High expectations grounded by injuries
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The best way to jinx a team is to predict it's going to win a division title or go to the World Series.
So often, can't-miss teams -- can't miss on paper, that is -- fail to live up to their press clippings.
I saw the other day where a Las Vegas oddsmaker predicted the Phillies would play in the 2012 World Series. A consensus of scouts and media types is convinced they'll win their sixth consecutive National League East title. You can book it!
But as a hot late-morning sun beat down on the Bright House Field turf Monday, Ruben Amaro Jr., the Phillies' general manager, had a long face as he told reporters that All-Star second baseman Chase Utley has left camp to have the chronic ailment of both knees examined by a secret specialist at a secret location.
Utley, who's not played in a spring game, certainly won't be ready for Opening Day. Who knows when?
While Amaro was doing his best not to show concern -- first baseman Ryan Howard won't return from his torn Achilles tendon rehab until June at the earliest and Gold Glove third baseman Placido Polanco is out with a sprained thumb -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland stood behind the batting cage oozing confidence about his much-improved team.
The rebuilt Tigers are the most powerful team in the American League Central. If they don't repeat as division champs, Detroit may burn.
Leyland praised the transition of 2010 AL batting champion Miguel Cabrera from first base to third, a move necessary to make room for newcomer Prince Fielder at first.
"It is what it is," said Leyland. "When you're a manager, you have to be willing to say, 'Hey, I'm willing to accept what this is.' If you're not willing to do that, you shouldn't make the move."
This was typical Spring Training chatter.
And then, an hour later, the Tigers manufactured a run to take a 1-0 first-inning lead against the Phillies when Cabrera walked, stole second and scored on a single.
But the bottom of the first demonstrated why those on-paper predictions are so fragile.
With two down, Hunter Pence hit a wicked hard-hopper to Cabrera that bounced off his face. With a towel covering the right side of his face, he left the game. He received stitches at Bright House Field before going to a hospital for precautionary X-rays.
Cabrera, Utley, Howard, Polanco.
Cabrera's injury probably isn't serious, but as he left the field holding a towel over his bloodied face, the incident proved why teams expected to win often don't.
Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said the other day that teams that can play through the losses of key players usually prevail at the end.
Back to Detroit.
Even though the Phillies handed the Tigers a 4-3 setback, at 12-2-3 they still have the best record of 30 teams.
The Tigers, despite their great baseball tradition, haven't won the World Series since 1984 when they defeated the San Diego Padres in five games. Kirk Gibson, now the Arizona Diamondbacks manager, was the face of that team along with Lou Whitaker and World Series MVP Alan Trammell.
Jack Morris, a 19-game winner, was the ace of the pitching staff, but it's interesting to note that reliever Willie Hernandez won both the AL Cy Young Award and the league MVP. The Tigers' Justin Verlander received both awards last year and anchors the rotation for this highly touted team.
When the Tigers signed Fielder to the nine-year, $210 million contract, excitement swelled to new heights in the Motor City. Not only does Fielder give the Tigers a huge power presence, he also rekindles memories for a lot of the fans. When he was a youngster, between the ages of 6 and 11, he was in the Detroit clubhouse, following his dad, Cecil Fielder, around. Now, he's wearing a Tigers uniform.
"His dad was a great Tiger of the past who hit the 51 home runs [in 1990], but Prince is his own man," said Leyland. "He's a well-respected player all around baseball. As far as getting a player as a free agent or in a trade, he probably comes with the highest reviews of any player I've ever gotten."
With Fielder and Cabrera in the middle of the batting order behind Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch, the Tigers offense should give opposing pitchers nightmares.
"Prince Fielder brings a lot of talent to this ballclub," Leyland repeated. "He's one of the great hitters in baseball and also much, much more athletic than people think. When you look at him, you don't think he's very athletic, but that's wrong. We're tickled to death; he's fit right in. He's got it all figured out."
All of this has Detroit fans dreaming of a World Series championship.
"To me, you embrace the expectations," Leyland said. "As a manager you like the expectations. That means you have a good team. If we didn't have any expectations, I'd be worried. That would mean we don't have a very good team.
"I love it because we have a good team."
Deja vu ... 1984?
"We can't stop that talk," the skipper said. "I've talked to the team about that. You really can't control what people write or say about you. The only thing you can do is keep tunnel vision on the task at hand. We'd be lying if we said we didn't hear stuff. Last year a lot of people picked us to finish fourth."
Leyland's biggest concern and a key to the high expectations for 2012 is center fielder Jackson. As a rookie in 2010, Jackson batted .293 and seemed to be a productive leadoff batter for years to come. His average fell to .249 last season, striking out too much and not getting enough hits. He was overpowered by fastballs.
His swing has been altered, especially his leg-kick mechanics.
Leyland agrees Jackson is a key.
"He's changed his whole batting style and doesn't have the big leg kick anymore," Leyland said. "He's had success with it all spring. That's a good thing because when you change somebody and they don't have success with it after the first week or two, they want to go back to their old habits. In this case, he's done very well."
On paper, the Tigers should play deep into October, maybe even the World Series.
Leyland & Co. are hoping the ink on that paper doesn't fade.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.