Leyland strives for continuity in 2009
Manager hopes last season's positional shuffles aren't repeated
DETROIT -- The Tigers have spent their offseason making little changes to improve their roster. Their chances for success in 2009 might rest on how little change they have to make during the year.
Detroit had plenty of change in 2008. Consider all the infield shifts, so to speak ...
Miguel Cabrera started Spring Training working at third base but shifted over to first about a month into the season.
Carlos Guillen, having shifted out of shortstop at the end of 2007, went from first base to third early in 2008, had a brief spell in left field in June, shifted back to third, ended the season injured, and now is Detroit's left fielder.
Brandon Inge went from the trading block last January to utility work in the spring, became the backup catcher to open the year, platooned behind the plate by June, started every day at catcher once Ivan Rodriguez was dealt at the end of July, then reclaimed his old spot at third base in place of the injured Guillen in September.
That doesn't include the pitching staff, where the Tigers lost Dontrelle Willis to injury two weeks into the season and never really got him back in form, lost Jeremy Bonderman for the year around midseason with a constricted blood vessel, pulled Nate Robertson out of the rotation in August and Kenny Rogers in September. The closer's job went from Todd Jones to Fernando Rodney, then a bullpen by committee, then Rodney again. Zach Miner started the season as a middle reliever, moved to setup, went to the Minors, then came back as a starter.
Got all that? If not, that's OK. If manager Jim Leyland can help it at all, there won't be a repeat.
There can't be.
"I'm not going to tinker around," Leyland said Thursday during a media luncheon at Comerica Park. "I'm not going to be tinkering at all. ... We tinkered way too much with our team last year, and it really wasn't anybody's fault."
Most of the pitching changes came out of injuries, but it goes back to an adage Leyland has repeated often over the past couple of years and again on Thursday.
"When you mess with your pitching, you're usually done for the year."
Messing with the starting lineup and positions, however, was the product of defensive moves gone awry, from Guillen's surprising struggles at first base -- remember his strange habit of putting his back foot in the basepath -- to Cabrera at third. In Cabrera's case, the Tigers feel like they have the makings of a very good defensive first baseman. They hope that Guillen has a better chance to stay healthy in left field, his original spot when he became a pro more than a decade ago, after nagging knee and back problems over the last couple of years in the infield.
Three weeks before the start of Spring Training, the positional lineup is set, barring injuries. Leyland anticipates only one positional spot on the roster being in play, that being the final reserve role. Corner infielder and left-handed power bat Jeff Larish will be in the competition, Leyland said.
"I'll be totally honest with you," Leyland said. "I think Larish will be one of the guys fighting for the 25th spot on the team."
The pitching staff isn't nearly as set yet, but it is taking shape. Bonderman's impressive progress and last month's Edwin Jackson trade mean that the top four rotation spots are pretty much set. Miner, Robertson and Willis are expected to compete for the fifth. Whoever takes the closer's role, Leyland wants one man for the job rather than a bullpen by committee.
Obviously, the best way to avoid tinkering is to have success the first time, without having to make changes. The Tigers used 110 different positional lineups last year in their 74-88 season, according to baseball-reference.com, compared to 92 in each of the previous two years. Whereas the Tigers used one combination in 26 different games in 2007, they didn't have any combination for more than nine games in 2008.
Without question, success leads to continuity. The lack of it, however, could well lead to disappointment.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.