Tiger Talk

This spring has been all about pitching for me, whether I’m ranting about
the staff that the Rome Braves are going to have or the group that Northwest
Arkansas is going to throw out there. Well, there’s another group of pitchers
that deserves some mention even if they may not put up numbers as gaudy as I
expected from the aforementioned teams.
 
The Lakeland Tigers figure to have a pretty darn good staff, which will of
course be anchored by the Detroit’s first-round pick Rick Porcello. He’ll get
most of the attention this season and rightfully so but look who he has falling
in behind him. Southpaw Duane Below will get the start Friday night against
Tampa and I believe he’s one of the most underrated pitchers in the Minor
Leagues.
 
Below went 13-5 at West Michigan last year, tying for the Midwest League
lead in victories. He had a 2.97 ERA in 26 starts and struck out 160 in 145 2/3
innings, allowing only six homers. He’s a lot like Burke Badenhop, one of the
starters that Detroit sent to the Marlins in the Miguel Cabrera deal, in that he
doesn’t overwhelm anyone. But he clearly knows how to get the job done.
 
Lakeland manager Andy Barkett said before Thursday’s game that he could see
why some scouts would underrate Below, adding that if they only saw him pitch
once, it would be impossible for them to get a real feel for the kid.
 
“But if you watch the guy compete day in and day out, he’s a guy you want
on your staff,” Barkett said. “He is someone that will have to prove himself at
every level. I want guys on my staff who can win and so does [Detroit manager]
Jim Leyland. If Duane shows that he can win at this level and the next one and
so on he’ll be fine.”
 
Jonah Nickerson will get the start Saturday night in Lakeland’s home-opener
against Clearwater. He showed me two years ago during the College World Series
that he’s a bulldog and he’s carried that attitude over into the pros. He’s a
tough kid who went 11-7 with a 4.24 ERA in 25 starts at West Michigan. Nickerson
finished up well, going 5-1 with a 3.32 ERA and two complete games in his last
10 outings.
 
Matt O’Brien, a 15th-rounder from the 2004 draft, will start Sunday against
Clearwater. He was 8-5 with a 3.59 ERA in 20 games (19 starts) last season at
three levels, including Lakeland. The wild card in the rotation, though, could
be while Luis Marte, a native of the Dominican Republic whom the Tigers signed
as free agent in 2005.
 
Barkett had Marte last season in extended spring training before the
youngster before the youngster went on to pitch in the Gulf Coast and Midwest
Leagues, where he combined to go 3-2 with a 2.30 ERA in 17 games (four starts).
He was 1-0 and had 15 strikeouts with a 0.90 ERA in 10 innings for West Michigan
in the playoffs.
 
“He’s the best guy you never heard of,” Barkett said. “He’s got three
average to above average Major League pitches and he’s a bulldog. He’s a sleeper
now but he won’t be after the season.”
 
So this looks like a pretty good staff, at least on paper.
 
By the way, Barkett gets some props for coming up to me during batting
practice and introducing himself. Not many managers would do that.
 
While we’re on the subject of Barkett, his hat is just a bit different than
that of the other Flying Tigers. While he has the Tiger with the wings logo on
the front of his hat, he has gold, embroidered palm leaves on the bill giving
him a bit of a General Douglas MacArthur look. He said it was the team’s idea
and that he “guesses” the league doesn’t have an issue with it.
 
“I’ll be able to let the umpires know I’m in charge,” he said as he took
off the hat, laughed and showed the bill.  — Kevin C.

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