Tigers Opening Day outlook

Young Tigers ready to roar

Jim Leyland spent Spring Training winning over his players, but it will mean little unless they spend the regular season winning games.

After what Leyland himself called a six-year sabbatical away from managing, there was at least a little question as to how much enthusiasm Leyland could maintain for the profession at age 61 after quitting his last job in Colorado in 1999. He has answered those questions with a passion and attentiveness to detail that some find similar to his younger days in Pittsburgh. That's fine, since this is a younger club he has inherited.

Will that passion be there in the middle of summer if the Tigers are enduring a losing streak and struggling to stay in contention? Leyland himself doesn't know for sure, but the signs suggest he's ready for the long haul. Not only has he talked about staying in Detroit beyond his current two-year contract, he has shown the kind of interest towards prospects that would suggest he plans to be managing the likes of Brent Clevlen and Jordan Tata in a couple of years.

For now, Leyland's challenge is to help current Tigers like Mike Maroth, Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson grow from promising younger players to proven guys entering the prime.

1. Curtis Granderson, CF:
He's a first-time Opening Day starter whose experience as an everyday Major League player consists of a six-week stint at the end of last season. Still, he has won over Leyland the rest of the coaching staff with his work ethic, underrated power, and ability to get on base.

2. Placido Polanco, 2B:
The ultimate second hitter returns to his customary spot after spending much of last summer batting leadoff in Detroit. He might not hit .330 again, but .300 is a reasonable expectation.

3. Ivan Rodriguez, C:
Leyland wants to believe Pudge's offensive struggles last year were a fluke. He hit well with some punch in Spring Training, but he must be disciplined at the plate.

4. Magglio Ordonez, RF:
The gifted bat was there last year after hernia surgery, but the power wasn't. The Tigers need both this season, and his health suggests it's reasonable.

5. Dmitri Young, DH:
Young lost weight in the offseason to try to regain some quickness and versatility. He might not hit .300 again, but .290 with power should give Ordonez some protection.

8. Chris Shelton, 1B:
The former Rule 5 Draft pick will try to follow up the breakout 2005 season that made him Detroit's first baseman of the present and future.

7. Carlos Guillen, SS:
Detroit's best hitter in 2004 struggled with a nagging knee in 2005. Like Ordonez, regaining the power to drive the ball is the difference between a good hitter for average and an offensive weapon.

8. Craig Monroe, LF:
The fact Monroe's hitting in this spot says a lot about the balance in this lineup when everyone's healthy. Detroit's former perennial fourth outfielder has an everyday spot from the outset this year after leading the Tigers in RBIs last season.

9. Brandon Inge, 3B:
Which is the real Inge -- the .300 hitter who batted leadoff for much of the first half last year, or the one who struggled mightily after the All-Star break?

1. Kenny Rogers, LHP:
Not the prototypical ace by any standards, but if he can keep his team in ballgames and give the younger starters after him something to emulate, he'll be a good signing. There might not be a craftier starter in the American League.

2. Jeremy Bonderman, RHP:
Don't let the second status fool you. He's still the staff workhorse, still primed for a breakout season at age 23, and he also breaks up the left-handers in the rotation.

3. Nate Robertson, LHP:
Leyland and his staff see talent in the left-hander who lost 16 games with a bag of unearned runs on his back. Confidence could be the key to returning him to his 2004 form.

4. Mike Maroth, LHP:
His .500 season was one of the Tigers' bright spots last year. If he can keep the ball on the ground while still pitching aggressively, he might creep closer to the Rogers/Jamie Moyer/Tom Glavine category.

5. Justin Verlander, RHP:
The second overall pick in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft won a Major League job with a high-90s fastball and the maturity to mix it up. A 10-win season would be a lot more than Detroit has seen from the bottom of its rotation in years.

Seeing Todd Jones back in a Tigers uniform might seem like a flashback to 2000, but the club will settle for a rerun of his 40-save performance last season. He can throw just about everything at a hitter and finds a way to make it work. He earned the nickname "Roller Coaster" from Ernie Harwell during his last stop in Detroit, but he was signed last December for veteran steadiness.

Jones' signing pushed Fernando Rodney back to setup work, but he showed closer's type stuff during the World Baseball Classic and Spring Training. His fastball-changeup combination is among the best in the American League when he's healthy, and he's showing a lot more confidence in his middle years.

Joel Zumaya went from starting candidate to potentially big-situation reliever by showing he can control a 99-mph fastball and mix it with a nasty looping curve. He could end up being a one-out, big-situation man who can fill 2-3 innings when needed.

Jamie Walker is back for a fifth season as the primary left-hander. Chris Spurling's second-half performance was a well-kept secret, and his slider now has a harder fastball setting it up. Bobby Seay pitched well enough to become the second left-hander out of the bullpen. Jason Grilli is the steady presence in longer outings.

Can key players such as Ordonez, Guillen, Young and Rodriguez stay healthy and keep a potentially clockwork offense intact? In the first three cases, they'll have to overcome their recent histories, but all of them underwent grueling offseason workouts to improve their condition. Rodriguez has been one of baseball's most durable catchers since coming to Detroit, but he had to play through several nagging injuries last year. Now 34 years old, his always-strong conditioning will become more and more critical, and he may have days off forced upon him to keep him fresh.

Leyland has already admitted his team doesn't have the depth to overcome many injuries. The saving grace for him is that he has young hitters near the bottom of the order who hit in big roles last year and could do it again if asked. That's the side benefit of a balanced lineup that doesn't have a glaring weakness if everyone performs as expected.

"There's a lot of talent here. I'm very happy with this ballclub, but we've got a lot of work to do. And in my opinion, one of the things that's gone on in baseball is we all get paid pretty good for mediocrity." -- Jim Leyland

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