Henning: Tigers saying right things about team, trust

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Not that it was meant to be shared. It wasn’t. They were words aimed exclusively at Tigers players and staffers when the general manager and manager spoke in Marchant Stadium’s clubhouse two weeks ago ahead of the team’s first full workout.

Al Avila talked, emotionally, about “faith” and “family” and how it must embody everything the Tigers do in 2016. As comparisons go with a new GM’s predecessor, Dave Dombrowski, this was quite a moment. Avila, you might say, bled a little as he spoke to his club.

Brad Ausmus followed with a message tied also to the Tigers creed. He spoke of “trust” and about “being there for your teammate.”

Does this win games, this appeal to hearts and souls the two men who most carry an imprint on this year’s team, Avila and Ausmus, forged on the first full day of spring camp?

Not when pitching and hitting more directly decide the brunt of 162 games.

But what it can do is enhance and augment a big league team’s skill-set. It can optimize performance, particularly in critical situations or during tough stretches.

Word of these preseason speeches had been seeping from the clubhouse the past two weeks. And that’s because this message was so different, so very different and heartfelt.

It all merges with another development inside Detroit’s baseball clubhouse, Miguel Cabrera’s ascent as a tribal chief.

He is more assertive, those within the clubhouse’s walls have said. More inclined to stand and say something one of the smartest men in all of baseball, in addition to being perhaps the game’s best hitter, can say.

Improved roster helps

Again, be wary of making too much of the metaphysical. But do not discount roles and words when the right people are doing and saying things that can help turn a skilled team into a tougher contender.

The Tigers have repaired their roster in fairly amazing fashion. Avila filled holes, added pitching pieces to his rotation and bullpen, and got a potential lineup coup in Justin Upton, courtesy of Avila’s boss, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch.

Victor Martinez is swinging the bat — most dramatically when he hits left-handed — as if his old knee problems are just that: old and forgotten.

Cabrera is at peak form. The Tigers, assuming health, will score their share of runs in 2016.

The bullpen looks the best, in terms of quantity and quality of arms, it has in years. The rotation has questions but, again, there are more potential starters than the Tigers have brandished in some time.

Winning games will be difficult nonetheless. Because baseball is like parenting a teenager: For all the love expended, it’s a rugged task.

Fans will wonder if Ausmus is up to the challenge. A quick answer: If he had not been viewed as capable, Avila would have made him part of last autumn’s makeover.

Players in tune with Ausmus

What will surprise many, including all of Ausmus’ critics, is that were the Tigers to prematurely replace him, the clubhouse likely would rupture. Ausmus is considered by his players to be a plus. His smarts and knack for communicating and treating athletes as adults is appreciated by men who are incredibly protective of the skipper.

He operates differently from the man he succeeded, Jim Leyland. Very much so. Leyland would sidle into the clubhouse, see a player at his locker, and greet him with a loud, “Hey, (nickname) — what’s shakin’ today?”

The player would all but glow. Leyland had made a point to not only engage him, but to appreciate him. As an individual.

Ausmus has a different approach. He’s less gregarious. But in wedding players to their performance and a team to its mission, he, in year three of his time as Tigers manager, more and more has become the Tigers’ general.

It would seem to be part of a team ethos Justin Verlander talked about Wednesday, after he had started in a game that saw the Tigers slap the Nationals, 11-5, at Marchant Stadium.

“I really like the feel we have in the clubhouse right now,” Verlander said after he had thrown a scoreless three innings. “It’s hard to put a finger on it. It’s lighthearted, it’s fun, but there’s also a matter-of-fact about it.

“There’s a bunch of veterans who know what they need to do to prepare. They know when to flip the switch when they need to.”

Remember, this is spring training. Everyone feels good. At every camp. But consider Verlander’s words. And what two men said two weeks ago. Blended with a remodeled roster, see what a difference it all could make in 2016.