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Tigers are only scratching the surface

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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Few people think of the Tigers as a club teeming with young talent.

Maybe it’s time to start.

The Tigers start four rookie position players on days when Alex Avila is their catcher. Their best player, first baseman Miguel Cabrera, just turned 27. Their starting rotation, believe it or not, is the youngest in the majors.

With this mix, the Tigers just swept the Angels, moving to within a half-game of the Twins for the AL Central lead.

Surprising, isn’t it?

Center fielder Austin Jackson and second baseman Scott Sizemore -- two rookies at up-the-middle positions -- have been in the Tigers’ lineup since Opening Day.

Jackson, boasting a batting/on-base/slugging line of .367/.420/.495, is a Rookie of the Year candidate. Sizemore, while making less of an impact, owns a .346 OBP.

Avila is the backup catcher, Brennan Boesch the replacement for injured left fielder Carlos Guillen – and No. 5 hitter behind Cabrera.

And that’s not all.

Left-hander Dontrelle Willis, 28, is the team’s oldest starting pitcher. The team’s three best starters -- righties Justin Verlander, 27, Max Scherzer, 25 and Rick Porcello, 21 -- all are under control through 2014.

Four of the Tigers’ top relievers -- lefties Fu-Te Ni and Phil Coke and righties Joel Zumaya and Ryan Perry -- also are 27 or under. Another wave of hard-throwing pitching prospects, led by righty Jacob Turner and lefty Casey Crosby, is on the way -- though both youngsters currently are on the disabled list with arm injuries.

The Twins boast more star players in their primes, but the Tigers’ controversial trades of center fielder Curtis Granderson, 29, and right-hander Edwin Jackson, 26, helped deepen their base of young talent, netting Scherzer, Coke and Austin Jackson in a three-team blockbuster.

Next winter promises a different type of upheaval. More than $60 million could come off the Tigers’ payroll; Willis, right-hander Jeremy Bonderman, right fielder Magglio Ordonez, left fielder Johnny Damon, third baseman Brandon Inge and catcher Gerald Laird all are eligible for free agency (Ordonez is on a vesting option).

Two weeks ago, rival executives were predicting that the Twins would run away with the Central. Joe Mauer’s heel injury changes the equation, and so does the Tigers’ potential upside.

The Tigers aren’t going away.

Not this season. Not anytime soon.

ROTATION ISSUES IN PHILADELPHIA

The Phillies scored in double digits in back-to-back games against the Mets because, well, that’s what the Phillies do.

The team’s starting-pitching issues, however, are a legitimate concern.

The Phillies had only eight quality starts in their first 24 games, four by right-hander Roy Halladay.

Only one major-league team -- the lowly Pirates -- had fewer starts of six or more innings, three earned runs or less.

Take away Halladay, and the Phillies’ rotation ERA increases from 4.06 (fifth in the NL) to 5.33 (a figure that would be tied for 13th).

The season debut of righty Joe Blanton on Monday should help, but lefty J.A. Happ remains on the DL with a forearm strain, the date of his return uncertain.

The Phillies need a boost from Blanton, more consistency from lefty Cole Hamels and a healthy Happ.

Otherwise, the trade of Cliff Lee will look more and more debatable.

Two of the players the Phillies acquired for Lee -- right-hander Phillippe Aumont and outfielder Tyson Gillies -- are off to modest starts at Double A. The third, right-hander J.C. Ramirez, is at Single A.

Both Aumont and Ramirez could end up power relievers, though the Phillies are determined to find out whether Aumont, in particular, can start.

LESS THAN PRINCELY POSITION

The Brewers already are seven games back in the NL Central, and their sluggish start eventually could lead the club to entertain trade offers for first baseman Prince Fielder.

Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, however, always has maintained that position players bring greater returns in the offseason, when more teams can be drawn into the bidding.
Baseball Hot Streak

There are other complications for the Brewers as well.

First base, at least at this point, is not an obvious need for most contenders -- and the Padres, 16-9, still could trade first baseman Adrian Gonzalez if they fail to, ahem, run away with the NL West.

