Tigers’ Sizemore focusing on focus

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Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Scott Sizemore opened one of the four orange boxes piled in front of him and dumped a pair of Nike cleats onto the clubhouse carpet.

“This is like Christmas morning,” said Sizemore, taking note of one more way the major leagues differ from the minors.

What a gift the Tigers would get if Sizemore can handle second base reliably. He is taking over for Placido Polanco, who each day for most of four seasons was pure gold when manager Jim Leyland made out his lineup card.

Polanco fielded so smoothly and steadily. At the plate, he was a steady spark at No. 2, an All-Star capable of 200-hit seasons.

Sizemore has not played an inning in the big leagues. And yet the Tigers never blinked when it became clear last autumn they would wave off salary arbitration and lose Polanco to free agency.

“We think he’s ready to play,” Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers president and GM, has said.

Primarily, it’s because they believe Sizemore will hit.

At five different stops in the Tigers farm system, Sizemore’s averages since he signed in 2006 have been: .327, .265, .286, .308, .307 and .308. The back-to-back .307-.308 efforts came last season at Double A and Triple A.

His on-base percentage is at least as impressive: a cumulative .383, headed by the .402 last year in 59 games at Erie, where he also had a .535 slugging percentage.

His glove is not as reassuring. He gets to ground balls, but by his own admission can make “careless” or “stupid” errors that he believes will be eliminated, quickly.

Sizemore’s bat, though, always has been regarded as big league lumber waiting to be uncrated. Jim Leyland saw it two years ago when Sizemore, 23 and only a couple years removed from Virginia Commonwealth, convinced the manager “Sizemore is going to be a big league hitter.”

Sizemore, 25, will neither argue with his boss nor assume he’s in Detroit to stay.

But, yes, he enjoys hitting — because he has a knack for it.

“Everyone’s a good hitter when they’re a little kid,” said Sizemore, the Tigers’ fifth-round pick in 2006. “What separates me, maybe, is that I’ve always had a feel for what’s going wrong.

“I can make a quick adjustment and avoid that 0-for-20 slump that can kill your average.”

He has a short stroke with enough power to have slammed 17 home runs in 2009. That newly discovered crunch, he confesses, came mostly by accident — after a wrist injury in 2008 forced him to use more of his lower body.

Another, less helpful, mishap has made Sizemore’s debut dicey heading into spring camp, which sees pitchers and catchers begin drills today at Tigertown with the full squad on hand Tuesday.

Sizemore was braced for a double-play relay in the Arizona Fall League last October when a baserunner slid into his left leg, fracturing the fibula. He had surgery to insert screws, and has a four-inch vertical scar stretching across his ankle as evidence.

Sizemore has been rehabilitating in Lakeland since last month. He is maneuvering nicely, taking a steady stream of ground balls, and bearing down during batting practice. But running the bases and digging for grounders can be tough on a lower leg still healing.

Sizemore realizes his injury could have been worse. There was minor ligament damage, which, if worse, could have put his 2010 season on the shelf.

He understands, as well, his defense must be big league grade. Those 21 errors last season? Unacceptable. Sizemore at least has a thought on how to eliminate them:

“Staying focused on every single pitch. Forgetting a bad at-bat I just had and concentrating 100 percent on every pitch.

“That’s one of the things I want to ask Adam Everett,” he said, a reference to the Tigers’ veteran shortstop. “I want to pick his brain on what his focus is. I want to cut down on those careless errors, say, where there’s no play and you hold onto the ball, rather than throwing it away and costing your team a run. Those are errors I’m gonna try to avoid.”

Avoiding comparisons with Polanco might be a tougher task. Fans have sharp memories. Sizemore’s job is to make them forget the previous guy, the sooner the better.