Tigers have reached a tipping point

Gordon Edes
Yahoo! Sports

LAKELAND, Fla. – The plate of chicken lay barely touched on Jim Leyland's desk Thursday afternoon. The pack of Marlboros, meanwhile, was getting a vigorous workout.

His new opening day shortstop, Adam Everett, had sprained his left ankle sliding into second base a day earlier. One of his few healthy starting pitchers, Nate Robertson, had sprained his left thumb after being hit by a throw in the same game, and might not break camp on time. Three days earlier, his new closer, Brandon Lyon, gave up home runs to four successive Boston Red Sox batters in wind-blown Fort Myers.

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Joel Zumaya is unlikely to be ready when the season starts.

(AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

Now the manager of the Detroit Tigers was telling writers gathered in his office that Joel Zumaya, so valuable as a setup man when the Tigers won the pennant in 2006, was "highly unlikely" to be ready for the start of the season because he is still experiencing shoulder stiffness in the aftermath of surgery last summer.

"I don't know if we rushed him,'' Leyland said, noting that Zumaya's next work will be in camp games, "but when I get him I want him for good. I'm not pushing Zumaya at all. I'm not going to do it.''

Leyland, a veteran manager of 17 seasons and four teams, knows when to push and when to ease up. Zumaya might need kid gloves, but the rest of the Tigers could use a shove in the right direction. They went into last season with World Series expectations and finished 74-88 after a horrendous start. Another flop and a housecleaning could be in order, especially with season-ticket sales reportedly down 40 percent in Detroit.

Many of Leyland's best players – his entire starting outfield of Carlos Guillen, Curtis Granderson, and Magglio Ordonez, plus first baseman Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Armando Galarraga – were absent for much of the spring, having played in the World Baseball Classic.

Leyland scanned a sheet showing the scarce number of at-bats each player had in the WBC: Cabrera 32, Guillen 30, Ordonez 27, Granderson 17.

"That does concern me,'' he said.

Yet it's only one of many pertinent issues. The Tigers have been trying to resurrect the flagging career of pitcher Dontrelle Willis, and are debating the merits of promoting the organization's best pitching prospect, Rick Porcello, even though his professional experience consists of 125 innings at the Class A level.

Porcello, who turned 21 on Dec. 27, struggled Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Rays, loading the bases on a walk and two singles three batters into the game. Porcello got out of it allowing just one run, but he walked another hitter and did not have command of his off-speed stuff in a stint that ended one out into the third inning because he'd reached his 65-pitch limit.

Still, according to Leyland, he remains a candidate to break camp with the team next week.

"Yeah he struggled, sure he did,'' Leyland said. "He was all hyped up. That's going to take time to get over.''

Nerves, under the circumstances, were hardly a surprise.

"I wouldn't put him on the club if he threw five scoreless innings tonight," Leyland said. "I'm not taking him off the club because he had a rough night. A couple of more starts, we'll see.

"He's a very talented guy, but he definitely will have to be able to throw more pitches over the plate. He's aware of that."

Three starters lost 17 or more games last year, and Willis, the guy who was supposed to be featured in the rotation, walked seven in his first Tigers start and would up being Porcello's teammate in Lakeland. No wonder general manager Dave Dombrowski is delaying a decision on Porcello until the last moment.

Only four teams in the majors gave up more runs than the 857 allowed by the Tigers, who had a run differential of minus-36 despite the addition of Cabrera, who won the AL home run title with 37. Cabrera got off to a dreadful start, collecting two hits in 20 at-bats in the first six games, all losses. By the end of April, with the Tigers' defense imploding, he was shifted from third to first base, where he remained the rest of the season.

The Tigers like to believe they've upgraded their defense, unloading bloated shortstop Edgar Renteria for the light-hitting Everett, moving Brandon Inge back to third and putting newly acquired Gerald Laird behind the plate, and shifting Guillen to left field.

The offense should be potent, especially if Gary Sheffield's shoulder feels as good as he says it does at age 40. And Cabrera, who has hit 175 home runs and been named to four All-Star teams before his 26th birthday, should be over the adjustment period he went through after being traded from the Marlins.

"This is my home now,'' he said. "Last year was difficult, my first year here, I didn't know what I was going to do. I had to learn a lot of new things – how to play first base, play with a new team.

"This year, I'm focused more, I feel more relaxed. Things are going to be different for the whole team.''

Sheffield, in the next locker, is an unabashed Cabrera supporter – with one qualifier.

"He has all the makings to be a great,'' said Sheffield, who enters the season needing one home run for 500. "If he keeps himself in shape, he'll be fine. Stay in shape. Keep that hunger, you know. You don't want to lose that desire. I don't think he'll lose it because he loves the game.''

After all the day's bad tidings, Leyland jumped at the chance to say something positive. When someone mentioned a recent published report that suggested Cabrera was out of shape, Leyland quickly came to his player's defense.

"He looks great to me," he said. "There's no issue. He's a big kid. To me, he's perfect. Maybe shedding a little weight might be to his benefit, [but] I've seen too many people that are big guys like him, people say, 'Oh, he's too big, they [expletive] lose weight and look like [expletive] Twiggy, and they're not worth an [expletive]."

The same questions apply to the entire team. Will the Tigers be productive? Or are they bloated? Too many early losses and Dombrowski could trim the payroll to Twiggy size. And no number of Leyland invectives will make a difference.

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