Lakeland, Fla. — It had been raining throughout Monday night and into early Tuesday morning at the 80-plus-acre Tigertown complex. Now, with the mist gone, a cool, not cold, front had moved into central Florida, bringing a crisp wind, 60-degree mercury, and a patchwork of blue/gray skies as more than 100 young baseball players lined up on practice fields in dark blue jerseys with blue shorts trimmed in Tigers orange.
They stretched and sprinted on fields named after Tigers royalty: Gehringer, Heilmann, Cobb, Greenberg, and Kaline. Prodded by strength-and-conditioning gurus, the players — prospects from Christin Stewart, to Beau Burrows, to Jose Azocar, to Venezuelan and Dominican teens — executed leg-kicks and exaggerated hops, while some were sent on long jogs around the perimeter.
Then they got down to baseball basic training: hard-smash infield drills, with coaches hitting fungo-bat short-hoppers, the first stage of a long day spent teaching the overwhelming intricacies of a supposedly simple game.
It is the development phase of Tigers baseball.
It is the tutorial side of a sport, designed for raw and talented youth, produced by America’s domestic draft, or signed from Latin America, Australia, or Asia.
It is intended, this process known as “player development,” to turn athletes into polished ballplayers. Into men who have optimized skills even if those talents fall shy of the big leagues.
“Development is there to extract all the potential a player has within his God-given gifts,” said Al Avila, the Tigers general manager who has broadened significantly the Tigers’ development push since he became in charge 19 months ago.
“If a player doesn’t have talent, it’s hard to get them there (to the major leagues). You’re not going to take a fringy player and make him an All-Star. Or a non-prospect an everyday player. But, in player development, you can make guys better.”
Still a work in progress
The Tigers in 2016 expanded and revamped their development side.
Dave Littlefield, a former Pittsburgh Pirates general manager and big-league scout working for the Tigers, was named vice president of player development, a new executive level, with Dave Owen remaining director of player development.
More minor-league coaches and strength-and-conditioning staffers were added. Technology and video analysis became more dimensional, with extra cameras installed to monitor Tigertown workouts, and more Silicon Valley-grade hardware introduced to the minor-league offices. There was an overall upgrade in computer systems, centered on the Comerica Park-based Caesar software that has been a boon not only to development and scouting, but to an analytics department that has more than doubled since 2015.
Avila called together his managers, coaches and overseers in early 2016 for another overhaul. The Tigers’ blueprint for teaching minor-leaguers — pitching philosophy, hitting approaches, baserunning techniques, etc. — needed to be more extensive and codified.
The degree to which Detroit’s ideas on development differ from any of the other 29-big-league franchises is debatable and, probably at most, minimal. But it was an important summit, say those who were there.
“I’m sure all teams do what we do,” Owen said Tuesday, sitting in his office at the Tigers’ new administrative building, part of a $48-million makeover of the TigerTown complex. “Everyone knows there’s a Cardinal Way, a Dodgers Way, a Phillies Way, a Tigers Way. But maybe we just dug a little deeper during this session. I can tell you I thought it was outstanding.”
Littlefield, a one-time minor-league catcher and first baseman, college football and baseball player at UMass, and assistant college baseball coach before joining Avila and then-Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski at Miami in 1998, agrees the Tiger Way (unofficial title) manuscript isn’t necessarily novel or different from most big-league teaching tendencies.
“It’s still being tweaked here and there,” said Littlefield, 56, who was Montreal Expos director of player development before joining Dombrowski and Avila. “Things evolve, and we want it to be comprehensive. It’s a blueprint, a set of guidelines, on pitching philosophy, hitting philosophy, those areas.”
The need to stay on script, to ingrain into young players a teaching curriculum that is followed throughout their professional careers, was driven home, Littlefield said, a few days ago when Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and pitching coach Rich Dubee spoke to fresh-faced Tigers pitchers and catchers at a 45-minute Tigertown meeting.
“There were four major points Brad wanted to get across,” Littlefield said. “They talked about things the players could work on to help them get to the big leagues.”
The speech’s transcript remains secret. But Ausmus’ theme was reinforced by a manager and a former 48th-round draft pick whose own experience in development helped him play 18 years in the big leagues.
“And if that doesn’t happen,” Littlefield said, quoting Ausmus on the players’ need to listen and learn, “it’s going to be a real struggle for you to get there.”