Gonzalez is making $4.75 million this season, Fielder more than twice that amount, $10.5 million. Both are under club control through 2011.

The Red Sox and White Sox could be players for Gonzalez. The Braves and Mariners also could look to upgrade, but Atlanta’s Troy Glaus seemingly is heating up and Seattle’s Casey Kotchman is offering middle-of-the-pack production.

The Orioles are perhaps the most likely non-contender to pursue a high-profile first baseman, but it is unlikely they would move on Fielder or Gonzalez in the middle of a season -- if at all.

THE VAZQUEZ TRADE: DOUBLE-EDGED DISASTER?

As Yankees right-hander Javier Vazquez continues to struggle, one former Brave views his absence as a significant problem for Atlanta -- and not simply because Vazquez was sixth in the NL last season with a 2.87 ERA.

Vazquez, a native of Puerto Rico, set a strong, positive example for the team’s other Latin players, the former Brave says -- and was an especially strong mentor to right-hander Jair Jurrjens, a native of Curacao.

The trade currently looks bad for both clubs. Braves outfielder Melky Cabrera pushed his batting average above .200 Sunday for the first time this season.

The Braves, according to Baseball America, also received two of the Yankees’ top 12 prospects in the deal -- Single A right-hander Arodys Vizcaino, No. 3, and Triple A left-handed reliever Mike Dunn, No. 12.

MISSING IN ACTION: LEADING MEN

A scout makes a great point about the importance of leadoff men, saying that the Red Sox lack their usual offensive identity without Jacoby Ellsbury, and that the Phillies without Jimmy Rollins and the Orioles without Brian Roberts also are not the same.

The Phillies’ Shane Victorino says that without Rollins, the team suffers in multiple aspects -- offense, defense, base-stealing ability and power. Ellsbury offers all of those skills but power.

Roberts is the weakest defender of the three, but one of the Orioles’ early problems was that three of their four infielders -- first baseman Garrett Atkins, second baseman Ty Wigginton and third baseman Miguel Tejada -- essentially were out of position.

Rhyne Hughes has since replaced Atkins at first base.

THE ROCKIES’ IANNETTA DILEMMA

One reason the Rockies signed catcher Chris Iannetta to a three-year, $8.35 million extension last January was to help him relax.

So much for that idea: Iannetta, 27, remains extremely hard on himself, and apparently tried too hard to justify the contract. The Rockies demoted him last Tuesday, with his batting average at .133.

A trade might make sense -- the Rangers, Red Sox and Astros are among the clubs in need of catching -- but the Rockies would be moving Iannetta when his value is lowest.

Better he should get going and provide the contribution that the Rockies expected from him all along.

WHAT NOT TO LIKE ABOUT IKE

The Mets were locked in on two players in the first round of the 2008 draft -- catcher Jason Castro, who went to the Astros at No. 10, and first baseman Ike Davis, who was still available when the Mets picked at No. 18.

Most college players have limited ceilings -- what you see is basically what you get. The Mets saw upside in Davis’ long, loose, gangly body, but he remains a work in progress.

One rival club official says Davis has a hitch in his swing similar to that of Rockies right fielder Brad Hawpe, making him vulnerable on balls up and in. Another evaluator notes that Davis needs to work on catching pop-ups and extending for throws at first base.

AROUND THE HORN

* Impressive sweep of the Mariners by the Rangers, with two of the three games decided in extra innings.

The Rangers, playing without the injured Nelson Cruz, won games started by Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez and the red-hot Doug Fister. Their final victory featured a ninth-inning comeback against M’s closer David Aardsma.

Of course, it’s difficult to take the Mariners too seriously when two different Diamondbacks -- Kelly Johnson and Mark Reynolds -- each have as many homers as the entire Seattle team.

The White Sox’s Paul Konerko leads the M’s in homers, 11-9.

* Speaking of the M’s, one scout takes note of Fister’s 1.29 ERA in five starts and draws a comparison to Padres right-hander Chris Young.

