Leyland ponders lineup possibilities

Leyland ponders lineup possibilities

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When Jim Leyland took over as Tigers manager last fall, he almost immediately began filling out potential starting lineups. A year and an American League pennant later, he's at it again.

While the Tigers sit around quietly and listen to potential trade offers during baseball's Winter Meetings, a restless Leyland has a pen and pad of paper handy trying to figure out how to shuffle his players. He's not using up nearly as much paper this time around, but he has more ideas than others would think for someone who says he doesn't expect his team to make a major move before it leaves town on Friday.

He's trying to figure out what to do for a leadoff hitter. He's looking at what spot best fits Gary Sheffield and where he can best affect the hitters around him. And he needs a way to find at-bats for Marcus Thames if he's still on the team.

"It's a little more subtle than it was," Leyland said of his options.

The leadoff spot is one area he's playing around with. Curtis Granderson spent most of this past season there and figures to return there next year, but his struggles to cut down on strikeouts this past season leave Leyland considering alternatives.

"I ran through some lineups last night," Leyland said on Wednesday afternoon, "and there's a scenario obviously where he is the leadoff guy, and there's another scenario where he's not, if we wanted to go that way, depending on if I want to space out the left-handers."

One option, not surprisingly, is Placido Polanco. The other is Ivan Rodriguez -- the 35-year-old catcher who drove in 69 runs last year and had a .332 on-base percentage despite batting .300.

He's also the guy who went 5-for-12 with three walks in four games leading off in 2006.

"He did a good job," Leyland said.

It's not a likely possibility by any stretch, but part of the reason for Leyland to at least look at Rodriguez is how best to use his ability. The normally impatient Pudge suddenly showed an ability to work the count in the few times he led off, including a 10-pitch walk in his first appearance there in August. He also has some of the better speed on an otherwise slow ballclub.

The question of Pudge and Polanco becomes moot if Granderson progresses as the Tigers hope.

"I think he's got some room to improve in both areas, offensively and defensively," Leyland said. "Obviously, the main thing is to maintain his aggressiveness, cut down on strikeouts -- and that's a little bit of a catch-22 -- but we need him to put the ball in play more often."

The middle of the order has less flux, and it centers on how to revolve Detroit's other run producers around Sheffield. He'll bat third or fourth in Leyland's order, with Ordonez behind him in either case. Carlos Guillen would move up to the third spot if Sheffield's at cleanup or stay at fifth if Ordonez stays fourth. Either scenario has the left-handed-hitting Sean Casey batting sixth.

The scenario with Sheffield third would put right-handed hitters in the second through fourth spots if Granderson is leading off, another sign of how heavily right-handed the Tigers lineup still is. Leyland might avoid batting Guillen and Casey back-to-back to stretch out what left-handed balance they have.

Beyond that, Leyland faces the question of how to find at-bats for Thames, the onetime everyday left fielder turned part-time DH who's now back on the bench. He enjoyed a breakout 2006 season thanks in large part to semi-regular playing time, and Leyland's thinking up how to get those back.

Leyland's best idea at this point is something he considered near season's end -- play him at first base, something he's never done before.

"You have to be creative enough to figure something out," Leyland said. "You have Monroe, Granderson, Ordonez, Sheffield, so I can play Marcus out there some, but obviously, the outfielder is really clogged up. So you get a little creative and you say, 'OK, Casey is a guy that has a little bit of a history of some injuries, so put Marcus over at first base against a left-handed pitcher and occasionally a righty when Casey needs some time off.' He's a big target.

"Is he going to be Vic Power? No, that's not going to happen. ... But this is a guy that hit 26 home runs with 348 at-bats. We're not going to forget about Marcus Thames."

At this point, Leyland's more worried about tinkering with the order and the bullpen than he is about fending off a World Series hangover. When the question came up on Tuesday night, he cut it off in mid-sentence and said, "That's not going to happen."

He wasn't quite that quick in his media session Wednesday, but he was just as adamant. He's not changing his Spring Training routine from when he was getting his players used to his methods last year, other than not to have pitchers fielding practice on the first day of camp so as not to harp on the errors that plagued their Fall Classic.

There's one other difference. As tough as he could be last spring, he wants to be tougher on them now.

"Our main thing is going to be to not come in with a championship hangover," he said. "All that stuff about, 'I'm a veteran now and I know what it takes to get ready, we've won now, I know what it takes,' that's not going to happen. I can tell you that right now. You do that, and that's part of a championship hangover, in my opinion.

"It starts right in Spring Training. We're going to work hard in Spring Training. We're going to work harder this spring than we worked last year, because I think that's where it starts."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.