Nine themes to watch during Tigers' spring training

Armando Galarraga and photographer play spirited game of rock, paper, scissors at Tigertown recently. Photo courtesy of Roger DeWitt.

Pitchers and catchers officially report to Tigertown in Lakeland later today, and the first workout is scheduled for tomorrow.

In some ways, this will be the most interesting spring training session for the Tigers in several years. Sure, there have been some plots to follow during the four: Would Justin Verlander make the team in 2006? How about Andrew Miller in 2007? And Rick Porcello in 2009? Hmm, I'm sensing a theme there.

This year, Detroit goes into Tigertown with 12 of 13 position players set, or close to set; with four of five rotation members already known; and with six of seven bullpen guys sitting on solid ground. So at most, we're probably talking about three real roster decisions that need to be made by Tigers brass.

In theory, anyway.

But with so many new faces on the Tigers this year -- from big name additions like closer Jose Valverde, to rookie promotions like second baseman Scott Sizemore -- it should be fun to get to know the new personalities and see if they fit into the puzzle as well as it is hoped they will.

Those story lines and more will be some I'll be following. The list is after the jump!

1. Meeting Austin Jackson

It's not that you can look at spring training stats and decide that they mean anything -- because they don't. But this will be the first exposure to the Tigers' center fielder of the future for the fans. There are maybe a couple of videos on the Internet, and some stories heralding him as the Yankees' future. But what do we really know about him?

And so much might be riding on whether the Tigers got this trade right. They gave up their extremely popular 30 home run, 3.4 wins above replacement left-handed hitting center fielder speculating Jackson would do the same job cheaper. If he creates yet another hole in the lineup, the Tigers could be in trouble. If he becomes the player many scouts think he could be, the Tigers will be sitting pretty for years.

Of course, there is some debate whether he'll make the team out of spring training. If he looks overwhelmed in a camp, a platoon situation could be set up with Clete Thomas and Ryan Raburn, or Detroit may even seek to make a trade.

2. Finding a fifth starter


The Tigers should have an excellent top three to their rotation, but after that the dropoff is ... well, we're not even sure at this point, because we have no idea what to expect from so many players.

So I know some people want to include "fourth" starter in that too, but I think Jeremy Bonderman has that pretty solidly covered unless he stumbles in a big way. The fifth starter could be any of the following: Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson, Armando Galarraga, Eddie Bonine, Phil Coke, Player To Be Named Later.

For those wondering if maybe Casey Crosby will be joining the likes of Verlander, Miller and Porcello ... no. You have to wait another year for that story line to emerge.

3. Sizing up Scott Sizemore

Another rookie being thrust into a starting spot, Sizemore is a bit better known by fans. For instance, we know he should be able to hit the ball pretty solidly. Maybe not at the start of the year, but eventually. But we also know he has no major league at bats and not every prospect makes the next step. We know he is not Placido Polanco with the glove, but how he fields is up to some debate. Some act as if he has a cement glove, but other reports put him at average to just-below-average.

And let's not forget, he's returning from a broken bone in his ankle/leg during the Arizona Fall League in November.

4. Sorting out the left-handed relievers

Fellow blogger John Parent calls them "a glut." Let's list them: Bobby Seay, Fu-Te Ni, Phil Coke, Daniel Schlereth, Brad Thomas (remember him?). If the Tigers didn't believe Andrew Oliver can be a starter still, he'd have to be included in that list, too. Detroit could almost put together an all-lefty bullpen from this group and do pretty well. Just add Valverde and ROOGY Ryan Perry. Of course, I jest. But Jim Leyland can safely grab three of them and feel pretty confident about his selection. But which three will it be?

You expect Seay and Coke to make the pen for sure, barring a trade. Fu-Te Ni pitched pretty well last season, though his peripherals were nothing to be excited about. Schlereth has a nice ceiling but might benefit from some time in the minors to work on his command. Thomas was signed during the winter meetings -- rumors said at a cost of $1 million -- out of the Korean league.

5. Joel Zumaya's "last string"

Zumaya told MLB.com's Jason Beck he's probably on his "last string." At the start of the offseason, some wondered if Zumaya might be the favorite to close this year. The Tigers chose to sign closer Jose Valverde instead. Zumaya feels like he's healthy now and has fixed mechanical issues and now is the time to shine. So, we'll see if he makes the next step forward and helps Detroit shut down the late innings. If he's unable to make that move, then Perry probably ends up with the title of closer-in-waiting. (Or maybe Zumaya is just being dramatic, as he has been known to be.)

6. Sorting out the lineup

Who's leading off? Maybe Jackson. He gets the first shot. Who's second? Who knows!? Not Leyland, not right now anyway. One problem? The Tigers' lineup, as constructed off the most-likely roster, has eight right-handed batters and one switch hitter (Carlos Guillen, when healthy). Sure, there's a couple of left-handed batters who can and will come off the bench. But they're not exactly world-beaters with the bat. So Leyland and his boss have some work to  do before April.

7. The 25th Man

Who's No. 25 on this roster? Infield/outfielder Donnie Kelly? He has no options remaining and can play third base. He'll probably see a lot of action at third during the next month, because Brandon Inge is not expected to see time in games until the final two to three weeks of the Grapefruit League. That would make more sense than Brent Dlugach, who just can't buy a break with the organization. If the Tigers are still sweating their left-handed batter issues, outfielder Clete Thomas could find himself the 4th/5th outfielder (depending on what you consider Guillen.)

Maybe we could have a surprise here. Maybe the left-handed hitting Brennan Boesch proves himself worthy of playing DH with some time in the outfield to boot, solving multiple problems.

8. Finding a left fielder?

Last October, Guillen complained he was more than a designated hitter; he wanted to play in the field. Leyland agreed and named him the left fielder for 2010. Which leaves Raburn as ... the designated hitter? Raburn is not a Gold Glove outfielder, but something seems a bit backwards about that, doesn't it?

9. Intangibles

There's a lot of little things. Inge's knees, for instance. He had surgery on both of them this offseason. How will that affect him in the field and at the plate?

What about Miguel Cabrera's battle against alcohol? It sounds like he made all the right decisions during the offseason, but he might be entering a new phase as he is back with his team, playing baseball.

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