Three magic words are music to Tigers fans on this day: “Pitchers and catchers.”
Today, pitchers and catchers, and even some position players, are reporting to spring training camp in Lakeland, Florida. So begins the baseball season, and with it the hopes of the Detroit Tigers for the upcoming season. As the team begins a defense of their American League Central division title, optimism is high for 2012.
Prince Fielder won’t be in Lakeland today, but his presence will be felt. When the Tigers got Fielder’s name on a contract worth more than $200 million in January, they sent a thrill through Tiger Nation and in the process they boosted expectations. Fielder’s booming bat adds punch to an already potent lineup, and in 2012, he will be expected to produce big numbers. Prince will need to earn that contract in order to be considered a King in Detroit.
Then there’s Justin Verlander, who is in camp today. What can we expect from the Tiger ace in 2012? Is it reasonable to hope he can duplicate his 2011 season, when he won the Cy Young Award and the Most Valuable Player Award? Is there any more room on his mantle for more hardware? Tiger fans hope so, and considering that JV is in the prime of his career, he should be counted on to put up big numbers again in 2012.
Doug Fister is in his first Tiger training camp, after being acquired mid-season in 2011. Tiger fans are giddy over the prospects of Fister in a Detroit uniform for a full season. Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello are back, filling out the top four of the Detroit rotation.
Next to Verlander, the pitcher who will probably draw the most attention this spring will be Jacob Turner, the tall, talented blue chip prospect who got a taste of the show last year. Manager Jim Leyland is hoping that Turner, who has ace stuff too, will show enough maturity to earn the #5 spot in his rotation.
But it’s not just pitchers who get to camp early. There’s also All-Star catcher Alex Avila, who established himself as one of the best receivers in the game last season. At times he seemed to be carrying a Herculean load, especially in August and September, when he rarely got a day off behind the plate. Gerald Laird, who’s built like a fire hydrant and just as solid, is back for his second stint as a Tiger to give Avila rest when needed.
The characters in the bullpen, as responsible for the team’s success in 2011 as anyone, are back too. “Papa Grande” Jose Valverde is back, and Tiger fans hope is rubber arm will stay that way in 2012. The Detroit closer hasn’t blown a save since 2010. There’s also Joaquin Benoit, who after a shaky start, settled in and was a dominant setup man for the Tigers in 2011, pitching clutch innings for Leyland down the stretch and in the playoffs against the Yankees. Octavio Dotel is a new face, having arrived via free agency. The veteran reliever won a World Series ring with the Cardinals last season, and he’ll be asked to pitch the 7th inning, bridging the gap from starter to Benoit and then Valverde. Can Phil Coke become a big time reliever to match his great stuff?
What about Andrew Oliver, one of the few young left-handed starters the Tigers have? Is he ready to challenge for a starting job at the major league level?
These questions won’t be answered in spring training as much as they will be analyzed, debated, and scrutinized. Spring training gives a team the opportunity to take a look at new faces, old faces, and young faces.
It’s possible more changes will be made to the roster, as they often are in spring. A veteran starting pitcher could be added, who knows?
That’s the fun of spring training: there’s hope and possibilities, and everyone is working out the starting rotation and lineups in their heads. And for a team with the talent that Detroit has, everything seems possible.