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Prince Fielder and ‘Tigers vs. Mud Hens’ exhibition

The big news at the Mud Hens Fandemonium in downtown Toledo was the sudden and unexpected loss of Detroit Tigers’ star Victor Martinez for the year with an off-season ACL tear.

The fluke injury was terrible luck for the Tigers. Martinez, who batted .330 and had 103 RBIs, provided clutch hitting and protection for Tigers’ star Miguel Cabrera. Tigers’ manager and Perrysburg native Jim Leyland did his best to find the positives.

Fandemonium-2012-002
Perrysburg native Jim Leyland. (Press photo by A.J. Szozda)

“The bright side is this is an opportunity for somebody…Whoever hits behind Cabrera has a chance to have a hell of a year,” says Leyland.

Tigers third base coach Gene Lamont added, “Nobody has someone like him sitting around. It happened so close to the season. (General Manager) Dave (Dombrowski) will figure something out, I’m sure.”

Lamont was right. ‘Dave’ figured something out. Welcome Prince Fielder.

A couple days after the event, Dombrowski shocked the baseball world by signing the top free agent on the market to a nine-year, $214 million contract. The Tigers weren’t even mentioned amongst the interested teams, but jumped in late to the negotiations and came away with one the best young hitters in the game today.

Fielder hit .299 with 38 home runs and 120 RBI last year with the Milwaukee Brewers. Look even further, and he had 107 walks, a .415 on base percentage and a .566 slugging percentage. Or to put it another way, he was second in all of baseball in RBI, fifth in HR, fourth in OBP and fifth in slugging. He’s only 27-years-old and in the prime of his career.

Being a left-handed hitter, Fielder fits perfectly into the Tigers’ lineup behind Cabrera giving the Tigers the best clean-up hitting duo in the game. They go along with the best starter in the game, Justin Verlander, and according to last year’s performance, the best reliever in the game, Jose Valverde. It’s an exciting time to be a Tigers’ fan. Never in my lifetime have the Tigers had this many premier players on one team.

However, at the Fandemonium Leyland was quick to serve up some humble pie to keep perspective.

“When you win 95 games, you’ve got a lot of guys that had huge years. Whether they can repeat that is anybody’s guess,” says Leyland.

His point is valid. Several Tigers had career seasons last year. Verlander won the Cy Young Award and MVP, winning 24 games. Valverde never blew a save the entire year — a perfect 49-for-49. Jhonny Peralta had his best year of his career hitting .299 with 21 HR and 86 RBI. Alex Avila surpassed everyone’s expectations by breaking out and becoming an all-star, hitting .295 with 19 HR and 82 RBI.

Dombrowski had missed on some late season acquisitions in the past, but not last year. His two big pick-ups, Doug Fister and Delmon Young, were perfect fits for the Tigers and return this season to give the team a lift.

Tigers’ pitcher Duane Below summed up last season this way, “The team was special last year. It was special to be a part of that and that’s something I’ll always remember.”

Also at Fandemonium was the Tigers’ most versatile player, Don Kelly, who uses five different gloves and played all nine positions last year.

Kelly reflected about the season this way, “You think when you get to the big leagues it’s the pinnacle of the game, but when you get to the playoffs it’s a whole other level. And we only made it to the ALCS. I can’t imagine the World Series.”

One of the big questions that remain for the Tigers is who is going to be the fifth starter. They still may look to acquire a veteran or they may look within. Two of the top candidates were both at Fandemonium — Jacob Turner and Duane Below.

Turner, a first-round pick, has the tools of being 6-foot-5 with a mid-90s mile per hour fastball. He was rated as the 15th best prospect in all of baseball. But he is only 20-years-old and has only three big league starts under his belt.

“Obviously there is an open spot right now and that’s all you ask for. They’re going to take whoever wins them games. I don’t think there’s any extra pressure. You’re just trying to do the same thing as everybody else, trying to get better and make the club,” says Turner.

Below, along with Andy Oliver, gives the Tigers a left-handed option on a starting staff full of right-handers.

“I’m just going to watch and try to learn from Verlander and Fister and keep working hard to get better every day. Just watching how Justin goes about each hitter. I need to be able to throw any pitch for a strike at any time in the count. The cutter is a big pitch for me to be able to get in on righties.” says Below.

Pitching coach Jeff Jones says the focus for young pitchers like these two guys is control.

“The biggest thing for being successful at the big league level is being able to control your fastball. Especially down and away,” Jones explained.

There is more good news for Toledo’s Detroit Tiger fans. This year, the Tigers are coming down to play the Toledo Mud Hens in an exhibition game on April 4 at Fifth Third Field.

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