Whenever my father and I are talking about the coming of spring, he inevitably quotes a bit of the Bible, from Song of Solomon: "The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land." Now, my father and I are staunch atheists, and this quote is not used in any religious sense, but as a time-worn reminder that spring means really only one thing: baseball is on its way.
I was sitting in my local bagel shop, which has a TV set on (it has two--one shows ESPN, the other Fox News. Guess which one I look at). Buster Olney was being interviewed and he was asked which team was having the best spring training. I nearly choked on my food (a sun-dried tomato bagel, with baked salmon) when he said the Detroit Tigers.
I haven't been paying too much attention, but I asked my father (who lives in Michigan) what's going on with the team. He said lots of players are hitting, they're getting good pitching, and things look rosy. Of course, lots of players can hit and pitch in spring training, when they're opposing triple-A players, but we'll see when the games start counting in the standings.
The big change for the Tigers is the loss of Curtis Granderson, now on the hated Yankees, in exchange for Johnny Damon, though the two weren't traded for each other. Granderson's loss will be more emotional than statistical, as I could see his skills were declining. He was such a good citizen, really the face of the team for the past few years, and it will be weird to see him in pinstripes. That the team would trade him at this point in his career gives me a sense that Dave Dombroski, the GM, knows what he's doing, and puts aside sentiment in the interests of wins (and, of course, salaries).
Picking up Damon, at the time, seemed to me to be a step down, though. Damon is a savvy player, as evidenced by his daring move on the basepaths in the World Series last year, when he stole two bases on one pitch. But he's not a good fielder, and he's thirty-six. But he's been something of a boon to the team so far, hitting the ball with authority and stepping into a role as clubhouse leader. It may be true that winning rubs off on a player, and maybe he can carry it with him. He also won't have to be a leadoff-hitter (Granderson was a poor number one batter, striking out much too much). The player the Tigers got for Granderson, Austin Jackson, has been a pleasant surprise, and has won the starting centerfield job and the leadoff spot in the order. He's been hitting line-drives all spring.
Another pleasant surprise has been the reemergence of Dontrelle Willis, the much ballyhooed acquisition from the Marlins a few years ago. After two disastrous seasons with the Tigers, in which he couldn't find the plate and had to be treated for psychological problems, I had written him off, a throw-in in order to get Miguel Cabrera. But he's been solid in the Grapefruit League, giving fans the hope that he's not done. Another pitcher plucked from the ash-heap, Jeremy Bonderman, will also be in the rotation. One of the heroes of the 2006 pennant-winning team, Bonderman started exactly one game last year due to injury. Now, having two-fifths of your starting rotation be reclamation projects is really rolling the dice, but if they can get say twenty wins out of these two it will be a good sign.
The rest of the staff seems solid, topped by ace Justin Verlander, last year's rookie phenom Rick Porcello, and an acquisition from Arizona, Max Scherzer. The bullpen has improved from last year, with Jose Valverde an upgrade from departed Fernando Rodney, with Joel Zumaya, oft-injured (he once was disabled after playing Guitar Hero) back in fine fettle. They also have high hopes for young Rick Perry, who may be the closer of the future.
As for the lineup, I worry, though my father paints a rosy picture. Jackson will lead off, Damon hitting second. Magglio Ordonez, showing signs of wear and tear last year, is back in top form and will hit third, followed by a hopefully sober Cabrera. Carlos Guillen, at DH, will hit fifth. After that, though, is a potential disaster area. Brandon Inge, the third-sacker who has some pop but also whiffs like crazy, is hitting sixth. That he hit ninth last year is a sign that this lineup has lost a lot of zip (Placido Polanco, the reliable second-baseman, is back in Philadelphia). Hitting seventh through ninth will be catcher Gerald Laird, who couldn't buy a hit during the stretch run last year; a rookie at second, Scott Sizemore; and Adam Everett at shortstop, who will be lucky to hit his weight. If the bottom of the order can't get on base it may be a long season of one-two-three innings.
But it's April, all teams stand tied at zero-zero, and anything can happen. The American League Central is a great division to be in, as no team in the division dominates. The Twins appear to be the class of the division, but they've lost their top closer to dreaded Tommy John surgery. As Peter Gammons seems to say about every team--if they get good pitching, they could be a contender.
Just to put it down for posterity, my predicition for this year's World Series: Tampa Bay over Colorado.