Arizona could open doors for Larish

Arizona could open doors for Larish

DETROIT -- Jeff Larish wasn't about to complain a week ago when the Tigers' season-ending makeup game against the White Sox extended his season by a day.

"It's another day I'm in the big leagues," he said.

Besides, Larish's season was already slated to last a little longer. How the slugging prospect takes to the next several weeks in the Arizona Fall League could help increase his time in the Majors next year.

When Larish made his Major League debut this past May as an injury fill-in for Gary Sheffield, he was an extra left-handed bat for a predominantly right-handed-hitting Tigers offense. With Miguel Cabrera playing every day at first base, however, Larish's time was almost entirely limited to starts at designated hitter. He played all of one inning at first base from the time he arrived until he was optioned back to Triple-A Toledo four weeks later.

Manager Jim Leyland openly discussed the idea of having Larish get some work at third base back in the Minors. Once Larish rejoined the Tigers in July and again in late August, the extra versatility earned him more frequent time in the starting lineup down the stretch, especially with Carlos Guillen out for September. The extra time, in turn, helped Larish relax and look more comfortable as a hitter. He finished with a .260 average, six doubles, two home runs and 16 RBIs in 42 games for the Tigers, striking out 34 times and walking seven.

Larish's second straight year in the Arizona Fall League is meant to continue that transition. He's expected to play a little at both corner infield spots for the Mesa Solar Sox, and he was the designated hitter for their opener Tuesday.

It should be a good test of the versatility Larish could need to crack the big league roster behind Cabrera and starting third baseman Brandon Inge. It's also the versatility the Tigers could use out of a left-handed hitter.

"If we felt like he was ready and felt like he could do it, would that be a possibility? Yeah," Leyland said. "A left-handed-hitting first baseman, left-handed-hitting third baseman, when both the [starting] first baseman and third baseman are right-handed hitters? Absolutely. But is he ready for that? I don't know. I can't answer that."

Larish can't completely answer that in the AFL, either. But he has the chance to frame the question going into Spring Training.

He was a regular third baseman during his college days at Arizona State, so the position isn't foreign to him. With his 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame, he projected in the pros at first base, which is what the Tigers intended when they surprisingly found him available in the fifth round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft.

His league-leading 28 home runs and 101 RBIs at Double-A Erie earned him Tigers Minor League Player of the Year honors in 2007, and he followed that with 21 homers and 64 RBIs in 103 games for Toledo this year. With more work, he could provide the lefty power the Tigers have sought in some kind of role for the last few years, but the Tigers have to find a way to use him.

Using him at the hot corner down the stretch was a kick for him.

"I've loved every minute of it," Larish said a couple of weeks ago. "I enjoyed being over there, and never would've thought that I'd be playing third in the big leagues, that's for sure."

As fun as it has been, he still has a serious approach to it. As natural as third base feels to Larish at times, he's trying to make the reads and first reactions to give him an extra step. He made two errors in 12 games at third this season, but just as important will be how many ground balls he can reach in a position where quickness is key.

Leyland cautioned not to expect too much, but team officials hope to see enough to stick him at third on occasion. Considering Inge's record of durability at third, it might not be often, but it could be valuable for offensive punch.

"I think the big thing for me is just getting those game situations, getting that game experience," Larish said, "because my first reaction's a little bit slow right now, I feel. And [improving] just comes with getting that experience in a game. So it'll be good to just get there and get some more games under my belt."

Beyond that, Larish will try to take some of what he learned on hitting in his big league time and put it into practice with regular at-bats. Those plate appearances weren't frequent in Detroit, but the way he handled his time on the bench made an equal impression on Leyland.

"Larish has done nothing but put his nose to the grindstone," Leyland said as the season wound down. "I think he's been probably the most observant player we've had in the last few weeks, and I think it's paying off for him. I think he's got talent. I like him.

"I like what I've seen. I like guys that figure things out and are smart, and I think Jeff Larish is smart."

Larish's certainly smart enough to know that this could be a useful fall for him.

"I'm doing whatever I can to stay [in the Majors]," Larish said, "wherever they want to stick me, as long as I'm on the field, as long as I'm playing."

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