March 26, 2013; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder (28) forces out Atlanta Braves catcher Gerald Laird (11) at first base during the third inning at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The View from Lakeland, Part One

This past week I was lucky enough to be able to spend two days in Lakeland to watch the Tigers take on the Braves and the Phillies, and most importantly to be reminded of what Sunshine is. There’s something just so wonderful about catching a Spring Training game down there, like you’re taking part in a history of tradition and an unbridled love of the game. Of course, knowing that the starters will be playing the bulk of the game helped, too.

The first game was against the Braves, and there were a lot of things to like about the Tigers as they faced one of the better teams in the National League.

One thing that was immediately clear was that Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter are going to be amazing in the expansive Comerica outfield. Despite his age, Hunter can cover a huge amount of ground; on one play a ball was hit to right-centerfield with a fair amount of mustard on it. Jackson, already being one of the best defensive center fielders in the game, was underneath the fly quickly, but Hunter was just a step behind him arriving to the location and was perfectly placed behind Jackson, backing up the play.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a Tigers’ outfielder backing up Austin Jackson without an all-out sprint or some kind of flailing involved, but Hunter was so smooth and such a great compliment to Jackson out there. Jackson’s body language appeared relieved on sharply hit balls to right, whereas before he would be tense in a full-tilt race to cover as much of right field as possible. I guess having Hunter fluidly converging on the spot of the ball and catching it without trouble can lead to a little less stress.

Offensively, those guys looked phenomenal against Tim Hudson, Jordan Walden, and the rest of Braves bullpen. They each tagged line drives to the outfield, getting great barrel-on-ball contact. Not all hits found the grass (mostly due to Atlanta’s uncanny defensive outfield of Jason Heyward, BJ Upton, and Justin Upton), but each hit was sharp and each swing was fluid.

Unfortunately, Prince Fielder did not look as good taking his cuts. I refuse to be worried simply because this was a spring outing, but he definitely seemed uncomfortable in the box and didn’t take good swings. After his first at bat he seemed to have an unfocused aggressiveness, like he just wanted to practice his home-run swing regardless of contact. Maybe he’s adjusting to having protection behind him this year as opposed to last.

Miguel Cabrera was very good defensively at third. He made a couple of slick plays, and it just served as a reminder for just how good an athlete he is to have transitioned back over to the hot corner so well. His defense is, in my opinion, vastly underrated by pundits and analysts throughout the media. Also, I had forgotten how damn big that guy is in real life.

Dan Uggla’s forearms looked like hairy tree stumps. My gosh. In fact, the whole Atlanta Braves roster looked incredibly athletic. I wouldn’t be so quick to say the Nationals are going to run away with the NL East this season.

Bruce Rondon, in the first of two consecutive days of work, looked like he has some serious talent. His ability to dial down his velocity and control his off-speed stuff left two Braves hitters looking ridiculous, but what can one expect when a hitter is seeing two straight 99 mph heaters followed by an 84 mph curve?

The funny thing was, Rondon seemed more in control of his off-speed arsenal than his fastball. Sure, that same fastball was extremely impressive (at one point he hit 99 on three consecutive pitches, tricking my father-in-law and myself into thinking the scoreboard was broken, but then he hit 100 and the stadium went, “Ooooo.), but it was also off-target for almost a third of his attempts. It appeared like he was just winding up and throwing as hard as he could without much of a plan as to its end location. A couple heaters were way too high, or way too low. His off-speed stuff looked great and well placed, but one could definitely see he needed some work.

Al Alburquerque looked pretty good in his inning, throwing hard and getting outs. His control seemed pretty stellar to me, and I still think his stuff should give him the nod in any type of closer situation if Rondon has an extended stay in AAA.

Brayan Pena looks like someone took Prince Fielder and squashed him down about seven inches. Sure, the switch-hitting ability is neat, but he looked doughy and slow out there. As long as he can call a good game and get some hits in limited at-bats he can have as many second helpings as he’d like, though.

Despite the eventual loss, the first game was a pretty fantastic experience. Lakeland is in love with the Tigers, and the fans there were really into the game. Joker Marchant is also an incredibly gorgeous park, with innovative concessions, wonderful seating, and a really inviting atmosphere.

Part Two coming later.

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