Toledo Mud Hens fans will have to get used to some new names in their game programs this year as the team tries to win back the Governors’ Cup.
Among those names are some of the Detroit Tigers’ top prospects, while others return to Toledo after brief cameos last year or prior stays at Fifth Third Field like Jeff Larish, Eddie Bonine and Max St. Pierre.
Even the manager, Larry Parrish, is returning after a year away from the dugout following ankle surgery. And the pitching coach, A.J. Sager, is coming back to the city where he found collegiate success in football and baseball.
Gone are Eulogio De La Cruz, Jair Jurrjens, Chris Shelton and Kevin Hooper. Jurrjens was part of the trade that brought shortstop Edgar Renteria from Atlanta to the Tigers, while De La Cruz was sent to Florida in the deal that made Tigers of third baseman Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis. Shelton was traded to Texas for speedy outfielder Freddy Guzman, who is likely to start in centerfield for the Hens. And fan-favorite Hooper decided to sign first with the Houston Astros, then with the new Wichita Wingnuts of the independent American Association. Hooper is from Kansas and was an All-American at Wichita State University. So Hens fans will have to do without the cries of “Hoooooop!” during games this year.
“It’s going to be crazy to be back in the city where I love all these fans,” Hooper told The Wichita Eagle in February.
While the Cabrera/Willis trade gave Detroit one of the strongest lineups in franchise history, it also had repercussions for the Hens roster this season. The two main Tigers sent to the Marlins, pitcher Andrew Miller and outfielder Cameron Maybin, probably would have spent some time in Toledo this season. Instead, they could both be on Florida’s opening day roster, and Cabrera and Willis being in Detroit probably pushed a player or two back to Toledo.
Pitching was the Hens’ strength last year, and should be again this year, as they return a veteran staff. Virgil Vasquez, 24, was 12-5 for the Hens last year, but he’s back because Detroit’s starting rotation is stacked with veterans. Macay McBride was acquired from Atlanta last year for Wil Ledezma. While McBride, 25, was used mostly in relief last year, he’ll be a starter for the Hens, a role he once had in Atlanta’s farm system.
Bonine and Chris Lambert each had impressive debuts with Toledo last year. Bonine allowed two runs over eight innings in a spot start against Columbus in August, and Lambert pitched the regular season finale, throwing six shutout innings while striking out 10 Clippers. Lambert, 25, was acquired last year from St. Louis for lefty Mike Maroth. A 2004 draftee out of Boston College, he moved up steadily through the Cardinals’ system before having a rough time in 2005 and 2006 at Double-A Springfield. Last year, he made the step up to Triple-A Memphis and got lit up for a 7.49 ERA before being traded to the Tigers and making the one end-of-season start.
Bonine, 26, was drafted by Detroit from San Diego in the minor league portion of the 2005 Rule 5 draft. He was used as a swingman mostly at High-A Lakeland in 2006, then was exclusively a starter last year with Erie and Toledo. He had his best year as a pro last year, going 14-5 with a 3.90 ERA at Erie with a pair of complete games. He’s not overpowering, but he keeps the ball in the park.
Rounding out the rotation to start the year should be Armando Galarraga, another former Texas Rangers farmhand. The Tigers got him a week before spring training started in a trade for outfielder Michael Hernandez. Galarraga, 26, made his major league debut last year after starting the year at Double-A. He made two relief appearances before starting Sept. 24 against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He threw four no-hit innings then gave up five runs and had a no-decision as Texas won 8-7.
Jordan Tata, 26, probably would’ve been in the rotation, but he’ll start the season on the disabled list after breaking a finger punching a door in frustration this spring. Tata had a fine 3.05 ERA in 14 starts for Toledo last year, but his record was only 4-5, in part because he received the second-lowest run support — 4.2 runs per start — of all the Hens’ regular starters.
Based on recent results, Clay Rapada, 27, appears to be Parrish’s best option as closer. Rapada, acquired last year from the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Craig Monroe, had 17 saves last year for the Iowa Cubs. He also had 21 saves in 2006 for Double-A West Tennessee. With the Tigers he’d likely be a lefty specialist, but in the minors he’s shown he can be a late-innings guy, averaging almost a strikeout an inning.
