Stars could shine in Tigers' future
Bonderman, Shelton and Guillen are among those who might join Pudge in the galaxy.
By Lynn Henning / The Detroit News
Tigers were everywhere at the 1971 All-Star Game in Detroit.
They were in the infield -- Norm Cash. They were in the outfield -- Al Kaline. They were behind the plate -- Bill Freehan. They were on the pitching mound -- Mickey Lolich. The Tigers even had an All-Star who didn't play because of injury -- Willie Horton.
Five Tigers made the '71 American League All-Star team when Detroit last played host, which, for those keeping score, is four more than were named to the 2005 All-Star Game on Tuesday night at Comerica Park.
That Pudge Rodriguez is the Tigers' lone stand-in Tuesday is symptomatic of their 2005 story. A Tigers team fighting to break a 12-year string of losing seasons marked by too many subpar players this year was socked by injuries to two legitimate All-Star contenders: Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez. The Tigers' consolation is things should get better in subsequent years.
Young right-hander Jeremy Bonderman nearly made this year's team and figures -- if his health holds up -- to be an All-Star regular in the seasons ahead.
Guillen and Ordonez should be back in All-Star contention next year and beyond.
Second baseman Placido Polanco, an impending free agent who may or may not stick with the Tigers, is another possibility. So is young first baseman Chris Shelton, who is impressing just about everybody with his pristine hitting skills. Even that man playing a new position, Brandon Inge, looked for a moment as if he could slip in as an All-Star.
"In order to win, you have to have All-Star-caliber players," said Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers' president and general manager. "And I do think we're going to be, in a few years, in a position where we have numerous guys. As we get healthier and better, people will see more of a representation."
It is telling that those '71 Tigers All-Stars were seasoned veterans: Kaline and Cash were 36, Lolich was nearly 31. Freehan was 29, but he had already been a Tigers regular for nine seasons and had the status as one of the game's best catchers.
Comparing the '71 Tigers' prestige to 2005 reveals how difficult it was for Terry Francona, the American League's manager this year, to make his mandatory selection of at least one player from each team.
Rodriguez might be ticketed for the Hall of Fame, but his 2005 statistics have been lukewarm by his standards. Still, he had a superstar's status, which made him a safe selection for Francona.
Down the road, future Tigers All-Stars could, and should, include these names:
Bonderman: He missed making this year's All-Star team by an eyelash. One more victory as of last Sunday -- he got his 11th two days later -- or minus a bad June 26 start at Arizona, and Bonderman might have been irresistible.
But few doubt he will have his chances. At 22, Bonderman is already one of baseball's best right-handers.
"I think he's going to pitch in many All-Star games, and I'm going to guess next season," said Dombrowski, adding that he saw no realistic options for Francona to add Bonderman last week.
"I realize the difficulty of selecting a team. No question, Jeremy Bonderman was having an All-Star season. But when they mix and match the team, sometimes it's very difficult. Really, he (Francona) had a choice only at one spot, and he took Colon (Bartolo, Angels right-hander). It was hard to argue with Colon, just as it would have been if Terry had taken Matt Clement (Red Sox)."
Guillen: He has been one of the Tigers' coups, a premier player acquired in a no-cost trade with Seattle at the start of 2004. He plays a key position and carries not only All-Star-caliber numbers, but also statistics that would carry Most Valuable Player clout if the Tigers were to contend.
All that kept Guillen from playing in his second All-Star Game in as many years with the Tigers was his on-again, off-again recovery from knee surgery last September. It has cost him scads of games and at-bats that left him, despite a gaudy batting average, in the background when voters and Francona decided.
Assuming the knee gets stronger, Guillen should be on the A-list for an All-Star spot in 2006.
Magglio Ordonez: His ability to bust up a game was his hallmark during seven seasons with the White Sox. He figured to be a potential All-Star after the Tigers signed him in February -- that is, until he developed a hernia problem that forced surgery and an 11-week layoff.
Ordonez is back and, based upon last week's performance, he also is back to his game-breaking ways. He is only 31 and figures to add a few more appointments to an All-Star Game record that already includes four visits.
Chris Shelton: Don't say it's too early to think of Shelton as an All-Star. He has done nothing but hit since he was a minor leaguer and, more to the point, he has done nothing but surprise at every level because of hitting talent that never seems to wane.
He has plugged in remarkably at first base since the Tigers brought him up from Triple-A Toledo. He also has been the team's best hitter over the past month.
He is developing surprising power and, most startlingly, he is playing a sound first base for someone who just broke in at the position.
"I think he's going to be a guy who hits for years," Dombrowski said. "And one thing different about him is that now we see that he's developing the power, which you need if you're a first baseman."
Placido Polanco and Brandon Inge: They hit and field sufficiently to get an All-Star assignment, but such infielders generally hit for more power. Polanco's season high for home runs is 17, which he hit last year for Philadelphia. Inge's best is 13, although he figures ultimately to top out in the 17-homer range, based on most assessments.
It is tempting, and difficult, to guess which other players might show up on Detroit's All-Star landscape in seasons ahead.
Set-up reliever Kyle Farnsworth wasn't far from consideration this year and would have been if he were in a closer's role. Budding farm star Justin Verlander, who held his own in his big-league debut last week, has the pitch quality, power and poise to be a safe All-Star bet.
Joel Zumaya, another Tigers prospect who leads the minor leagues in strikeouts, also qualifies as an early -- very early -- possibility.
Dombrowski also likes the potential for left-hander Nate Robertson to get a few deserved breaks and find himself in a year or two within the 10-victory-or-more stable at midseason.
"Guys aren't going to make it every year unless they're the superstar-type players, ala Pudge," Dombrowski said. "But traditionally, if you have enough players who are quality players, you're going to have your share of All-Stars. And that's what we've tried to do is get more of those kinds of players in our organization."
One thing students of 1971 and 2005 should keep in mind: That Tigers team of 34 years ago was about two years from an old-age collapse. The present group is a lot younger with, by almost any assessment, better days ahead.
You can reach Lynn Henning at 313-222-2472 or firstname.lastname@example.org