It remains to be seen how this injury, and the subsequent rehab, will affect Verlander's availability and effectiveness during the season's first month.

Verlander won 13 games last season, his lowest victory total since 2008.  He did however pitch his best baseball down the stretch, posting a 2.27 ERA in six September starts.  In the post season he allowed just one run in 23 innings with 31 strikeouts.





 
 
PictureJoke Marchant Stadium
The Tigers today announce that 16 players have been invited to major league camp in Lakeland, Florida.  The 2014 season is just around the corner and pitchers and catchers will report February 14th.  The first full squad workout will take place four days later on February 18th.

The following is the list of players invited to camp:

Righthanded pitchers: Jhan Marinez, Luis Marte, Eduardo Sanchez, Drew VerHagen 

Lefthanded pitchers: Duane Below, Blaine Hardy, Robbie Ray 

Catchers: Craig Albernaz, Luis Exposito, James McCann, John Murrian 
  
Infielders: Devon Travis, Danny Worth 

Outfielders: Ezequiel Carrera, Tyler Collins, Trevor Crowe 


Crowe and Carrera both have major league time with the Cleveland Indians.  Crowe is a .240 career hitter while Carrera hit .251 in parts of Three seasons with the Tribe.

Travis turned in an outstanding season in 2013, hitting .351 with 16 homers and 76 RBI's in at Lakeland and West Michigan.

Collins meanwhile showed good power numbers at Erie, with 21 homers and 79 RBI's.

Fox Sports Detroit will televise four games this spring, March 10th (Cardinals), 13th (Marlins), 23rd (Marlins) and 27th (Atlanta).