DETROIT — Who is being over-looked as the Tigers head into spring training?
There could be a player nobody is thinking about right now who will make an impact. And there are players who have been pushed to the side who will step up as the Tigers attempt to reach the World Series in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1934 and 1935.
Nobody outside of the club’s front office knew Quintin Berry existed at this time last year. Yet, as a 27-year-old rookie, he sparked a team that was lethargic before he burst onto the scene. He cooled off to finish at .258, but scored 44 runs in what amounted to a half season as a regular and led the team with 21 steals while never getting thrown out.
The only job open on this season’s team is left field, where Berry will compete with Andy Dirks and Brennan Boesch. But injuries occur, creating openings.
Still, it will be hard for somebody to come out of the blue to meet those opportunities. If an outfielder goes down, top prospects Nick Castellanos or Avisail Garcia will get the call. If catcher Alex Avila misses time, veteran Brayan Pena has been acquired to carry the load.
There is not an infield prospect knocking on the door unless Castellanos is moved back to the third base position he signed at in the event durable Miguel Cabrera or Prince Fielder get a stint on the disabled list. Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila mentioned a pair of young Venezuelan shortstops he likes, but both Dixon Machado and Eugenio Suarez will be 21 to start the season. They are “a couple years away,” according to Avila.
So, the over-looked players who will make an impact this season should be names you know. But they were not names discussed very often last week during the Tigers caravan and at TigerFest.
My No. 1 pick in this regard is Berry, who has managed to go from impact-maker at mid-season to an afterthought this offseason.
When Tigers manager Jim Leyland discussed the left field situation with fans in Toledo, he mentioned Brennan Boesch competing with Andy Dirks for the majority of starts in left.
Boesch looked and played like an All-Star in 2010 before fading for so long and so far that he was left off the postseason roster last year. Dirks hit .322 with good power in 314 at-bats.
Leyland forgot to mention Berry, but later apologized for that over-sight and said “Q” would get his chance, too. All three are left-handed batters or a platoon system could be worked out among them.
Yet, because Berry struggles more against left-handed pitchers than Dirks, who does decently against them, he has not been mentioned as the likely starter against right-handers.
Berry brings skills that are needed in a lineup lacking speed. While center fielder Austin Jackson and right fielder Torii Hunter have good speed, only Berry is a threat to steal at any time. Batting him ninth gives the club back-to-back lead-off hitters after the first inning. His speed also allows him to cover much more ground in left field than anybody else.
Berry also brings vitality that only Hunter can match. Remember his “clap-clap” after reaching base being copied by his teammates and the fans?
So, as you can tell, I like Berry a little bit and when all is said and done, he will make an impact.
The other two over-looked players who I like most are relievers Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal. Both have fantastic stuff, and could be the closer if rookie Bruce Rondon is not ready. I just don’t see Phil Coke or Joaquin Benoit being the closer. They are good right where they are, facing lefties and setting up the closer. As good as Coke was in the playoffs, he did have that 4.00 ERA and 1.65 WHIP during the season.
Alburquerque did more than kiss baseballs in the postseason. He stepped up in big games. He has mind-blowing regular season statistics over two seasons with 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings, 1.13 WHIP and a 1.59 ERA.
He’s my No. 2 pick to step up and be prominent. It could be much like 2009, when Fernando Rodney answered the call to close that Brandon Lyon could not.
Villarreal is next. He’s much iffier because he has yet to prove he can be a late-inning pitcher, but his 2.63 ERA and 1.21 WHIP were pretty good. Everything could click for him and his third year in the majors could be a charm.
It says a lot about what kind of talent the Tigers have when Berry, Alburquerque and Villarreal are challenged to find roles.