Henning: Uncertainty hangs in air for Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Brad Ausmus won't arrive in Florida until Wednesday night, and not until Thursday, when pitchers and catchers formally report, will a second-year manager step into his Tigertown office.

But spring camp has begun for the Tigers.

Justin Verlander wheeled through Joker Marchant Stadium's lot Tuesday morning. He was hidden by tinted windows. But that burnt-orange Aston Martin gave him away. Only one Tigers player drives an Aston Martin.

Spring training's sun-and-fun trappings are always refreshing, always seductive. Sometimes they can be blissfully distracting. The Tigers are an example of how spring training's rebirth can bring to an otherwise supernal Florida scene a measure or two of anxiety.

No one knows about this particular Tigers team. There is less certainty about the 2015 roster than at any point since the Tigers crashed into contention with their 2006 surprise that wiped away a dozen years of failure and restored Detroit to the World Series.

Nine years and a batch of playoff forays later, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez are coming off surgery. Jose Iglesias still needs to show that his stress-fractured legs can handle a daily load at shortstop. Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello are gone. The bullpen, which is every team's gamble, will be another game of chance for the Tigers as they get ready for Friday's first formal drills.

Reason for optimism

What the Tigers can properly say, also, is that 2015 could be a surprise on the happy side. It could — emphasis on could — end with another of those Central Division flags the Tigers have been hoisting regularly since 2011.

Verlander should be better a year after abdominal surgery appeared to have made him in 2014 three-quarters of the staff ace he previously had been. Along with David Price, the Tigers are in potentially grand shape at the top of their rotation.

Cabrera's prognosis is good, as is Martinez's, which means the guts of Ausmus' batting order should be fine. Throw in J.D. Martinez, Yoenis Cespedes, and a more seasoned second-year talent in Nick Castellanos, and Ausmus' re-crafted rotation (Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon replace Scherzer and Porcello) on most days won't need to pitch shutouts to win.

But it is a different season, 2015, so much different because of the roster makeover set in motion by Scherzer's free-agent flight to the Nationals and because crutches have been a heavy part of the team's offseason conditioning equipment.

This is what you could virtually feel during the past months since the Tigers' 2014 mission ended with a crash-and-burn playoff disaster against the Orioles. This is what you sense as an old World War II flight-training field, converted 50 years ago to a baseball complex of amazing scope and utility, begins to stir with spring training's sights and melodies.

The folks who show up early and often for autographs already Tuesday were lining the players' pathway to the practice fields a few hundred yards from Detroit's spring-camp clubhouse.

There was a warm wind blowing palm tree branches east toward Lake Parker. And of course as background music there was the cheep-cheep-cheep of white-and-brown ospreys that have turned Marchant Stadium's light towers into aviary penthouses.

Much has changed, much hasn't, in the 80 years since a baseball team from Detroit made Lakeland its spring-camp headquarters, the longest such relationship any big-league club has with one town.

Marchant Stadium makeover

Fifty years ago, 12 months before Marchant Stadium would become a Tigers baseball mecca, the Tigers were entering their last spring tune-up at old Henley Field, closer to the heart of Lakeland's downtown. It had been the launch pad for teams on which Charlie Gehringer, Mickey Cochrane, Hank Greenberg, Hal Newhouser, George Kell, Harvey Kuenn and Al Kaline played.

Now, the Detroit-Lakeland experience comes full circle. Next March, at the very hour 25 Tigers players board a plane headed north for Opening Day, demolition crews will arrive at Marchant Stadium.

They will knock down the unshaded, left-field, foul-line grandstand that has all but matched the George Foreman Grill for cooking hot and fast, as ticket-holders will attest.

They will level clubhouses and the indoor batting barn. They will build new clubhouses, a new press box, and extend shaded seating around most of the field and outfield, leaving the precious, sun-splashed grass berm beyond left field intact.

They will spend $40 million and so transform Marchant Stadium and its environs that during its makeover the team's Lakeland Single A affiliate will play all of its 2016 home games at, yes, Henley Field, which is still immaculate and a pulsing testament to Detroit's long, Lakeland marriage.

For now, life, as it shakes into fuller rhythm at Tigertown, is indistinguishable from past springs at a place where Detroit's baseball rebirth each year is staged.

What no one knows about is the team. And, yes, as palm branches swing in February's breeze, and as players and their posh cars pull into parking spots, the team is what everyone most cares about and, this year, perhaps more than during some past beginnings, worries about.