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Last season, after 162 games, the Tigers were tied for first place in the AL Central. After nine innings against the Minnesota Twins in Game No. 163, the Tigers were tied 4-4. Three innings later, the season was over as Alexi Casilla drove in Carlos Gomez, and the rebuilding process began anew in the Motor City.
2009 All-Star selections Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson were sent packing to New York and Arizona, respectively. Gold Glove second baseman Placido Polanco became a free agent and was allowed to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies without so much as a fight.
In their place for 2010 will be "the kids" as manager Jim Leyland calls them: Scott Sizemore, Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello, the latter who, at 20 years of age, started that one-game playoff for Detroit last October. There's also "catcher of the future" Alex Avila, but he's either going to spend most of 2010 at Triple-A Toledo, or else learn by watching Gerald Laird from the dugout.
As such, embracing youth is the primary focus of Leyland's spring. "To me there are two keys," Leyland said on MLive.com. "No. 1 is filling out the rotation, and No. 2, the veteran players making it easier for the young players that we're bringing in by having success themselves so the young guys aren't sticking out like a sore thumb if they're not doing well."
So, which one of these kids is going to have the most fantasy impact this season?
It's unlikely to be either of the hitters. Certainly, both Austin Jackson and Sizemore will be in the starting lineup, but with no major league at-bats between them, there's going to be a mountainous learning curve to overcome at least at some point during the season.
|Austin Jackson was the key to the Curtis Granderson trade with the Yankees.|
Jackson will likely come out of the gate the stronger of the two newcomers. He'll lead off and play center field, and the plan is for him to use his speed to leg out those infield hits and help open up the holes for veteran Johnny Damon in the No. 2 hole. In a tuneup against the Rays this past Sunday, Jackson hit two triples to raise his spring average to .429 and scored three times.
Although Sizemore will likely be a regular at second base for Detroit, there's some concern as to whether or not he'll be physically able to play several days in a row. He had a severe left ankle fracture that required surgery in the offseason and only recently had some of the metal pins removed. Several others remain, quite possibly permanently.
"It is a little surreal," Sizemore said on the team's official Web site, "to think that you have something like that in your body. It's easy to forget. And then you just move the wrong way one time, and it's a short, quick reminder that it's still in there and it's still not right."
Still, it's on the mound that the Tigers are truly hoping they've got some solid support to follow up in the rotation behind Justin Verlander. One of the players the team got in return for Edwin Jackson was Max Scherzer, who has shown flashes of brilliance already this spring, but also demonstrated he's got a long way to go to be relied on for consistency.
Scherzer allowed only one hit and struck out five in four innings against the Mets on Saturday, March 13. However, his previous two outings were, in a word, hideous. In just more than two innings pitched, he allowed eight runs on 10 hits. It's symptomatic of the same kind of erratic inconsistency that had the Diamondbacks so willing to part ways with Scherzer in the first place.
Last season, the young right-hander closed out the season going 0-3 in his final four starts, allowing six home runs and posting an ERA of 4.24. Despite a 9.2 K/9 for the season, there's only so much a team can take from a No. 3 starter. We expect Detroit will find that out for itself sooner rather than later.
No, it's clear that the best of the bunch is the one who was already wearing the Detroit uniform the last time the Tigers took the field: Rick Porcello. After all, even though he's not getting any of the same hype as Washington's No. 1 overall pick, Stephen Strasburg, Porcello is actually younger (by five months) and already has 14 career wins.
More importantly, Porcello is a pitcher, and not a thrower. Most of the fantasy phenoms are the ones who possess the 90-plus mph fastballs and the gaudy strikeout rates; like new teammate Scherzer, perhaps? However, Porcello is equipped with a deadly sinkerball and this season, the leash is off.
As Leyland told the Detroit Free Press, he doesn't plan on holding the pitcher to a strict pitch count as he did in 2009. With a little more room for error, expect Porcello to relax a bit more on the mound, and boost his strikeout totals, as well.
Porcello will take the mound for the Tigers' home opener on Friday, April 9 against the Cleveland Indians, a statement to the hometown fans, as well as the rest of the league, that he's not a rookie anymore. It wouldn't surprise us to see Porcello becoming every bit the All-Star that Edwin Jackson was last season; the only difference being that he'll be one the Tigers won't be willing to trade away come season's end.
Get him while the price is still cheap, because something tells us the cat will be soon out of the bag.AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can follow AJ on Twitter or e-mail him here.