Francis Beltran, who pitched at Norfolk last year, also has some closing experience, including one major league save in 2004 for Montreal. But the 28-year-old tends to get hit around a little, so he might be more like Todd Jones or Joe Borowski. If Parrish feels like taking a roller coaster ride, Beltran might be his guy to close.
Jeremy Johnson, 25, Preston Larrison, 27, and Anastacio Martinez, 29, return to form the middle relief corps. None is particularly dominant, but all three were effective last year.
If he ever gets his visa problems cleared, Francisco Cruceta, 26, also is considered a late-inning reliever. The Tigers won a bit of a bidding war for him, signing him to a split major/minor league contract during the off-season. Cruceta, who is stuck in the Dominican Republic, was thought to be a possibility for the Tigers’ bullpen, especially after Joel Zumaya’s shoulder injury, but he’ll probably end up being assigned to extended spring training after missing so much time because of not having a visa approved.
Cruceta was a rare minor league free agent the Tigers were able to sign, highlighting one of the problems of the parent club having a rather set 25-man roster.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland acknowledged at the Hens’ Fandemonium event in January that the club was having trouble attracting free agents to Toledo.
“When they look at our team – they want to see hope” they’ll have a shot at the majors, he said.
The team has a good mix of speed and batting averages and should be sound defensively. The Hens could have power from first and third base, depending if 2007 International League MVP Mike Hessman makes the Tigers. If he’s back at the hot corner with Toledo, he and first baseman Larish, 25, will form a right-left punch in the middle of Parrish’s line-up.
Hessman, 30, last year pounded 31 homers for the Hens, setting a new Toledo career record with 83. Larish, meanwhile, led the Eastern League with 28 home runs. Whether the team can pound opponents into submission depends if Hessman is back and if Larish successfully adjusts to Triple-A pitching. He did fine moving up from High-A to Double-A so it would be surprising if he couldn’t handle the higher competition.
Leading off will likely be Guzman, who led the Pacific Coast League last season with 56 steals. Timo Perez, 32, returns and will likely be back in left field, where he earned all-star honors last year. He’s a good bet for the third spot in the lineup.
At second base, Parrish probably will have a choice between Michael Hollimon and Henry Mateo. Hollimon, 25, is a slick-glove man with a good, all-around bat, compiling a .278 career batting average with a .379 on-base percentage and .501 slugging percentage.
Mateo, 31, has a bit more position flexibility, being able to play all infield and outfield positions so he’s more likely to be the Hens’ main utility guy.
If Hessman isn’t back in Toledo, Mateo could be at third or he could be at shortstop with Erick Almonte, 30, at third. If Hessman is back, Almonte would probably be the shortstop. After never being much of a hitter in the minors, Almonte has been a solid hitter — not for power, but for good averages and on-base percentages — since his year at Colorado Springs in 2004.
In right field, Parrish will probably have Brent Clevlen, who will be trying to show his forgettable 2007 season was a fluke caused by a broken finger. A good season would put the 24-year-old back in line to take over left or right field for the Tigers in 2009.
Other outfield options will probably include Jason Perry, Clete Thomas and Matt Joyce. Perry, 27, can hit for power; Joyce, 24, has some pop and is excellent in the field; and Thomas, 24, is a line-drive hitter with good command of the strike zone.
Catcher remains unsettled as spring training comes to an end, again because the Tigers are unclear on who will back up Ivan Rodriguez. Last year, the Tigers called up Mike Rabelo to take the injured Vance Wilson’s spot on the 25-man roster. Wilson is still recovering from elbow surgery, and Rabelo was traded to the Marlins so the Tigers could end up taking Dane Sardinha, 28, or St. Pierre, 27. Neither are good hitters and both are decent defensive catchers. St. Pierre returns to the Tigers system this year after nearly washing out of baseball because of alcoholism, according to a story in The Detroit News.
If the Tigers do take Sardinha or St. Pierre, Nick Trzesniak, 27, could bring his solid bat with him from Erie.