LAKELAND, Fla. – The notion might trigger a gag reflex in general manager Dave Dombrowski, but Scott Boras saved the Detroit Tigers' season. The relentless super agent all but pounded on Detroit's door and peddled client Johnny Damon(notes) like a magazine subscription.
Dombrowski has been exasperated by Boras before and likely was put off by the tactic, but as with that door-to-door salesman, the more Boras talked, the more appealing his wares became. It was as if Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was in the next room and overheard the conversation. He eventually crowded in next to Dombrowski, whipped out his checkbook and, just like that, Damon became the Tigers' left fielder for 2010.
Luckily for Dombrowski. And for manager Jim Leyland. Both are consummate pros with solid track records, but without Damon they were headed pell-mell for disaster.
How so? A team with a $115 million payroll that missed the playoffs only because it lost a tiebreaker last season planned not only to hand starting jobs to two players with zero major league experience, but to insert those rookies at the top of the batting order.
Austin Jackson(notes) might become the best Tigers center fielder and leadoff force since Ron Leflore in 1977. Scott Sizemore(notes) might become the best Tigers second baseman and No. 2 hitter since, well, Placido Polanco(notes) last season. But the likelihood of both rookies immediately contributing at the level necessary to set the table for Miguel Cabrera(notes) and Magglio Ordonez(notes) is low. It's wishful thinking.
Along comes the veteran Damon, thanks to Boras' prodding, and the problem isn't nearly as acute. Damon informed Leyland on Tuesday that he'd prefer to bat second, and the manager will let him unless Jackson swings and misses his way out of the leadoff spot. Feel the breeze; it's a distinct possibility. Jackson – the key acquisition in the trade that sent leadoff hitter and center fielder Curtis Granderson(notes) to the New York Yankees – struck out 123 times in Triple-A last season.
Jackson is extremely fast and a superior fielder. He opted to sign with the Yankees in 2005 instead of becoming the point guard at Georgia Tech. Baseball America rated him the nation's best 12-year-old in 1999 and the best 15-year-old in 2002. The Tigers want to believe he's going to be among the best 23-year-olds in 2010. Center field is his to lose, as is accumulating more plate appearances than anyone else in a Detroit uniform.
"That's an exciting opportunity," Jackson said moments before beginning his first spring training workout Tuesday. "Watching guys on TV, the players I looked up to, I always hoped to be in that position. I've got to take advantage of it."
Jackson batted second and third during most of his five years in the Yankees farm system and felt pressure to increase his meager power numbers – he hit only 30 home runs in 2,478 plate appearances. No worries now, at least not the same worry.
"Leadoff is a different mindset," he said. "I won't be trying to hit home runs. I won't feel that pressure at the top of the lineup."
Instead, he'll try to avoid becoming another Chris Young, the fleet Diamondbacks center fielder who swung and missed his way out of the leadoff spot, striking out 438 times while batting .233 the last three seasons.
Should Jackson need to be bumped to the lower end of the batting order or even require additional minor league seasoning, Sizemore would be the next candidate to combine with Damon at the top of the order. Mature and confident, Sizemore, 25, has so impressed Tigers brass that he doesn't have competition at second base this spring. Like Jackson, he's amazed the door is wide open.
"It's a very rare situation and I'm extremely thrilled," he said. "You can't ask for much more. I've got to make the most of it. I'm not taking it for granted."
His ascent has been rapid since being drafted in the fifth round in 2005 out of Virginia Commonwealth. Sizemore split last season between Double-A and Triple-A, and was productive across the board. He hit for average and for decent power, had a good strikeout-to-walk ratio and stole 21 bases in 25 tries while batting mostly leadoff. The only blemish was 21 errors.
Sizemore had surgery on his left ankle in October and isn't quite 100 percent. Leyland won't rush him until he's fully healed, but then it's rush away.
"I'm never shy about playing young players," Leyland said. "It's exciting to put new guys in there and give them an opportunity. You try to relax them but also put pressure on them. Not bad pressure, good pressure. Get the opportunity and run with it."
The pressure lessened on Jackson and Sizemore when Damon signed. And it saved Dombrowski and Leyland from criticism if either player doesn't become an immediate Rookie of the Year candidate.
Yes, they have Scott Boras to thank.
More Tigers: While on the topic of Jackson and Sizemore, Leyland said the entire crop of prospects in Tigers camp was the best he's seen in his career. "I can assure you a lot of these guys will be in Detroit eventually. They will make it. I'll be shocked if they don't." … Another player impacted by the addition of Damon is Carlos Guillen(notes), who expected to be the everyday left fielder because Leyland told MLB.com as much in October. Leyland's first task Tuesday was to pull Guillen into his office and make sure he's OK with serving mostly as the designated hitter. The manager's olive branch was to apologize to Guillen for lifting him for a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement so often last season without explaining his reasoning. "I made a mistake," Leyland said. … Maybe Leyland cleaned his ears better than usual before the workout. "[Magglio Ordonez's] bat sounded louder than any time since I've been here," he said. "I don't know what that means, but it was loud, real loud."