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Grapefruit opener next step for Ausmus, Tigers

New manager eager to see players in action vs. Braves on Wednesday

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Brad Ausmus calls them "Eureka" moments, times when it hits him that he's managing a Major League team. He hasn't had many of them, and he didn't have any in his first game managing in a Tigers uniform Tuesday against Florida Southern. He isn't expecting Wednesday to bring one, either.

For someone whose previous managerial experience consisted of the World Baseball Classic, it's a surprise. Yet as the Tigers prepare to open Grapefruit League play with a home-and-home set against the Braves, he's thinking way more about his team than himself.

"For me right now, I need to see some of these guys play," Ausmus said. "I've seen them hit. I've seen them throw on the field. As we well know, it can be a little different when the games start, and then it can change even from Spring Training games to when you flip on the lights at 7:05 in April.

"I need to see these guys play. I don't necessary need to see Miguel Cabrera or Victor Martinez or Justin Verlander. I've seen them. Some of these other guys, I need to see."

Wednesday's opener won't be on TV, but will be available on radio through Gameday Audio, the At-Bat app and on AM 1270 back home in Detroit.

For many Tigers fans, the curiosity will be directed at seeing Ausmus manage. They've heard about him for four months, from recaps of his 18-year catching career to rave reviews of his ability to communicate with players and think through a game. What they haven't seen is an example of his game management.

In fairness, there's only so much of that to see in a Spring Training game. Pitching decisions, especially early, are largely determined by who needs work on the schedule and what pitch counts they're working toward. The starting lineup is barely recognizable by the seventh-inning stretch, as players build up their endurance and prospects get in their needed work.

What can be seen, ideally, is a style -- even if it's more in glimpses. Ausmus and his staff have spent a week and a half trying to instill expectations and ideals. He wants an aggressive team on the basepaths that knows when to take risks and go for an extra base. He wants four infielders to perform as one defensive unit.

As mentioned many times over the course of a frigid offseason, these aren't the slugging Tigers of the past several years, capable of home run displays and double-digit onslaughts against Grapefruit League pitching. By all appearances, this lineup is built on versatility, capable of manufacturing offense and maximizing opportunities.

Even in early games with expanded rosters, that style should be noticeable. Ausmus intends it to be.

"All position players have the green light to start, so we have the ability to run right now," Ausmus said Tuesday. "Clearly, that doesn't mean it's a carousel out there. It just means thinking about situations."

Nobody might represent that better than Ian Kinsler, who will work his way into the Tigers' lineup after coming over from Texas as the return package in the Prince Fielder trade. The longtime Rangers leadoff man will top the Tigers' batting order on Wednesday, and while Ausmus isn't committing to that as his spot when the season opens March 31, it's clearly an option for him.

"He's got the ability to hit leadoff," Ausmus said, "but I think he's got the ability to hit in a couple other spots. I think he's a versatile lineup piece."

Kinsler is one of four Tigers regulars in the starting lineup, which Ausmus posted in the clubhouse on Tuesday. Rajai Davis, expected to be part of Detroit's left-field platoon, will start in left and bat second. Martinez will bat third as the designated hitter.

After first-base prospect Jordan Lennerton at cleanup and Don Kelly in right field, rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos will bat sixth. The game will be one of many starts early on for Castellanos as Ausmus tries to get him as much work as realistically possible at third base without wearing him down.

Daniel Fields will start in center for Austin Jackson and bat seventh. Bryan Holaday will bat eighth and catch while Alex Avila gets one more day off to rest his back. Steve Lombardozzi will bat ninth and start at short.

The game will also mark the return to the rotation for Drew Smyly, who will begin Spring Training with a job sewn up for the first time in his career. After spending last season in the bullpen, Smyly will spend camp trying to widen his pitch selection once again for a longer role. That includes dusting off a changeup that was a secondary offering for him as a starter two years ago, but virtually nonexistent last season.

Justin Miller, a dark-horse candidate for a spot in the back of the bullpen, will get his first chance to make his case Wednesday. He's on the list of relievers, as are lefty Phil Coke and right-hander Al Alburquerque in their first attempts to rebound from topsy-turvy 2013 seasons. Luis Marte, Evan Reed, Eduardo Sanchez and Blaine Hardy are also on the pitching list.

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.

Detroit Tigers, Nick Castellanos, Ian Kinsler