March 1, 2014 at 7:10 pm

Lynn Henning

Toledo capable of providing help Tigers almost certainly will need

Lakeland, Fla. – Notes, thoughts, items as the Tigers head into the third week of spring camp:

The Tigers will need Triple-A Toledo to hatch some help this year – and next.

That might not be a bad ticket to own in 2014, a pass to Mud Hens games at Fifth Third Field. Last year’s fairly lousy lineup has dissolved. The new crew hints at having more pizzazz.

Assuming Jose Iglesias makes it back from his shin splints and resumes his Tigers shifts at shortstop, Hernan Perez will be working at second base. Eugenio Suarez, James McCann, Daniel Fields, Tyler Collins, Jordan Lennerton – the batting order will be credible, more so than in 2013, when you had Nick Castellanos and Lennerton and not a whole lot more.

Larry Parrish, back for a second life as Mud Hens manager, should get a boost from his starting pitchers. And that’s critical for a team in Detroit that needs back-up muscle from Toledo to help the Tigers’ five-man corps withstand inevitable aches and pains that, almost freakishly, rarely showed up in 2013.

In that spirit, it would be handy if Drew VerHagen, a tall right-hander from Vanderbilt who has been incubating the past two years in Detroit’s farmlands, develops at the pace displayed since he was drafted two years ago.

Same for Kyle Lobstein, a left-hander Detroit grabbed via the 2012 Rule 5 draft and subsequently held when the Tigers dealt a quality catching prospect, Curt Casali, to Tampa Bay. Lobstein started Saturday and pitched like a 24-year-old who could either bail out a big-league rotation in a spot start or soon crack some team’s fivesome.

“Command was really good,” Brad Ausmus, the Tigers’ new skipper, said after Saturday’s game, which saw the Tigers beat Houston, 5-1, and Lobstein throw three hitless innings, with four strikeouts.

It would help, also, if Robbie Ray proves during his Mud Hens apprenticeship why the Tigers wanted him as their prime cut in the trade of Doug Fister to Washington.

These players, all of them, should have a stake in what happens in Detroit this season and in 2015. They can either fill roster needs Ausmus and his boss, Dave Dombrowski, confront in the short and long term. Or, if the kids and their skill sets mature, they acquire luster and find their way into one of those annual July deadline deals or December swaps in which Dombrowski specializes.

Look now at 2015 and a future Tigers shopping list. It probably begins in right field with a safari to replace Torii Hunter and his expiring contract. The Tigers would appreciate if Collins or Fields (probably better-suited to left or center field) at least offers an option for right. Otherwise, figure on right field heading Dombrowski’s shopping list when free agents and trade flesh are inspected once a long 2014 season ends, the Tigers hope, very late in October.

No longer is 100 mph baseball’s new frontier.

Sometimes you have to stop and think about how much pitching has changed in slightly more than a decade. Fifteen years ago, the number of big-league pitchers who threw 95 mph or harder could be counted on the fingers of a fielder’s glove.

They were that rare.

Now, 100 mph, which was Joel Zumaya’s legacy after he arrived in Detroit eight years ago, is the gold standard. Each league has a handful of guys who crack 100, while 95-97 is more the cruising speed for hard throwers who are either stuffed into the back end of most teams’ bullpens or own a spot or two in a typical big-league rotation.

Why the dramatic difference in a game where power and physiques, unless affected by something as phony as the steroid era, tend to evolve slowly in professional sports?

“Because the money changed,” Ausmus said during a Baseball Tonight-style discussion Friday in his chambers within Marchant Stadium’s clubhouse. “You’ve got pitching coaches at the age of 11. You’ve got travel teams. Better pitchers. Stronger arms.

“The money’s better, so they work at it. They train harder.”

The conversation Friday, which centered on how velocity jumped in such short time, also dealt with “movement” on pitches.

You hear it all the time: “He throws 99, but it’s a straight 99.”

Not exactly, Ausmus argues. The skipper, who spent 18 seasons behind a big-league plate and who also knows his physics, realizes pitches at a high speed don’t dash and dart with the curvature of slower ones. The difference – the so-called “straight ball” illusion – has to do more with a pitcher’s release.

“Some guys throw 95, or 97, but they show the ball,” Ausmus said, explaining how Roger Clemens was a fire-thrower whose pitches were doubly cruel because they were difficult to pick up until Clemens finished his delivery.

On the flip side was Matt Anderson, a 100-mph man the Tigers took as the first overall draft pick in 1997. He was one of those lightning-throwers whose pitches were more easily seen even before they left his hand. Many times, you also saw them leave the bat at warp speed.

Power in any sport is fascinating. The fact pitch-velocity has become dramatically more dynamic since the 1990s, minus performance-enhancers, is one of the game’s least appreciated storylines.

How long before Miguel Cabrera is extended?

Don’t be surprised if something happens as early as this spring. In a way different from their Max Scherzer deliberations, the Tigers will want to lock up Cabrera, and soon.

His contract runs through 2015. The Tigers have a civil working relationship with Cabrera’s agent, Fernando Cuza, who unlike Scherzer’s man, Scott Boras, is more receptive to extensions ahead of free agency.

The Tigers understand Cabrera, more than Scherzer, is an imperative as they size up the next five years and beyond. Cabrera is a hitter. And hitters tend to be safer bets than pitchers as the two skill sets are measured beyond age 30.

Assuming that Scherzer heads to free agency at the end of this season, the Tigers will want to blunt any wrath over a failed contract extension with the festive announcement that the best hitter in all of baseball will remain in Motown for another five seasons or more.

Nothing has yet spilled from the always-quiet Tigers negotiating room. But understanding the factors working against extensions for both Scherzer and Cabrera, expect the Tigers to make good on keeping their resident Most Valuable Player in Motown at least into his twilight years.

Drew VerHagen delivers in the fifth inning of the Tigers' triumph over the Astros on Saturday. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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