Major League Preview

A Lineup To Dream About

Tigers hope to party like it's 1984

LAKELAND, Fla.—Dontrelle Willis looks good with a bat in his hand. He knows what to do with it, too.

Willis set a record with 15 home runs in his Little League, collected three hits against the Cubs in a playoff game and batted .286 last season, when he averaged one extra-base hit every nine at-bats.

Not that any of this means anything to his new team, the Tigers.

Baseball America's Predictions
American League
Division Series
Red Sox over Indians (wild card), Tigers over Angels
Championship Series
Tigers over Red Sox
MVP Voting
1. Miguel Cabrera, 3b, Tigers
2. Alex Rodriguez, 3b, Yankees
3. Grady Sizemore, of, Indians
Cy Young Award Voting
1. Josh Beckett, Red Sox
2. Justin Verlander, Tigers
3. Erik Bedard, Mariners
Rookie of the Year Voting
1. Evan Longoria, 3b, Rays
2. Clay Buchholz, rhp, Red Sox
3. Joba Chamberlain, rhp, Yankees
National League
Division Series
Cubs over Phillies (wild card), Mets over Diamondbacks
Championship Series
Mets over Cubs
MVP Voting
1. David Wright, 3b, Mets
2. Prince Fielder, 1b, Brewers
3. Mark Teixeira, 1b, Braves
Cy Young Award Voting
1. Johan Santana, Mets
2. Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks
3. Jake Peavy, Padres
Rookie of the Year Voting
1. Kosuke Fukudome, of, Cubs
2. Jay Bruce, of, Reds
3. Geovany Soto, c, Cubs
World Series
Tigers over Mets
Unless Bud Selig abolishes the designated hitter rule, Willis won't be going to the plate again any time soon. He insists he won't miss it.

"They can have it," Willis said about batting. "I like competing. I like taking pride in all my skills. In the National League you have to learn how to use the bat, move the runners around, but I'm in the American League so I don't have to hit. That's OK. I'll try to help myself defensively, do other things, and watch these other guys hit. That should be fun."

Watching what could be baseball's best lineup should be a lot of fun for the Tigers pitchers.

Owner Mike Ilitch's sudden burning desire to add a World Series ring to the three Red Wings Stanley Cup titles during his tenure as owner has caused the Tigers payroll to move from the ranks of teams that dabble into the small group of teams most willing to spend.

In addition to the 26-year-old lefthander Willis, the Tigers added baseball's best young hitter in Miguel Cabrera, rock-solid shortstop Edgar Renteria and left fielder Jacque Jones to an already loaded lineup that missed the playoffs last season.

Ivan Rodriguez, a 16-time all-star, will bat eighth. There's no longer room for Brandon Inge, who hit .273 as the third baseman in the 2006 playoffs. The arrival of Cabrera made him a backup catcher, and he's seeking a trade.

With a collection of hitters that includes the 24-year-old Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield and Carlos Guillen, the Tigers may have surpassed the Red Sox, Yankees and Angels as the most dangerous team in the majors.

'A Professional Hitter'

Consider this: Cabrera, who has averaged 32 homers and 115 RBIs in his four full big league seasons, will hit fifth; the four men in front of him (Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Ordonez and Sheffield) batted a combined .320 and scored 451 runs a year ago.

"You've seen what (Cabrera) can do," said Willis, who joined Cabrera in coming from the Marlins in an eight-player trade that sent prospects Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin to the Marlins. "He's a professional hitter. You've seen that. I'm not sure what he'll do in this lineup. I've never been around four hitters who hit .320."

Cabrera himself is a .313 hitter in a career that started with the Marlins when he was barely 20. As a rookie, he batted cleanup in the World Series that year, delivering four home runs in 17 playoff games for the surprising champions.

Cabrera's conditioning has been a question in recent years. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, a good friend, told reporters last season that Cabrera was a threat to eat himself out of the big leagues. He reported to Tigers' camp looking fitter than when last seen in a Marlins' uniform, however, earning praise from manager Jim Leyland.

"Cabrera has been unbelievable," Leyland said. "He's working extremely hard. I'm very proud of him."

Cabrera, eligible for free agency after the 2009 season, will earn $11.3 million this year. The Tigers hope to sign him long term but know that it could take a nine-figure deal worth $20 million a season to keep him off the market.

For Cabrera, the motivation to watch his weight is more than the big contract. He says his goal is to help the Tigers "win the World Series," which would give him rings with different teams by age 25.

"There's no pressure on me with the guys in this lineup," he said. "We're going to score a lot of runs. No one guy has to do it."

Cabrera said he is fine with hitting fifth in the Tigers' loaded lineup.

"It doesn't matter to me, as long as I play," he said. "What I'm excited about is playing on this team. It's a very good team . . . I'm very happy to be here."

A Challenging Division

With Guillen hitting behind Cabrera, the big third baseman should get strikes to hit. The prospect of the Tigers pushing their run total from 887 last year beyond 900, possibly even 1,000, this season is not out of the question.

"There's no telling what these guys will do . . . great things," Willis said. "But nobody is going to hand us anything because of our ability."

Granderson, the center fielder coming off a breakthrough 2007 season, agrees. He knows the American League Central has had a rotating cast of first-place teams the last three years, with the White Sox and Tigers going to the World Series in 2005 and '06, respectively, and the Indians falling one win short last October.

"It's a great division, great competition," Granderson said. "It's so much fun playing these teams. But I really like this team. I really like the changes that were made in the offseason. Those are great players we added and they've fit in really well."

Granderson emerged as a force a year ago, batting .302 and becoming only the third player in history to have 20-plus doubles, triples, home runs and stolen bases in a season (Jimmy Rollins joined him as the fourth later in the season).

Pitching remains the question with the Tigers. They have no clear No. 2 starter behind 25-year-old lefthander Justin Verlander—Willis has the pedigree but righthander Jeremy Bonderman (11-9, 5.01 last season) is the best bet—and the bullpen is thin behind all-guts closer Todd Jones. They figure to pound a lot of opponents into submission but their season could turn on whether they lose too many 9-7 games.

Give Willis seven runs and he'll take his chances.

"I really like this team," Willis said. "We're going to score runs. That's what everybody talks about, but the thing I've liked so far is this team does the right things— backs up throws, throws to the right bases. A lot of times it's those kind of things that make you a good team and the guys here do those things. I'm excited."