How much difference it finally makes, this noble mission to school players and shape them into the best professionals they can be, is, as all the Tigers staffers acknowledge, limited.
“I agree 100 percent,” Littlefield said, mentioning that first-round talent is easier to “develop” than someone taken near the draft’s rear. “Having had experience as a scout, the hardest thing to find is (sure) talent, and obviously the higher the potential the more the payoff.
“Scouting is essential to what we can do. But our goal within the development department is to try and help each player become the best player he can be — the Donnie Kelly type (Kelly, a former super-sub, now is a Tigers minors coach and scout) who might have limited ability, but who rises to the top of his potential and becomes an asset in the big leagues for years.”
Where, exactly, the Tigers fit within the big-league galaxy in terms of a development budget is impossible to know, with any precision. Numbers are private to each club.
But ballpark estimates can be made. Staffs and expenditures are fairly obvious within the big-league galaxy.
“I know the numbers fairly well,” said Avila, “and I would say, out of 30 teams, we’re not in the top five, but are probably somewhere in the top 10.
“The top five are hard to beat — Dodgers, Red Sox, Texas, and even some lower-market teams where their investment is all in that end. But, quite frankly, you need a balance on spending money in player development and spending to keep some players in the organization (heavy contracts) at the big-league level.”
Chris Ilitch, who has followed his late father as director of the Tigers, has made it known he wants to invest in finding and developing players at least as energetically as his dad was keen on paying big stars.
Left unsaid is that as the Tigers’ Mt. Everest-sized payroll declines, Chris Ilitch will have more discretion, should he choose, to boost scouting and the grooming process.
Food, comfort a focus, too
Avila already has put more money into signing six-year, minor-league free agents. A spring 2017 dividend might have arrived in Arcenio Leon, a right-handed reliever who has a chance to make the team’s 25-man Opening Day roster.
Development, though, is about more than teaching, coaching, and buffing the inventory scouts deliver It is as much about caring for young players’ minds. And emotions. And even souls, to say nothing of a 19-year-old’s stomach.
The Tigers have listened to nutritionists and some time ago upgraded food choices. Brown rice rather than bleached. Fish or poultry rather than beef. Allowing Latin players an option of quinoa or plantains, or something similarly tasty and soothing from their native culture.
Language courses are offered. Latin coaches and interpreters are more the norm and even mandated to smooth Latin/North America transitions.
The mind is perhaps most central to development, particularly at a young man’s post-adolescent phase. To that end, the Tigers have had a long relationship with Brian Peterson, a clinical counselor who is the Tigers’ performance enhancement instructor, and George Carlo, a neurophysiologist, lawyer, and former college football coach, who is the Tigers’ performance coach.
Each man works with players on the nexus between mind and body, emotions and productivity — how the psychological and physiological meld, or perhaps are in conflict, at a critical point of human development.
“There’s more to this process than God-given ability,” Avila said. “There are psychological areas. Players aren’t robots. They get lonely. They have doubts. They have fears. They have emotions. It takes a while for a player to adjust, especially as a teenager, from a personal and family perspective.
“They worry about home. They can have girlfriend issues. Some are married with kids — where are we going to live?
“It’s a real challenge.”
Littlefield sees it all the time — a bit of the metaphysical at work from his perch, which Avila created to help absorb and delineate tasks within a vast galaxy.
“You start off with some young people who are emotionally developing, who need some guidance and direction,” Littlefield said. “Sometimes, they need a pat on the back, a text, or a phone call to keep ‘em going.
“Sometimes, you become the disciplinarian. Sometimes, you’re the uncle putting a hand on their shoulder. It’s why we talk to coaches about making sure they stay positive, with enthusiasm, as they’re teaching. It’s an interesting balance.”
And, in the end, Owen said, it relies on a certain empathy career baseball men often share.
“You try to put yourself in the place of a young man coming over here (America) for the first time,” said Owen, who played for the Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals, who was a big-league coach for the Royals, and who coached one year in Japan.
“Maybe that young man isn’t fluent in English. He needs help finding a place to eat. And on top of that, he’s trying to play professional baseball.
“Hey, they’re kids,” said Owen, whose brother, Spike, was a 13-season big-leaguer.
“You want these kids to know you care about ’em,” Owen said, crediting his boss, Littlefield, for bringing a “nice perspective” to a baseball realm few outside the game understand.
“And that feels good.
“It feels like baseball.”