Youth serves Tigers well in first half
Leyland happy with early returns, but wants stars to step up
DETROIT -- The Tigers began the season as the story of a team that mortgaged much of the farm to win now. Little more than halfway into this season, they still have a chance to win, in part because the farm wasn't as barren as it seemed to be.
Six of Detroit's top 10 prospects from Baseball America's 2007 rankings left the organization in the two offseason trades that brought in Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and Edgar Renteria. The message going into this season was clear: If the Tigers are going to win, it's going to be on the strength of its big league roster and its star-studded cast.
That's still pretty much the case, and manager Jim Leyland admits they won't win without their big guys making major contributions. But they wouldn't have a chance if not for the young talent that came up during Detroit's injury-plagued struggles and showed they're better than advertised.
After all the deals shook out, Michael Hollimon, Jeff Larish and Matt Joyce were the fourth, fifth and seventh-ranked prospects this past offseason, but neither Clete Thomas nor Brent Clevlen was on the list. Armando Galarraga wasn't on the Tigers' top-30 list, let alone the top 10, having come over in a Minor League deal during the Winter Meetings. Eddie Bonine was at the back end of the rotation at Triple-A Toledo, not even on the 40-man roster.
All of them have been Major Leaguers this year, and all of them have made an important contribution at some point. And at various points, the Tigers have needed it. They're a healthier club now, but they'll still need help if they're to join the AL Central race for the stretch run.
"That's why it's called a team," Leyland said.
Perhaps no story was as surprising as Galarraga, himself an offseason acquisition who came over in a Minor League trade with the Texas Rangers. Given the depth of starting pitching in the Tigers system a year ago, he would've been overlooked when Detroit needed a fill-in starter a week into the season if Detroit still had Andrew Miller, Jair Jurrjens, Dallas Trahern and Burke Badenhop.
Instead, with the Tigers short on insurance starters, Galarraga got the call when Willis hyperextended his right knee. Three months later, Galarraga holds a critical spot in Detroit's rotation after ace Justin Verlander and veteran stalwart Kenny Rogers.
"If you can throw more than one pitch for strikes," Leyland said, "you've got a chance."
The same philosophy goes for Bonine, who got the call to Detroit out of necessity after Willis' command problems landed him in Class A Lakeland and Jeremy Bonderman was shelved with a circulation problem in his shoulder.
|TIGERS TOP PERFORMANCES|
4/22, DET 10, TEX 2 -- Power returns
Ramon Santiago hits his first home run since 2003 in a big win.
5/7, DET 10, BOS 9 -- Polanco connects on walk-off
Placido Polanco hits a broken-bat single off Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon to give the Tigers a come-from-behind win in the bottom of the ninth.
6/12, DET 2, CWS 1 -- Walk-off seals sweep of White Sox
Miguel Cabrera's walk-off home run completed a three-game sweep of the White Sox and marked his first game-winning homer in a Tigers uniform.
6/17, DET 5, SF 1 -- Thames' homer run
Marcus Thames' 465-foot shot gives him homers in five straight games, which ties a Tigers record.
6/28, DET 7, COL 6/a> -- Cabrera delivers in walk-off
Miguel Cabrera notches his second walk-off hit in a Tigers uniform to give his team a come-from-behind win over the Rockies.
Bonine's back-to-back quality starts against the Padres and Rockies played an underrated role in the Tigers' 16-3 run through the end of June, which vaulted them back within sight of the AL Central leaders.
Simply getting innings out of those two starters is a benefit for a team whose bullpen depth can shorten games on most nights. The fact that the two rookies delivered quality, efficient innings is a bonus.
Each time Detroit has had to deal with a positional issue, it has usually been able to reach into the farm system. Thomas made enough of an impression on Leyland filling in for injured Curtis Granderson that he stuck with the club once Granderson returned. A shot-in-the-dark decision to call up Joyce and release Jacque Jones in early May brought some left-handed punch to the lineup. Joyce was named the AL Player of the Week on Monday, and he remains on the Tigers roster with Magglio Ordonez's expected return from the DL on Thursday.
Add in Larish, who filled in for an injured Gary Sheffield, and Hollimon, brought up after Ramon Santiago separated his left shoulder, and the Tigers have found some previously elusive left-handed balance from within for what had been a heavily right-handed lineup.
Leyland doesn't believe in clubhouse chemistry, but he does believe the young group has brought energy that the team needed.
"You have four left-handed hitters," Leyland said, including the switch-hitting Hollimon, "and they might be able at some point in the not-too-distant future to make the jump. I'm not talking about tomorrow. I don't know about next year. But I'm talking about how I like what I see. I like it a lot."
It leaves the future looking significantly brighter for Detroit as it moves forward with this season and starts to consider its roster for 2009. Still, Leyland isn't going to look to his youngsters as go-to guys quite yet.
"The fact of the matter is," Leyland said, "other people have to step up."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.