LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jim Leyland doesn't have much choice but to play his prospects right now. But that doesn't mean he can't praise them.
With Craig Monroe and Dmitri Young injured, Magglio Ordonez playing in the World Baseball Classic and Curtis Granderson and Nook Logan needing a break, Leyland had every reason to play Brent Clevlen by default. Still, there was something he wanted to see out of him.
Whatever it is, he saw it. And the quiet Texas kid with the long hair is getting noticed.
"He's the real deal, no question about that," Leyland said.
It could be that Leyland has so few veterans to evaluate that he has turned his eye toward a prospect who has homered in his last two games but hasn't yet played above A-ball. Former Tigers manager and Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson used to do that, most famously with Torey Lovullo, who became an Opening Day starter in 1989 but hit just .115 in 29 games that year. However, that's not in Leyland's history.
"It's Spring Training, so you have to be careful," Leyland admitted. "I'm not making my judgments about him on a home run that he hit or two home runs that he hit. Over the years, every now and then -- it doesn't happen very often, but every now and then -- you see a player in his uniform and you know that guy's a big-league player. It doesn't happen very often, but certainly he looks the part to me. He looks like a baseball player to me.
"I like him a lot. I like (Kody) Kirkland a lot. I like (Humberto) Sanchez. We've got some prospects. And that's what they are and you've just got to let them go play and don't want to get carried away. But when you see that kid, he looks a little bit different. Obviously, you see his talent and you see how he plays the game. I've never been one to get carried away with anybody, and I'm certainly not getting carried away, but he looks like he ought to be a pretty decent player."
The Tigers hope so. It's the same talent that led them to select him in the second round of the First-Year Player Draft four years ago and lure him away from college football with a signing bonus. It just took a little longer for that talent to emerge on the baseball field.
Clevlen arrived at Major League camp this year because he's on the 40-man roster, not because he's close to threatening for a Major League spot. He spent the last two years in this same park playing for Class A Advanced Lakeland in the Florida State League. He's one case where making a player repeat a level paid off huge dividends.
His 2004 season dropped him out of the Tigers' top 10 prospects -- he hit .224 with six homers and 50 RBIs in 117 games, including .152 during a two-month midseason slump, with an FSL-leading 15 errors.
His 2005 season put him back on the prospect map; his 102 RBIs and .387 on-base percentage topped the league, while his .302 average ranked eighth. He tempered his high strikeout total with 65 walks in 130 games, and his defense made a comeback with 16 outfield assists. His 18 home runs were a high total in a league of pitcher-friendly parks, and he backed it up by winning the FSL's midseason home run derby.
Not only did Baseball America rank him fourth among Tigers' prospects at season's end, but he was named the organization's best hitter for average. The Tigers, in turned, named him their Minor League Player of the Year.
"I just took it one day at a time," said Clevlen. "If I have a bad day, the next day is a new day. I didn't let it get to me. I stayed positive from pretty much the beginning of the season. I didn't get down when things went wrong. I just kept plugging away."
Not dwelling on slumps, hitting coach Don Slaught said, can be one of the most important traits for a Minor League hitter. If he can end a slump 30 or 40 at-bats sooner, it can make a world of difference in a season-ending average -- in this case, almost 80 points difference.
His hitting has been on display the past couple days. He hit his first home run of the spring Monday against the Braves at Disney World, but it was a ninth-inning shot off a Minor League pitcher. Tuesday's blast to right field came off Cleveland's Cliff Lee, who won 18 games last year. He also had an RBI double off C.C. Sabathia.
That won't be enough to put him on a fast track, not with Detroit's outfield crowded enough as it is. But catching Leyland's eye could help. He wants to put this time without many of his regulars to good use, even if the dividends aren't seen for a couple years. At age 22, Clevlen has time.
"I'm making some decisions," Leyland said, "but I'm not making necessarily the type the decisions you think. I'm making the decisions that somebody has a future. I'm making the decisions that several people on this team need to do certain things to get better, making those kind of decisions, but if you asked me to name the club today I couldn't even come close."
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