LAKELAND, Fla. -- The last time the Tigers trained here without expectations of battling for a postseason spot, Justin Verlander was a prospect, Jeremy Bonderman was a young starter in the rotation and Ivan Rodriguez was the face of the franchise. After more than a decade of win-now mentality, the
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The last time the Tigers trained here without expectations of battling for a postseason spot, Justin Verlander was a prospect, Jeremy Bonderman was a young starter in the rotation and Ivan Rodriguez was the face of the franchise. After more than a decade of win-now mentality, the cycle starts over, but the Tigers hope to build around their own young talent rather than load up on free agents.
Most of those players aren't Major League-ready, leaving the Tigers in transition for 2018. But the ones who are knocking on the door are trying to claim their spots, playing alongside a group of veterans shifting into a mentoring role.
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"There's guys obviously that want to make the club; they see the opportunity," general manager Al Avila said. "The window of opportunity for a lot of these guys is right now. That, in itself, is an exciting time for the players, period. And then you have a brand new coaching staff that is very excited for the season and they want to teach how to play the game in a winning way. I think those two dynamics make for a good camp."
While young players such as Jeimer Candelario and Dixon Machado try to prove they belong in the everyday lineup, established stars like Jose Cabrera and Victor Martinez are trying to prove they still have a lot left to give following injury-plagued seasons.
What's the goal?
The goal from Detroit down the organizational ladder is to develop the young talent it has accumulated and figure out who has a role in the rebuild. For the big league Tigers, that means putting Candelario and Machado into everyday roles, getting Michael Fulmer back to health at the top of the rotation, seeing what they have in Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris, and sorting out the bullpen. For the farm system, it means not only working with the top prospects, but seeing if there's a diamond in the rough from the crop of younger, lower-level prospects acquired over the last eight months.
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What's the plan?
The Tigers are preaching long-term rebuild, and for good reason. The heart of the project is starting pitching, but the pitching prospects are still at least a year away (longer in the case of No. 2 prospect Matt Manning). Though the Tigers have tried to stockpile hitting prospects in their trades (Candelario, Isaac Paredes, Dawel Lugo and Daz Cameron), they acknowledge they don't have a superstar yet. They could find one through the Draft in June, where they hold the top overall pick for the first time since 1997, or in the next round of trades, if Nicholas Castellanos becomes a Trade Deadline target or another team overwhelms them with an offer for Fulmer.
What could go wrong?
Young players don't all develop as hoped, which is why rebuilding teams often stockpile prospects at similar positions to improve their chances. That's why the Tigers have four top starting-pitching prospects, in addition to Fulmer, Norris and Boyd. Still, an injury or two could push the timetable. Beyond that, a slow start from Castellanos or others could either dampen trade interest or rule out deals altogether. There are injury questions for aging stars like Cabrera, Martinez and Jordan Zimmermann, which could have a big short-term impact on wins and losses.
Who might surprise?
The Tigers like Candelario a lot, even before his strong finish in Detroit as a late-season callup last year, and believe he could hold down the hot corner for a while at Comerica Park, providing an impact hitter in the middle of the order as he matures. Castellanos shouldn't surprise anyone after his stretch run last year, but the combination of his metrics from last season and his swing this Spring Training suggest he might still be underrated and could become a star. Beau Burrows has the best chance of the starting-pitching prospects to beat the timetable to Detroit, having forced his way to Double-A Erie at midseason last year.
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.