We’re five games in to the Detroit Tigers Grapefruit League season and there have already been surprises, some pleasant, others not so much. The Tigers have a winning record of 3-2, and while little stock is taken in Spring Training games, there is much to learn from the different way the Tigers are approaching both sides of the diamond(and the locker room) so far.
The Tigers’ fanbase was understandably nervous when Alex Avila and then Jose Iglesias were benched due to recurring injuries. Iglesias’ shin issues are familiar to those who were following the youngster last season, but Avila’s back spasms are something we haven’t heard much about. Avila stated that the spasms were something he was used to dealing with through the course of the season, and that he usually played through them. Brad Ausmus made the call to bench Avila and let him rest the injury out, and it made me wonder if the previous management team played a little too fast and loose when it came to the health of the team. Last season there was considerable second guessing of Jim Leyland’s call to continue playing Cabrera through his injury. Many fans and media alike pondered what might have been had Leyland made the decision to sit Cabrera in August. Granted, while Miguel Cabrera is always outspoken in his determination to play through injury, it is the manager’s job to put the best team on the field everyday while maintaining the health and well being of the players and protecting them from themselves. Ausmus’ quick call to rest Avila and Iglesias gives the impression that he will not be content to see his players on the field while they’re hurting, regardless of whether or not they want to play.
The Detroit Tigers populating the bases in these early Spring games are not the Tigers of the recent past. While there has undoubtedly been an uptick in the speed of the players running the bases, Ausmus’ green light to the entire squad seems to have made even those players lacking speed more aware and prepared to take an extra base when the opportunity arises. Victor Martinez already has two stolen bases, two more than he had all of last season. While I won’t be holding my breath for Martinez to steal during the regular season, the increased focus and determination to make the most out of every opportunity and advance on the base paths is both exciting and heartening. Sit on this for a minute, the Tigers’ first run scored of the 2014 season came before they got their first hit. Very interesting.
The base running hasn’t been all pluses, though. Rajai Davis has racked up two stolen bases, but he’s been picked off of second base with Miguel Cabrera on deck and his first stolen base of the season was only so because of a bad throw during a run down. Davis’ strength in base running is looking to be very important this season and he needs to tighten up in order to reach his potential and be the player the Tigers need him to be. Miguel Cabrera has also been picked off on a dopey attempt to steal third after a free pass to second on a walk to Martinez. While this play was horrible, I almost put it in the plus column for the sheer fact that Cabrera is feeling well enough to do something so goofy and boneheaded.
The Tigers starting pitchers who have thrown so far in Spring Training have looked really good on the whole, but the starting staff hasn’t ever been the question. The pitchers that will be filling the bullpen come March 31, however, are a different story. And as of yet, the guys we’re expecting to fill the remaining roster spots have been out to prove they’re worthy of working the late innings for the Tigers. Joba Chamberlain gave up a hit to the first batter he faced, but was able to get the next three out in order, one of which went down by strike out. Phil Coke’s fastball has been sluggish and he had some balls hit hard off of him in his first outing, but he’s looking stronger and seems to be getting more command of his off speed pitches. Coke has also given up a hit and racked up a strike out. Jose Ortega is an underdog for a spot on the Major League squad this season, but has been working hard to make the final roster decision tougher. Ortega has given up a hit, a walk and an earned run but has K’d three in his two innings pitched. If there’s a late Spring surprise, it could very well be Ortega stealing himself a spot in the bullpen.
The season is long and it’s hardly begun, but baseball is back and all signs are pointing to a refreshingly new, exciting Tigers team on the field for 2014. Is it March 31 yet?