5 Things We Learned About the Detroit Tigers During Spring Training
Most MLB teams go into spring training with a basic plan of things to accomplish, players to watch and a few slots to fill.
For the Detroit Tigers, 2013 spring training was no different.
The Tigers came into the spring for the second consecutive year as a runaway favorite to win the American League Central.
Detroit wasn't looking to make any big moves, and it wasn't hoping for an earth-shattering performance to hang its hopes on this season.
The Tigers were about business as usual and hoping a few things would work themselves out.
For the most part, Detroit has gotten its wish and will go into Opening Day on Monday with the same expectations that it went into spring training with:
To win a third consecutive AL Central crown.
But every manager and fanbase learns a few things about their team at one point or another during the spring, and Tigers manager Jim Leyland has learned plenty about his squad in the last several weeks.
Here are the five things we learned about the Tigers during spring training.
The Outfield Is Loaded
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The Tigers have the best starting rotation in baseball and boast two future Hall of Famers in the infield, but the outfield will definitely hold its own on both sides of the ball this season.
Center fielder Austin Jackson had a breakout season last year, raising his average 51 points and increasing his home run and RBI output by six and 21, respectively in 16 less games.
Perhaps most importantly for Jackson, he decreased his strikeout total from 181 to 134.
Jackson has proved in his three-year career that he's one of the best defensive outfielders in the league, and he's joined this season by one of the greatest at the craft of all time in Torii Hunter.
After leaving the Los Angeles Angels and signing with the Tigers this offseason, Hunter picked up this spring where he left off from his bounce-back year in 2012.
After a career-high .313 average a year ago, Hunter has batted .293 in spring training, with two home runs and five RBI in 65 at-bats.
He appears to have the legs to make it through his 15th MLB season healthy and will have plenty of help, should he need it.
Andy Dirks has had a solid spring, hitting .273 with one home run and three RBI and adding a .333 on-base percentage and four steals.
Dirks will look to have the kind of breakout year that Jackson had last season and prove himself to be a valued commodity in the Tigers championship run.
The Tigers Will Try Closer-by-Committee
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"I wouldn't say (I was) disappointed," Leyland said to MLive.com about closer Bruce Rondon after Wednesday's 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies. "(Rondon) wasn't as sharp, obviously. But he wasn't bad-bad."
That comment by the skipper was the microcosm for the Tigers' closer situation all offseason, and it's quite clear that no one in the Tigers organization really knows who will be closing games in a few months.
As of Thursday, it won't be Bruce Rondon.
Rondon was given 100-percent support by Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski going into spring training, but just four days shy of Opening Day, the unproven rookie didn't live up to expectations and was optioned to Triple-A Toledo.
"It's maybe different, unusual, but it doesn't mean it won't work," Dave Dombrowski said to MLive.com after announcing the move. "I feel comfortable with the abilities out there.
"We have good pitchers," he said. "We have guys that can close games. The difference really right now is we don't have the guy that, every day, you give him the ball.
Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke and Al Alburquerque are the most likely candidates of the closer committee, but none of them have had long-term closing experience."
A Young Surprise Will Be a Key Piece to a Championship
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The Tigers have a wealth of young talent on their roster and should expect a few inexperienced players to step up and contribute right away.
The biggest surprise player to make the Tigers' 25-man roster is outfielder Matt Tuiasosopo, who is hitting .302 this spring, including the tear he's been on lately, batting .455 with five doubles, four home runs and nine RBI in his last 15 games.
Tuiasosopo was the Seattle Mariners' third-round pick in the 2004 amateur draft. His only major league experience is a three-year stretch with the Mariners when he played 71 games, but after signing with the Tigers as a free agent in November, he's impressed everyone in the organization.
"I don't think anybody in here can disagree that this kid deserves a shot," Leyland said to George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press. "He's strung the ball. He's hit the ball out of the ballpark. He's hit the ball hard."
Tuiasosopo, who can literally play every position on the field, will primarily play outfield for the Tigers, and although he won't be a starter, if he continues to hit the cover off the baseball like he has lately, he'll make his presence felt sooner than later.
"I always believed that I could come here and always believed for big things to happen -- that's why I thank God that everything has gone the way that it has gone," Tuiasosopo said to the Detroit Free Press. "It's been a crazy spring."
Don't forget about Avisail Garcia and Nick Castellanos.
Garcia was huge for the Tigers down the stretch last season and made the postseason and World Series roster, while Castellanos remains Detroit's highest-touted prospect.
Neither player will open the season with the big club, but both could get their call-up at any point and step in and make an impact.
Rick Porcello Isn't Leaving Quietly
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Rick Porcello was as good as gone a few weeks ago, but after a solid spring, the 24-year-old has earned his spot in the rotation and if nothing else, will give the Tigers some value this season.
The Tigers were publicly shopping Porcello all offseason, and it seemed like there was another rumor of intrigue every week.
No concrete deals were made and the right-hander went into spring training looking to prove himself to the Tigers and to the rest of the league.
After posting a 3.00 ERA with 21 strikeouts and zero walks in 24 innings over six starts, Porcello proved enough.
Leyland named Porcello the No. 5 starter on Tuesday, and the fifth-year starter looks to have his confidence back, going into the regular season.
If the Tigers choose to re-open the bidding for Porcello, they have another option for the fifth spot in the rotation in Drew Smyly.
Smyly, who battled Porcello all spring, has the ability to seamlessly move into the rotation and presents the Tigers with a good problem to have.
Porcello has been one of the biggest pleasant surprises for the Tigers in spring training and should be an asset either in Detroit or as a hot commodity in the trade market.
The Tigers Will Three-Peat as AL Central Champions
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The Tigers have been favorites to win the AL Central all offseason, and despite the closer fiasco, Detroit didn't do anything this spring to raise any major doubts to anything contradictory.
Detroit has stayed healthy throughout the spring and have a couple key pieces returning from injury well-rested and ready to go.
Although the Tigers are on the bottom third in team batting average this spring, based on the other teams toward the bottom, including the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox, I don't think that puts Detroit in bad shape.
Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are already in midseason form, averaging .292 and .314 during spring training, and the Tigers biggest positive sign this spring has been Alex Avila, who's averaging .306 with 13 RBI in 64 at-bats.
The Tigers' pitching staff boasts the third-best team ERA this spring, with a 4.21 ERA as a unit, and Detroit's shaky No. 5 starter has played very well, posting a 3.00 ERA over six starts and 24 innings.
If Cabrera and Fielder play like Cabrera and Fielder, while the rest of the Tigers lineup performs to their capability and the pitching staff doesn't suffer any major setbacks, Detroit should cruise to its third straight division title.