Lake Buena Vista, Fla. — Study the Tigers’ probable Opening Day hitters and their spring camp at-bats and you get a sense, even in these ridiculously early hours of March, for where minds and bodies are a month before serious games begin.
Austin Jackson, for example, looks like the 2010 or 2012 Jackson. He has five hits in his first eight Grapefruit League at-bats. He has a single strikeout. His feet and hands are quiet. He is relaxed, maybe all the more so because his manager, Brad Ausmus, is batting him deeper in the order.
Alex Avila has a pair of hits in four official trips, and even his non-hits have been scorched. He looks a lot like the guy who batted .303 during the 2013 season’s second half. There is no hyper-raised back leg in the batter’s box. There are few swings and misses.
And then there is Nick Castellanos, a rookie who on certain days will surely look like a 21-year-old guy breaking into the big leagues. He could just as easily be the biggest season-long surprise in Ausmus’ lineup.
Castellanos is talented, exceptionally so. His bat is extremely quick to the ball. His gift is that he takes the outside fastball to the opposite field and not only for singles. He can drive a pitch off the right-center field fence, as he did against the Phillies in a game Friday at Clearwater.
If a curveball hangs for a nanosecond, he is on it, pulling it with the same sizzle he swats fastballs away. Not to offer exaggerated comparisons, but there is another guy in the Tigers lineup who hits pitches in the same inside-outside fashion. His name is Miguel Cabrera.
Castellanos is a big guy, 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, and still a few years shy of loading his frame with muscle he ultimately will add. But even now, he is taking some of the best cuts of any player in camp.
Hitting a big-league pitch is the most difficult act in professional sports. The above three batters will prove it many hundreds of times in 2014. But a thought that took root long before spring camp remains.
The Tigers’ offense in 2014 could score as many runs the 2013 group, even without the big, left-handed bat Prince Fielder wielded and now swings for the Rangers.
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” Ausmus said Sunday, following a 0-0, 10-inning game against the Braves. The zero-zero score was no tribute to hitters, but Ausmus’ lineup was half-full of kids who won’t be going north in four weeks.
“It could be very realistic,” he said of the notion Detroit’s offense, if anything, would be better than some forecasts suggest. “We still have to do the work and the preparation. It’s an extremely long road.”