Tigers camp opens with new manager, clean slate
With Ausmus at helm, focus is on reworking bullpen, defense and baserunning
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The circus is in town. And now, so are the Tigers.
While the Cirque Italia set up its tent in the parking lot of Joker Marchant Stadium, readying for a weekend show, the last of Detroit's pitchers and catchers filed into the Tigertown complex on Thursday to prepare for potentially one of the most interesting camps in years.
Between Brad Ausmus' cannon-like launch into his first managerial job, a retinkered bullpen, an infusion of baserunning speed, a renewed focus on defensive efficiency, a Cy Young winner in a contract year and a previous Cy Young winner on the mend, this Tigers show has enough acts to follow. Inside the Tigers' clubhouse, however, the new-look roster had built a confident, relaxed vibe.
For some, it was their first gathering together since Jim Leyland announced his retirement to them moments after their ALCS loss last October in Boston. For others, it was their first gathering as a Tiger of any sort. For many, it was a fresh start and a clean slate, putting last year's disappointment in the past.
"There's not much more anticipation," said Phil Coke, who has been working out in Lakeland since just after Christmas. "We're getting going tomorrow, man."
Like Coke, many Tigers pitchers have been around Tigertown for a while. Justin Verlander has been throwing for a couple weeks in his rehab from core muscle surgery, and is scheduled to throw one of the first mound sessions during Friday's first formal team workout. Anibal Sanchez has already run several "Tiger Mile" endurance workouts up and down the left-field grandstand of Joker Marchant Stadium. Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly were also early arrivals.
Minor League reliever Justin Miller, the free-agent signing Tigers officials quietly believe could pay big dividends, has been in camp all week, as has hard-throwing setup man Bruce Rondon. New relievers Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan reported Wednesday and promptly began throwing.
Formally, it all begins Friday with the first team workout. Many pitchers, however, will have thrown off a mound well before that.
Alex Avila and Bryan Holaday, the Tigers' projected catching tandem, have both been in camp all week, albeit doing more hitting work than catching at this early juncture. They'll have long days ahead of them once throwing sessions begin in earnest on Friday.
"The first couple of days can be tough on the legs," Holaday said, "But you get used to it real quick."
Victor Martinez joined them Thursday morning, tried on a new set of catching pads and said he's ready to catch if the need ever arises.
"Like I've said, I'm ready to do whatever they need me to do," Martinez said.
Al Alburquerque brought his gear into camp and settled into his locker, which is tucked into a far corner of the Tigers' clubhouse next to minor-league invitees and the lost-and-found locker. He did not seem surprised.
"I talk a lot," he joked.
Alburquerque is part of that newer, younger bullpen.
"It's more young guys, but good guys," he said.
By midday Thursday, only a few Tigers pitchers had yet to report, and Max Scherzer and Ian Krol were expected to drop off their gear Thursday afternoon. The rest of the ranks were mainly Minor League pitchers, such as Melvin Mercedes.
Even a handful of position players have been getting in early work. Miguel Cabrera, who usually times his arrival close to full-squad workouts, has been around the complex all week, getting in his core training regimen. He's expected to head home to Miami for the weekend before returning for full-squad workouts.
A big reason for the early arrival, Cabrera said, was a desire to get in and get everything organized beforehand. From a new coaching staff to a roster makeover, there's a sense around camp that it's time to get to business.
"I think we're going to have a good team this year," Cabrera said Wednesday. "We want to win a World Series. We want to win a division championship. I think we're going to be interesting."
Cabrera is one of those interesting storylines, shifting back from third base to first. His new boss, too, will be worth following, as Ausmus makes the adjustment to managing for the first time at any level.
Nick Castellanos, another early arrival to camp, takes over at third base. He has been working with new infield coach Omar Vizquel since arriving in Lakeland.
"I've had four months to think about this. I'm not nervous about being here," Ausmus said. "I'm excited about being here."
On the pitching side, Smyly -- also an early arrival in camp -- is taking his newly bulked-up frame back into the rotation to fill the spot left open by the Doug Fister trade. Nathan takes over at closer to try to stabilize a bullpen that wore down over the stretch run. Rondon, another early arrival, returns from elbow inflammation to take over setup duties, while Coke and Krol become the main lefty options.
The one roster battle on the pitching side, and possibly on the entire roster, will be the back end of the bullpen, where long reliever Luke Putkonen, Minor League addition Miller and converted starter Casey Crosby will battle for a big-league job. The main roles, however, already have their players.
"When you look at our positional players, they're pretty well set, unless somebody jumps up and grabs a spot," team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said last week. "Really, to me, the starting rotation is pretty well set when you look at the five guys we have. Hopefully, they're healthy. And then it really comes down to the battles in the bullpen. You've got a lot of names that are in that equation, guys like Putkonen, [Jose] Ortega and Miller. But I think a lot of the biggest questions, if we're healthy, will be in the bullpen."