“He’s 6-foot-8, and has downhill deception,” the scout says of Fister. “Guys just don’t pick up the ball. He’s doesn’t have any power. But does Chris Young have any power?”

* The Phillies aren’t simply facing an uphill fight because of their injuries. Ten of their 25 players -- 40 percent -- were not with the club last season, and manager Charlie Manuel says the team needs more time to gel.

“It took us about two years to develop an attitude,” Manuel says.

With the exception of third baseman Placido Polanco, who was with the team from 2003 to ‘05, the newcomers need to learn the Phillies’ Way.

* The Diamondbacks lead the NL in runs per game and homers per game.

All eight of their regulars, if healthy, stand a chance to finish with at least 15 homers. Third baseman Mark Reynolds, right fielder Justin Upton and first baseman Adam LaRoche all could hit 30, and second baseman Kelly Johnson is on that pace as well.

The problem with the D-Backs is their bullpen, which currently has a
7.02 ERA, the worst in the majors. The team also needs much better out of right-hander Edwin Jackson, who has allowed 18 earned runs in 6 1/3 innings over his last two starts. Getting that Brandon Webb character back would help, too.

* Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski on rookie left fielder Brennan Boesch: “I’ve always been surprised that he hasn’t received more attention. He did lead the Eastern League in home runs last year. He made the All-Star team.

“He is an imposing-type figure -- 6-foot-6. He’s very strong, moves well, throws well. He has continued to improve as a hitter. He’s the type of guy who can drive the ball out of any part of the ballpark. He has caught a lot of people’s eyes, not only by the way he plays, but by the way he carries himself.”

* Royals fans, as always, are advised to remain skeptical, but internal help could be on the way for the team’s AL-worst bullpen (the Pirates and D-Backs, incredibly, own even worse bullpen ERAs).

Triple A right-hander Blake Wood, whose pitching style draws comparisons to Mike Timlin’s, is the closest option to the majors. Righty Federico Castaneda, just promoted to Triple A, is another possibility.

* Middle-relief heroes of the week: Padres right-hander Tim Stauffer, who has yet to allow a run in 15 1/3 innings, and Nationals right-hander Tyler Clippard, who has allowed one run in 18 innings.

* The Mariners’ release of outfielder Eric Byrnes does not exactly come as a surprise. Byrnes, who was 3-for-32, was removed for late-inning defensive replacements in winter ball.

* Scratch the RedsRyan Hanigan off the list of catchers who might become available. Hanigan is getting increased playing time, and is almost certain to become the team’s starter if Ramon Hernandez departs as a free agent. The Reds lack a major-league ready catching prospect.

* Mayday! The Red Sox -- trailing the Rays by seven games and leading the Orioles by only four -- are closer to last place than they are to first.

* The joke’s on me, Part I: The White Sox -- my pick to win the World Series -- are 10th in the AL in runs per game and last in rotation ERA.

* The joke’s on me, Part II: As I breathlessly reported on Twitter, I mistakenly packed my 18-year-old son’s dress pants for Saturday’s game in Philly. When they proved, uh, just a little tight, I had to end up wearing my khakis instead.

My thanks to director Bill Webb for declining to show my resulting, clashing ensemble -- and to play-by-play man Joe Buck for declining to ask me just how the heck this happened.

Truth be told, I’m color blind, too. Without my wife’s help, I can barely get out of the house in the morning.
Tagged: Orioles, Red Sox, White Sox, Tigers, Brewers, Twins, Yankees, Mariners, Rangers, Braves, Reds, Phillies, Padres, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Roy Halladay, Javier Vazquez, Ty Wigginton, Cliff Lee, Adrian Gonzalez, Joe Mauer, Brandon Webb, Miguel Cabrera, Edwin Jackson, Chris Young, Joe Blanton, Tim Stauffer, Prince Fielder, Kelly Johnson, Melky Cabrera, Chris Young, Mark Reynolds, J.A. Happ, Ryan Hanigan, Austin Jackson, Doug Fister

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