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Published: Wednesday, 4/2/2003

Hens defend IL West title under new/old manager

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

The question marks surrounding the makeup of the Detroit Tigers will directly affect the 2003 roster of the Toledo Mud Hens, but one thing seems clear - more than a few position players have major league experience.

“Things are settling down, but [our roster] definitely is not set,” Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish said a week before the Tigers made their final cuts. “There are still some guys over there who have a chance to be with us.”

But that uncertainty hasn't stopped Parrish and his staff - pitching coach Jeff Jones and hitting coach Leon Durham - from making some early decisions about the club heading into this season.

For example, the team's lineup already is taking shape. And the one thing Parrish is sure of is that it is very flexible. “We have some guys who are versatile,” he said.

That versatility means, for example, the first-base position may be split between Kevin Witt, Kevin Barker and former Hen Derek Nicholson.

Last season, Witt led the International League in RBIs with 107. Barker is a former Brewer prospect who hit 23 homers for Louisville in both 1998 and '99. Nicholson had 58 RBIs in just 89 Toledo games last year

Witt also has worked out at third base. Barker and Nicholson have played in the outfield. All three should see some action as the designated hitter.

The rest of the infield should include Warren Morris, who spent two seasons with the Pirates, at second base, forming a double-play combination with Danny Klassen, who has spent time with the Diamondbacks.

Former Hen Tom Evans, who spent most of the past two seasons playing in Japan, should see regular action at third base.

In the outfield Parrish can use Craig Monroe, Ernie Young and Cody Ross. Monroe finished among the IL batting leaders last season with a .321 mark, while Young had 14 homers in just 48 games for Tucson a year ago.

Ross, one of the top position players in the Detroit organization, hit 19 home runs at Double-A Erie in 2002.

The addition of Ross signals a clear difference between last year's Toledo team and this year's club. Unlike last year, when Tigers prospects such as Eric Munson, Omar Infante and Andres Torres were promoted to Toledo after big Double-A seasons, this year's Hens will have very few players who were SeaWolves a season ago.

One reason for that change is simple: Last year's 52-89 club in Erie didn't have many players who earned a promotion to Toledo.

“We're not going to allow what happened in Erie to go up one level and occur again in Toledo,” said Tigers scouting director Greg Smith after last season.

So Ross may be one of the Tigers' few position prospects to play in Toledo. That probably won't be the case with the pitching staff, which likely will have a least a few of the highly regarded arms who don't earn a spot on the Detroit staff.

Parrish said his starting rotation should include lefies Andy Van Hekken (5-0, 1.82 ERA in seven starts for Toledo last year) and Nate Robertson, one of the pitchers Detroit acquired in the Mark Redman trade, as well as right-hander Chris Mears.

Robertson was 10-9 with a 3.42 ERA in 27 starts at Double-A Portland (Me.). Mears was 6-9 with 3.14 ERA with Double-A San Antonio.

But Parrish said righthander Seth Greisinger, Detroit's top pick in 1996 who is battling to come back from Tommy John surgery in 1999, has opened some eyes this spring.

“Seth is throwing the ball well and is pain-free,” Parrish said. “I talked to him the other day, and he said he feels as good as he has felt since the spring of 1999. When he threw the other day, he was throwing 90 [miles per hour]. He's pretty close to where he was before he got hurt, if he's not there.”

In the bullpen the front-runner for the closer's role is Fernando Rodney, who pitched for the Hens late last season and had four saves (0.81 ERA, 20 appearances).

“That's still one of the things we're looking at,” Parrish said of the closer's job. “There are a lot of pitchers for a lot of spots, and some of them have experience. Eric Eckenstahler has the stuff to be a closer, but it's a matter of command.”

Of course, Parrish knows that smoothing out the flaws in potential gems such as Eckenstahler is the task of a Triple-A manager.

“Any time you get a guy in Triple-A, there may be a little flaw in their game,” Parrish said. “It may be mental, a confidence thing, or a flaw. Or a pitcher may have a mechanical problem or have to work on command. That's our job - to get some of these guys over that last hurdle to compete at the major league level.”



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