By MIKE ECKERT
Spring is here. Well, at least in the baseball world.
Pitchers and catchers for the Detroit Tigers report to spring training today. The rest of the team joins them in Florida on Friday.
Tigers radio announcer Dan Dickerson joked that “broadcasters report on the 28th.”
Fresh off a 2011 season that saw Detroit win a Central Division championship and advance to the ALCS — with pitcher Justin Verlander claiming the Cy Young and MVP awards — the Tigers are brimming with excitement. Especially so with the addition of first baseman Prince Fielder.
Is there a new swagger in the Motor City? I talked with Dickerson about the upcoming season.
R-E: You can’t talk about the Tigers in 2012 without mentioning Prince Fielder. When that news came down that day, what was your reaction?
DD: It’s funny. I had just done an interview that was taped for playback out of Cleveland. We had just gotten done talking for 20 minutes about how the Tigers hadn’t done much this offseason. Then we hang up the phone and a half-hour later, my buddy calls me back and asks me if I’m online right now. He said I might want to check out some of these reports. It was just so stunning. I thought the only possible way they might get Fielder is if it was a one-year deal. Never did I picture nine years, $200 million plus.
The reaction was so fun to hear from friends and Tiger fans. You talk about something just exploding. That was the fun part, to watch how excited everybody was. And the excitement hasn’t died down. People are as excited for this season as I can ever remember.
R-E: It’s funny. In this day and age when we know everything before it happens, to get caught off guard by something like this really speaks to how tight-lipped everyone there is.
DD: I think Dave Dombrowski is very good about that. He clearly has everybody in line when it comes to trade talks and signings. That’s how he operates, and it’s such a sound way to operate. When you hear trade rumors at the deadline, they rarely mention the Tigers. Think of the Fister deal last year. Dave made a lot of calls to get that deal done. But there really wasn’t any inkling until they pulled it off. That’s to his advantage. Other general managers know they can trust him, and they can work something out — without it getting worked out in the papers.
R-E: We all know the Prince story and we know he has great numbers. But to you, what’s the one thing that stands out about what he’ll bring to the team?
DD: We all know what a good hitter he is, but there’s something about that big bat in the middle of the lineup. I think Miguel Cabrera’s had an impact on the guys around him. We always hear about protection for a big hitter, but sometimes it goes the other way. You look at what Delmon Young did after he came to the Tigers. He hadn’t been very productive for the Minnesota Twins, but what he did in 40 games... to me that was the Cabrera impact. He hit right in front of Cabrera, he knew he would see fastballs, he’s a fastball hitter and he didn’t miss many of them. That’s what Prince Fielder brings. Those are the kind of hitters that pitchers like to pitch around. But they know in this lineup, there’s not a lot of breathing room. It’s got that ripple effect up and down the lineup. One big hitter does that, two big hitters back-to-back to me, I can’t wait to see what it’s going to mean.
R-E: The other part of the Prince Fielder signing is moving Cabrera to third. He has done it before, what do you think about the move?
DD: He’s started almost 400 games there, and if you look at his fielding percentage, it was just slightly below average. But I think the Tigers are thinking if he’s in that range — average to slightly below average — that’s a reasonable expectation. That’s a difficult position to play and a difficult transition to make from first to third. So if you get something that’s near average, the hitting makes up for it. And he clearly want to. I’m skeptical, I admit it. But here’s your superstar who wants to play third. He wanted to move to third before they signed Prince Fielder, so why not give him the opportunity?
I think there are options. They want to give Cabrera a shot, but if it’s extremely tough on him and not working out, you certainly have options with Don Kelly and Brandon Inge, if Brandon shows he can hit. I think it’s going to work out, one way or another. I don’t have a feel for whether he’s going to play 130 games there, or 60-80 games there, or 30-40 games there. I think we’re going to find out a lot in spring training.
R-E: There always are, but it seems like there are a number of interesting battles this year to follow in spring training.
DD: Certainly the fifth starter, and Brandon Inge will be a big part of it. If he doesn’t make it as a regular (at second base) or show that he has utility value, would you keep him as a reserve? I think the answer is probably no, which would open up a roster spot. Right now on paper, your four reserves would be Inge, Kelly, (Ramon) Santiago) and (backup catcher Gerald) Laird. But certainly Andy Dirks is going to be in the picture, because he showed that he’s a productive left-handed bat. But right now there’s no room if Brandon Inge is one of your reserves. That’s something to keep an eye on.
I always enjoy watching the young guys who are either coming up and are part of the future, or the guys that are going to Triple-A to be insurance. But, there’s a chance you’re going to see them throughout the season if there’s an injury or somebody’s not productive and they have to make a change. There are quite a few of those guys on the roster as well.
The fifth starter spot is intriguing. When you’ve got six guys battling, Jim Leyland is pretty good about juggling innings between those guys. That’s tricky to find innings for all six guys. So I think pretty early on we’ll see that list of candidates trimmed down. The bullpen, because there’s a couple of guys that if they’re not on the fence, they have to perform well to solidify their roster spots. There are some good arms in camp. I’m really intrigued to see some of those rookies, especially (Casey) Crosby, and (Drew) Smyly and Jacob Turner. We’ve seen (Duane) Below, (Adam) Wilk and (Andy) Oliver. The Tigers know what they can do. Andy Oliver is still very promising, but he has cut his walks, I’m sure the Tigers feel to make a real run at that spot, but that’s certainly an arm to keep an eye on. The power lefthanded arms always intrigue. And I want to see Drew Smyly because he doesn’t seem like a power arm, but great pitching ability. And Jacob Turner has that terrific upside. We’ve seen him and I can’t wait to see his development.
R-E: With Victor Martinez, you obviously lose the offensive production, but it seemed like he was a clubhouse guy too. Do you see that as a concern, that some of those leaders that were there before aren’t there anymore?
DD: He was a leader and was highly respected. He was just a good person and a guy you liked having in your clubhouse. Especially with the number of Venezuelan players the Tigers have, it was just a good fit. So he’s going to be missed, but I think there are enough veteran leaders on this team, that as much as he’ll be missed, they know they’ll have to make up for it. There are other guys that will pick up the void of his leadership.
R-E: We have to talk about Verlander. The year he had last year was record-setting. How do you see him coming back this year? He’ll certainly have a lot of pressure and expectations. How will he handle that?
DD: I think he strives on that. He’ll probably look at 24 wins and say what’s next? 30? Even though you only get 34 starts a year, he’s probably looking at what he can do better. I guarantee you he’s looking at it that way. He probably feels he can be better. The odds say he’ll probably slip back a little, but I do think he learned some things. Instead of a 3.30 or a 3.40 ERA, I think the new norm for him will be a 2.50- 2.80. Obviously that’s going to be at the top of the league. He figured some things out last year and who knows. The way he works and the dedicates himself in the offseason, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him do something close to what he did last year. You really wouldn’t put anything past Justin Verlander.