Friday March 4th, 2011

LAKELAND, Fla. -- A few thoughts after a day at Tigers camp:

1. Don't sleep on the Tigers.

One recent spring training morning at White Sox camp, Chicago reliever Matt Thornton took a moment to size up the AL Central. "People would consider the Twins the favorite because of their recent track record," Thornton said. "A lot of people are picking us because of what we did this winter. But I'll tell you what, Detroit's got a good team. They've got some really good young arms and their offense definitely got better when they added Victor Martinez. Believe me, they're going to be right in it, too."

Thornton's right: Don't overlook the Motown boys. After a disappointing 81-81 finish in 2010, the Tigers -- who spent big on free agents Martinez ($50 million) and Joaquin Benoit ($16.5 million) -- are the most improved team in the AL Central and have positioned themselves well to make a run at the Twins atop the division. In Tigertown, the club has moved on from the Miguel Cabrera drama ("We're just happy to have him back," said one Tigers player, "and hopefully it's good for him to be back on the field.") and knows it has its work cut out for it in the competitive AL Central.

V-Mart is certainly ready to make a splash in Motown. Since his arrival, the man of a thousand handshakes (the veteran catcher had a different one for each of his teammates in Cleveland and Boston) has lightened up the clubhouse with his big personality. Already he's taken all six minor league catchers, co-catcher Alex Avila and bullpen catcher Scott Pickens out to dinner in Orlando. With Martinez, who will be the team's primary designated hitter, and Cabrera hitting back-to-back in the order, the Tigers have a 3-4 lineup punch as good as any in the division.

"Victor's a really great fit for us," said Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, who also took a long look at Adam Dunn on the free agent market. "He'll hit his 20 home runs, but he's not a big power hitter. He is really good for our ballpark, which is more of a doubles type ballpark, and he knows how to use the gaps. Being a switch-hitter, he gives us the left-handed bat that we've been looking for. And he gives us the maneuverability and flexibility because he can DH. We explained the role to him and he was ready to tackle it, because he just wanted to come to a club that he thought had a chance to win."

2. The rotation will be good ... and maybe great.

With Max Scherzer's emergence last year, the Tigers have two elite power pitchers in their prime anchoring the rotation. Justin Verlander, the horse of the rotation (four straight years of 200-plus innings), is the best pitcher in the division with Zack Greinke now in Milwaukee. Scherzer's post-May brilliance in 2010 came after he tweaked his delivery at Triple-A Toledo. "Before Max went down to Toledo, he was really kind of a two-pitch guy," said Dombrowski. "He has an above average changeup, but once his delivery got corrected, not only did his fastball command get better, his slider got better. His third pitch came on."

The key here is No. 3 starter Rick Porcello. If the 2007 first-round draft pick can have the kind of breakout season Scherzer did last year, Detroit's rotation could stack up with any in the league. Porcello's unimpressive strikeout rate remains a problem, but even though he struggled through his second season in the majors, the 22-year-old began turning the corner after he added a cutter-slider to his repertoire during a stint in Toledo in June. "Guys were sitting on my sinker, and adding [the pitch] was huge," said Porcello. "My slider grip wasn't working, so I played around with other grips, and the pitch kind of went from there. Now I feel confident to throw it in any count."

3. A new setup in the bullpen.

Middle relievers are baseball's most unpredictable players. Still, the Tigers deemed the 33-year-old Benoit worthy of the eye-popping three-year, $16.5 million deal. "We realize the risks that are associated with the bullpen guys," said Dombrowski, who had never handed out a three-year deal to a reliever. "We thought in his situation his health checked out very well. His stuff is great. It became clear in our meetings that he was the number one target for us to try to sign as far as a setup guy was concerned, and it was apparent that if we were going to sign him, it was going to take three years, because he had other three-year contract offers on the table."

The addition of Benoit, who was dominant for the Rays last year, was even more imperative given closer Jose Valverde's struggles down the stretch (5.89 ERA after July 30) and Joel Zumaya's inability to stay healthy. (The oft-injured fireballer, returning from elbow surgery, had another setback this week.) As Porcello said, "The bullpen's got a chance to be great. Getting Zumaya back will be an added plus, and everyone's got their fingers crossed that he can stay healthy."

Detroit's top prospect is just 19, but the Tigers have a history of pushing their young arms, and the dazzling right hander may be a difference maker down the stretch. The top high school pitcher in the 2009 draft, Turner has a heavy fastball that tops out at 98, a plus curveball and a plus changeup. Said Dombrowski, "We would probably look for him to be in Double-A this year, but be in a position to perhaps take that jump, because he's mature beyond his years. He's just got to learn the nuances of pitching. When you sit and talk to him you see that he doesn't handle himself like a normal 19 year old."

In his first start of the spring, Turner was impressive, allowing a first-inning run before retiring the final eight hitters he faced. Said Blue Jays manager John Farrell afterward, "Boy, he's a good looking young pitcher."

Can Phil Coke be this year's C.J. Wilson? The Tigers believe the former Yankee can be. A fly-ball pitcher like the 28-year-old lefthander is made for the spacious Comerica Park. Don't be surprised if Coke gives the Tigers quality innings at the back of the rotation even though he hasn't started since 2008. "When we acquired him, some of our people recommended that we start him right away," said Dombrowski. "He's been a guy that's had three pitches. He's always had a good breaking ball and changeup. He got away from throwing his changeup in the bullpen because he didn't need it. But he has three pitches. He has started before. We think he can handle it."

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