Tigers open camp loaded with youth, optimism

February 12th, 2019

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The doors to the home clubhouse inside Joker Marchant Stadium featured a print-out picture of the World Series trophy with a message, greeting Tigers players ahead of their first official Spring Training workout Wednesday morning.

"I believe this belongs to us," the message read. "Don't come in here unless you do, too."

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The culprit wasn't immediately identified. But it came a week after closer spent an hour as a guest host on MLB Network Radio and predicted at the end that the Tigers will make the playoffs.

"If I don't believe it, no one else will," Greene said on air.

The print-out didn't come from Ron Gardenhire, the manager insisted. But he liked the sentiment.

"We've heard the rebuild," Gardenhire said. "But the rebuild is from the front office. Inside the clubhouse and the coaching staff, we believe we're going to win. We don't do anything other than saying we're coming to the ballpark to put together a baseball team that's going to win baseball games."

Shortly after Gardenhire talked, he had his first formal meeting of the spring with pitchers and catchers in Major League camp. Among the group were top prospects Casey Mize and Franklin Perez, two pitchers whom Tigers personnel hope can lead the next great Tigers rotation in a few years.

Earlier in the week, fellow pitching prospects Matt Manning and Alex Faedo walked over from Minor League minicamp to the Tigers' bullpen mounds, putting four of Detroit's top four prospects -- all starting pitchers -- together in Spring Training. Detroit dreams of a spring in which this quartet not only is in big league camp, but forms the core of its rotation.

This is the dichotomy of the Tigers' organization as Spring Training begins. While the first day of camp brings a sense of hope and anticipation for a new season, there's another anticipation for what the Tigers could be within a few years as prospects reach the big leagues. That has been the message from the top of the organization for the last year and a half.

"If you're following the progress of players in our Minor Leagues and at the big league level, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel," general manager Al Avila said at TigerFest last month.

At the same time, those in the big leagues now believe they can speed out of said tunnel and defy expectations, a mentality Gardenhire has worked to instill since he took over the Tigers last year.

"We've seen it happen -- first to last, last to first," Gardenhire said. "I've been a part of that in the other organization, where everybody said we stink, and we did OK. And you know what? That's the attitude we're going to take here. That's the attitude we're going to play with. These guys are all professional baseball players and they've all won their whole careers.

"Yes, it's a rebuild. Yes, we have some young people. We have some veterans, too, that know how to play. And you never know what's going to happen in a baseball season."

That other organization of which Gardenhire speaks is the Minnesota Twins, where he won six American League Central titles over 13 years. He was still managing in Minnesota when the Tigers won their last of four consecutive division titles in 2014.

The only Tigers still around from that last playoff berth are sluggers and , and pitchers , and . Detroit's prospect buildup means the roster will likely have more turnover through the next five years. Between, the Tigers' current generation is trying to prove 2018 isn't a lost season, and the club's next glory days might not be that far off.

Though Tuesday was technically reporting day for pitchers and catchers, many have been in Tigertown for a couple weeks.

"I like that," said All-Star reliever , who has been working out at the facility since early January. "We started early this year. I haven't seen that in the past few years. That's a good thing. That's a great way to start. Hopefully we stay like that."

They won't lack for messages keeping them on point.

"This should be fun," pitching coach Rick Anderson said of the current camp. "This is a fun crew to work with. They all want to work. They're leaders. You guys talk to them and see it. It's just fun to watch them get after it. When you've got people like that, and you get the veterans coming in that are like that, it makes for a good camp and a good staff. I'm excited about it."