PLAYER TO WATCH
There have not been many players who have gotten as much out of what looked like limited skills as Detroit's new leftfielder, Johnny Damon. Here is a guy who did not even hit .300 during his senior year in high school, and who came into the big leagues in 1995 with a weak arm and an awkward swing. And now? Damon is within reach of 3,000 hits, 500 doubles, 100 triples, 250 homers and 400 stolen bases. The complete list of players with that set of numbers: nobody.
Based on his career averages Damon, 36, would need a little more than three seasons to get the necessary 575 hits, 49 doubles, five triples, 43 home runs and 26 steals. But he has a contract only for 2010. The Tigers, looking for a spark in their lineup, signed the free agent in February for $8 million after the Yankees wouldn't meet his reported asking price of $13 million per year.
Having lost its leadoff and number two hitters, centerfielder Curtis Granderson and second baseman Placido Polanco, respectively, Detroit will try rookie Austin Jackson in center and at the top of the order, with Damon hitting behind him. Damon's job will be to get on base for sluggers Magglio Ordo√±ez, Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Guillen. "I think everybody more or less knows what I can do," says Damon, who last year had the fourth-highest OPS (.854) of his 15-year career. The question is, How much longer can he keep doing it?
Strikeouts by Justin Verlander last year, the most by an AL pitcher since 2000 and 47% more than the righty's previous high (183). It's not just that Verlander threw more innings (240, 38 1/3 above his previous best). His K rate (10.1 per nine IP) was 2.1 better than his career average.
Austin Jackson impressed manager Jim Leyland and the rest of the Tigers' staff by hitting .358 in the first 17 games of Grapefruit League play. He spent much of that time batting leadoff, a role he, rather than free-agent signing Johnny Damon, will fill when the season opens. It's a mistake for Detroit to put that much responsibility on Jackson, who despite a big three weeks in Florida may not yet have it in him to reach base enough to be a leadoff hitter. His walk rate dropped when he jumped from Double A to Triple A a year ago, and his high strikeout rate—22.1% of his plate appearances last year—will make it hard for him to sustain the .300 batting average he'll need to have a good enough OBP for a leadoff man. Jackson's development will be enhanced if the Tigers bat him seventh or lower until he shows that he's able to hit in the majors.
WITH 2009 STATISTICS
Manager Jim Leyland
5TH SEASON WITH TIGERS
0 0 3.79 1.52
*Triple A stats
OLD RELIABLE Newcomer Damon, 36, brings stability to the top of the order.