2/16/2013 5:10 P.M. ET
Tigers find way to build on already loaded roster
By Mike Bauman / MLB.com
LAKELAND, Fla. -- What do you have when a team wins a pennant and then improves?
The 2013 Detroit Tigers.
The Tigers, on paper, are better than they were in 2012 when they won the American League pennant. Victor Martinez returns from a torn anterior cruciate ligament to take over at DH. His career numbers indicate he will be a significant upgrade from Delmon Young, who is now with the Phillies.
The Tigers have every confidence that Martinez will return to his usual productivity.
"Victor's great right now, I think," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said Saturday.
In right field, the estimable Torii Hunter takes over from a mix of outfielders. He will help in more ways than one. Hunter may be 37, but he had one of the best seasons of his career in 2012 and he is still a superior defensive player. Plus, his personality makes him a very positive clubhouse presence and a leader of men.
The middle of the order is somewhere between terrific and incomparable. Three, four, five; reigning American League MVP Cabrera, slugging first baseman Prince Fielder and Martinez, constitute a real challenge for every opposing pitcher.
Fielder offered a reminder of his immense power Saturday. It was, for Florida, a blustery day with a strong and not particularly warm wind blowing. On the field where Fielder was taking batting practice, the wind was gusting in from right. So what? Into the teeth of this wind, Fielder hit a ball to right-center that not only soared over the fence, but also soared over a row of cars parked beyond the fence. Had the wind been behind Fielder, the ball may have landed in a different area code.
The rotation should be outstanding with Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and either Rick Porcello or Drew Smyly. This is not a typical contest for the final rotation spot. Both Porcello and Smyly have demonstrated Major League stuff, and on many other rotations, they would be solidly in a rotation spot higher than fifth. But this rotation is loaded with talent.
There are questions, but they don't seem unsolvable. In left field, the question is whether Andy Dirks will be an everyday player or if something closer to a platoon situation will prevail.
And there is the closer question, in which Plan A calls for rookie Bruce Rondon to seize this opportunity and this job. But "rookie" isn't really descriptive of Rondon's stature. He throws 100-plus miles per hour, with command. He may be just 22, but his Minor league numbers over the last three seasons have been sensational.
Backup catcher Brayan Pena said Saturday that when he catches Rondon he wears a winter batting glove inside his catcher's mitt to provide extra padding. So, yes, the Tigers are hoping to go with a rookie closer, but this rookie closer could be very special.
Another major plus for this club is Leyland, a master of the managing craft. He is 68, but he is still a hands-on manager, darting from drill to drill on the practice fields, offering a steady stream of encouragement and instruction.
The day's work for the Tigers included batting practice with live pitching, baserunning drills, infield drills, individual defense, bunt plays and situational hitting. It may have been the stuff of Spring Training routine, but Leyland was significantly fired up about it, and, in his retelling, turned it into proof of his club's intangible qualities.
"I was thrilled with today," Leyland said. "I thought it went great. It doesn't sound like that big of a deal, but when everything rotates around good, we're getting done what we're supposed to get done.
"These guys, I'm impressed with the shape that everybody's in. These guys look good. What does that mean? I don't know, but they're in good shape.
"I was really happy with the approach of the veteran players. It was terrific. And when you manage, that's the biggest plus you can get, if veteran players buy into the program. And we're fortunate that we've got good veterans.
"I'll tell you that takes a load off the mind of the manager, because it just sets a precedent for everybody else. So I think that's one of the big keys to managing -- when your veteran players buy into the program, you've got something going."
The Sunday Lakeland forecast calls for early morning temperatures in the 30s. So Leyland made an adjustment, moving the start time for the Tigers' workouts back to noon. The way this worked out also pleased the manager.
"I don't know if somebody had something planned," Leyland said. "But everybody was 'no problem.' Nobody complained. I told them that we'd be here for them, if they had something else going on, if they absolutely had to come in early. But everybody was terrific."
When you can turn a 37-degree Spring Training morning into a positive, in Leyland's phrase, "you've got something going." But that's the outlook with these Detroit Tigers, a team that won the 2012 AL pennant, and then, to all reasonable appearances, became even better.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.