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Published: Wednesday, 4/2/2003

Mud Hen roster includes some surprises

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

In minor league baseball, a lot can change in a week's time.

And for this year's Mud Hens, a lot did change in the last week of spring training.

Among the biggest changes to the roster that will open the season tomorrow afternoon at Fifth Third Field were:

t two new catchers,

t a position switch on the corners of the infield,

t a late addition to the outfield, and

t a resolution to some questions about the pitching rotation and bullpen.

The biggest changes came behind the plate, where the Hens got a couple new catchers in the final week of the spring.

The parent Tigers swung a trade with Cleveland to pick up A.J. Hinch, who has seen action with Oakland and Kansas City. Detroit also signed Yohanny Valera after the Pirates released him late in spring training. Valera hit .252 in 44 games with the Hens last year.

“I didn't get to see Yohanny very much last year, but the other guys who had him just loved him,” Hens manager Larry Parrish said. “[They said] he was great at calling a game, great at throwing, great attitude. When he became available, everyone said, `Yeah, let's get this guy.'

“And when Hinch became available, we got a lot stronger at catcher in the last week [of spring training].”

Another late change came at the corners of the infield. Kevin Witt, who was expected to start at first base, instead will move over to third on Opening Day. That will open up first for Derek Nicholson.

“Going in to spring training, [Nicholson] was probably a bubble guy, with the idea that Witt was going to play first,” Parrish said. “But to get the better bats in the lineup, Witt is going to play third - and he's played it well this spring. And at first base, Nicholson swung the bat better than [Kevin] Barker. So right now Nicholson is our first baseman.”

Nicholson made such a strong impression on Parrish and his coaching staff that Barker was released near the end of spring training. But Parrish made it clear that Nicholson had earned the job.

“It really is a tribute to him and how hard he has worked,” Parrish said. “A few years ago it was questionable that he would find a job, and here he is an everyday player at the Triple-A level.

“He can swing the bat; he puts quality at-bats together. “He's not a fast baserunner, but he's a good baserunner.”

Tom Evans, who played for the Hens two years ago, also will see time at both first and third. The rest of the infield should find Warren Morris at second base, Danny Klassen at shortstop and Jhonny Perez backing up both positions.

In the outfield the Hens benefited from the Tigers' late decision to send Andres Torres down. Torres will start in center field, with Craig Monroe in left and Cody Ross in right.

“With [Andres] and Cody in the outfield, they should cover some ground,” Parrish said. “It should be a very solid defensive outfield.”

What's more, that threesome should combine with Ernie Young to play key roles in the Hens' batting order.

“I'm looking for a lot of offense from those guys in the outfield,” Parrish said. “Monroe had a great year last year, and Ernie's a proven hitter at this level. Torres almost made the big-league club with the way he played this spring, and Cody is a guy the organization is very high on. So we're expecting a lot of offensive production from the outfield.”

Parrish and pitching coach Jeff Jones have set a rotation where right-hander Seth Greisinger will get the start on Opening Day, followed by lefty Andy Van Hekken on Friday, right-hander Chris Mears on Saturday, southpaw Nate Robertson on Sunday and right-hander Shane Loux on Monday.

Fernando Rodney will begin the season as the closer, but Parrish said the entire staff will see plenty of work early to help define everyone's role.

“Really, they will dictate, as the season goes along, where they will pitch and how much they will pitch,” Parrish said.

Lefty Jason Jimenez will begin the season on the Hens' disabled list with a left elbow strain. Jimenez is rehabbing in Florida.



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