Tigers manager Jim Leyland, a Perrysburg native, apologized tongue-in-cheek to the fans gathered for Detroit’s poor showing in the World Series. The Tigers were swept by the San Francisco Giants in four games that Leyland stated “only lasted six hours and seven minutes.”
But Leyland also struck a hopeful chord for the upcoming season, because the Tigers boast a Latino-laced lineup of veterans, All-Stars, and budding talent. Hope springs eternal as a new season and a fresh start approaches.
“We should give you a good season,” he told the crowded room on the fourth floor of the Mud Hens team offices. “We’re good. I won’t hesitate to tell you that.”
The Tigers skipper was asked to assess how Miguel Cabrera can hit for power and a high batting average. Cabrera in 2012 became just the 15th player and the first since 1967 to win baseball's Triple Crown, with a .330 batting average, 44 homers and 139 RBIs. Even a manager with 50 years of professional baseball experience was at a loss for words to describe how the Venezuelan-born third baseman-designated hitter does what he does.
“What am I gonna tell Cabrera? Just to be ready to play and he’ll be ready,” said Leyland. “I don’t know the answer to him. All I can say is people see him as a big guy who muscles the ball. But that’s not really true. He has a lot of elasticity for a big guy. He’s really, actually a good hitter with a short stroke and a powerful stroke. He’s just one of those guys who picks up the ball, like all good hitters.”
One potential concern for the Tigers is the off-season recovery of veteran designated hitter and catcher Victor Martínez, who missed the entire 2012 baseball season after injuring his left knee in offseason workouts last January. He had microfracture surgery on the knee that month, though he avoided a planned follow-up surgery on his ACL when doctors discovered it wasn’t damaged as badly as first believed.
Leyland told local reporters he expects Martínez to be at full strength during spring training, already swinging a bat with plans to resume a running program this month.
But the key will be to properly handle his comeback, ensuring he doesn’t try to do too much too soon.
“The medical staff has told me he’s doing really, really well,” said Leyland. “The only thing I’m concerned about is he did miss a year. He hasn’t seen a live baseball in a year. How long is it going to take him? I think he’ll be fine. Not right off the bat, but who knows? I think he’s stronger than ever. He’s relentless. He just can’t wait. The key with Victor is to know what tempo to go with him, make sure we pace ourselves with him to make sure we don’t do anything stupid.”
Martínez is one former Cleveland Indian on the Tigers roster. Another former Indian has been the subject of some off-season speculation as a question mark and some trade rumors, but Leyland quickly came to the defense of shortstop Jhonny Peralta.
“Jhonny Peralta is one of those players who people don’t look at all of the good things he does,” said Leyland. “They look at the fact that somebody told somebody next to them in the stands that this guy doesn’t have much range. It just spreads out and spreads out more. I want to know what he can do. I don’t want to know what he can’t do. Peralta catches it every day, throws it accurately every day, and he gets big hits. He’s a good major-league player.”
Another question mark is the development of 21-year old outfield prospect Avisail García, who played in 23 regular-season games for the Tigers last season, batting .319. But the Venezuelan-born leffielder, who stands 6’4” and weighs 240 lbs., only hit .261 during a dozen playoff and World Series games. The power-hitting prospect had no home runs and only seven RBI’s during that 35-game span for the Tigers after skipping two levels of the minor leagues when he was called up in August.
“I’ll put that one as an ‘I don’t know.’ He hasn’t done very well in winter ball,” Leyland said. “I think he’s a terrific prospect with potential maybe to be a star player.”
The offseason signing of veteran outfielder Torii Hunter may have pushed García further down the 40-man roster, which may force Leyland to decide whether to keep him at the major-league level with limited playing time, or send him to AAA Toledo where the young player could get more seasoning.
The Tigers suffered one offseason departure: 31-year old utility player Ryan Raburn, who recently signed a minor-league deal with the rival Cleveland Indians. Raburn played second base and outfield for Detroit last season, but was phased out after batting just .171. Leyland openly admitted he “mishandled” Raburn in 2012.
“I think everybody on our staff wants Ryan Raburn to get an opportunity,” Leyland said. “Hopefully he’ll relax a little bit. I probably screwed that up last season. When I made him an everyday player, he just wasn’t ready for it. It backfired.”
Other well-known Latino players on the 40-man Tigers roster include infielders Omar Infante, Hernán Pérez, and Ramón Santiago; catchers Alex Avila, Ramón Cabrera, and Brayan Peña; and pitchers Octavio Dotel, Anibal Sánchez, Luis Marte, Melvin Mercedes, José Ortega, and Brayan Villareal.
However, the Fandemonium event didn’t feature any Latino players. Four former Mud Hens answered fan questions alongside Leyland, including pitchers Casey Crosby and Darin Downs, outfielder Danny Worth, and catcher Bryan Holaday. All four players spent some time on the Tigers roster last season. Only spring training will prove whether they stay at the major-league level or get sent down to the Mud Hens.
“They got their feet wet last year and got some innings under their belt,” said the Tigers skipper. “They’re good prospects and how soon they’re ready to take the next step, I don’t know that yet. I think it’s good to insert some young blood like that. I like young guys to come up and join a veteran team, even though the veterans aren’t that old. It brings something to the party.”
Leyland indicated the American League Central Division will be another dogfight during the upcoming season, citing improvements made in the offseason by all of Detroit’s division rivals.
“You just can’t take anything for granted,” he said. “The division has spruced up.”
Opening Day for the Tigers will be an April 5, 2013 home game against the New York Yankees, a rematch of the American League Championship Series.