Leyland excited about Tigers, ready for spring

Leyland excited about Tigers, ready for spring

Leyland excited about Tigers, ready for spring
TOLEDO, Ohio -- Jim Leyland beat the Tigers Winter Caravan to Fifth Third Field on Wednesday. He drove here from his home in Pittsburgh and visited family in the area.

He talked to reporters shortly after he arrived and sounded like he's ready to make the trip to Lakeland, Fla., for Spring Training.

"I think every manager and every player gets the same kind of feeling this time of year," Leyland said Wednesday night at the Mud Hens' annual Fandemonium event. "I don't think it's any [different]. You do it for a long time and you know this time of year, you're about getting ready to go back to work.

"Am I excited about our team? Yeah, I think we have a good team. I really do. I know we have a good team. I don't think there's any question about that. We have a good team."

Leyland said much the same thing later to fans in a question-and-answer session. Now that the Tigers have wrapped up their offseason additions with the signing of Brad Penny, it's a team with a roster that appears largely set.

It is not, however, a roster without questions. And Leyland has long since been pondering which questions might come up.

Leyland, not surprisingly, likes the addition of Penny -- if they can keep him healthy.

"Like I've always said, it doesn't always happen that the best pitching staff wins," Leyland said. "A lot of times, it's the healthiest. If we can run him out there and keep him healthy and keep [Justin] Verlander, [Max] Scherzer and [Phil] Coke and those guys healthy ..."

Leyland talked to his good friend, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, about Penny's time there last year, and about the lat injury that never quite seemed to heal. But Leyland also looked at the way Penny was pitching before the injury, the effectiveness he provided, and liked what he saw.

Pitching coach Rick Knapp said he didn't know a lot about Penny, but believes he has the potential to be more than a fifth starter if he's healthy and effective.

Penny's physical, and the reports from the team's medical staff, spur confidence that he'll be ready. Leyland is already anticipating the question of whether second baseman Carlos Guillen will be the same.

It's a question on which Tigers officials have gone back and forth at times over the course of the offseason. Right now, Leyland is taking a classic managerial outlook: He's hoping for the best, and planning for the worst.

"I don't think he's going to be ready to start the season," Leyland said. "I don't think [so], but I don't want to put the cart before the horse."

That doesn't mean any medical relevation. It doesn't even mean a setback, which Guillen has not had, according to a source. But as it is, Guillen's road back does not leave a lot of room for him to have a setback and still be ready for Opening Day. Thus, the Tigers have to be prepared.

"We're hoping he's going to be part of the mix at second," Leyland said. "He could be a big key for us. He won't be until he's ready to play, obviously. But out of all the positions, that's one where we're pretty comfortable [with], because we're pretty solid. I mean, we've got some choices -- [Will] Rhymes, [Danny] Worth, [Scott] Sizemore, [Ramon] Santiago. [Ryan] Raburn could play second if he had to. We're pretty deep there, really."

Who starts the season at second base, Leyland said, will impact who hits second in the lineup. Leyland doesn't know yet who will do that. He said Wednesday he'd like to add some speed in that spot to complement second-year leadoff man Austin Jackson.

Leyland is also preparing for the strong possibility he'll want to pinch-run for starting catcher Alex Avila in the later innings of some close games when Victor Martinez is the designated hitter. If Leyland pulls Avila and puts Martinez behind the plate, he loses the designated hitter and would have to pinch-hit somebody for the pitcher the next time up. But Leyland said they will not carry a third catcher.

Leyland isn't completely sure how he'll handle it, but he wants to create a third catcher of sorts just in case.

"[Don] Kelly's going to do some catching in Spring Training," Leyland said. "When I say that, I'm not talking about catching three innings every day or every other day. Just get him used to it, so we can feel comfortable if we have to put him in there."

Raburn could also fill the role, Leyland said. Brandon Inge and his surgically repaired knees will not.

Leyland has about six weeks of Spring Training during which to figure all that out. He has about three weeks before he heads down there. He sounds pretty close to ready.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.