Lakeland, Florida – Four weeks into spring camp, and there are few surprises spilling from TigerTown.
Ron Gardenhire is the manager and man we knew him to be from his years with the Twins. He is straightforward, upbeat, good-humored, all-business with baseball, all-people with his players and with others. The Tigers hired the right guy.
His team is a different matter. It is challenged, to use everyone’s popular term for bad. There simply isn’t going to be enough pitching in 2018. The Tigers will score a few runs, although not as many as in 2017 (4.54 per game, 18th in MLB). And with pitching that isn’t likely to be much better than it was last season when Detroit was 30th among 30 teams, the Tigers stand a grand chance to lose those 100 games forecasted. The record here has been, and continues to be, pegged at 55-107.
It will be a year that doesn’t resemble 2003’s bleakness as much as it probably will match 1975. That was the season, elders bearing scars will recall, when a Tigers club on the verge of reconstructing and winning a World Series in 1984 had its bottoming-out summer ahead of a full restoration.
And that, frankly, isn’t all bad. The analogy preferred here is the Tigers have been like an old-growth forest that needed a lightning strike and an all-consuming, all-cleansing fire ahead of lush new growth.
The blaze has been raging for a few months now and by next spring new greenery will take root. Then a Tigers team in need of a total makeover will begin – begin – to turn interesting.
In the meantime, take a swig of something stiff and prepare for pain.
Gardenhire’s guys played an OK game Friday at Publix Field at Marchant Stadium, which is the new and complicated name delivered a year ago when the Publix grocery-store chain wrote a fat check to Lakeland’s Tigers trustees.
The Tigers and Mets played one of those 4-4, nine-inning ties that can only happen in spring games when visiting teams don’t care to turn some kid’s arm to mush during overtime. The Tigers are 6-8-1 on the Grapefruit League calendar after winning five straight out of the chute.
What the manager sees in Florida is what any big-league skipper can and must see during spring camp: hope. He offered a managerial theater review after Friday’s game.
“I’m satisfied with the work ethic,” said Gardenhire, whose face was showing the bright-red effects of March’s sun and wind. “Some games have been sloppier than I would have liked to see. But overall, we’ve been playing hard, running balls out. I like that.”
There are, in fact, elements and people to like on Gardenhire’s new team. In random order:
Michael Fulmer: He is the Tigers’ best pitcher and perhaps its No. 1 talent, in terms of age and status, heading into 2018. He hadn’t pitched in 12 days ahead of Friday’s start but was every bit an ace Friday with pitches that simply are premier. His fastball-slider combo can, and very likely will, someday earn him a Cy Young Award, although probably with a different team.
Nick Castellanos: He is hammering everything. Deep. On a line. To opposite fields. Through infield-shift holes. He turned 26 earlier this week and could have a bonanza year in 2018. People worry about his defense. But the truth is, since he moved to right field late last summer, he has been relaxed and has played smoothly. He gets what is hit to him and knows where the ball should be thrown. Castellanos is a baseball player-plus.
Miguel Cabrera: He has felt fine and is swinging the bat in Cabrera-like fashion. The bet remains that he will hit somewhere around .310 with 30 home runs. No concerns with Cabrera.
Jeimer Candelario: Good baseball player the Tigers got here. Switch-hitter who doesn’t twist himself into pulling the ball and going for the fences. Handles third base just fine. Should be a steady man at a tough position.
Everywhere else, the situation is not much better than OK. Matthew Boyd should be a reliable starter, and so should Jordan Zimmermann, although “reliable” on this teams means 180 innings with an ERA of 4.00 or more. Francisco Liriano will help. Mike Fiers might not. Daniel Norris is still being eased into regular work. He has more talent than any of the above but needs a healthy, meaningful season with 30 starts and something approaching consistency. Is that asking too much? Based on the past three seasons, yes. Based on his ability, no.
Other regions are somewhat in flux. Dixon Machado is playing second base and seems trustworthy there. He won’t play with anything approaching Ian Kinsler’s old command. But he can cover more ground to his left than Kinsler. His bat might or might not develop. This is a tough call in March. But the lower the expectations, for now, the better.
Leonys Martin can play center field. Really play it. He probably won’t hit enough to make anyone happy. But he looks like a good pick-up. He could also be pushed by JaCoby Jones, who – be careful here – appears to have gotten serious about making contact, not chasing pitches, and maybe squeezing a good measure of that athleticism he has in excess.
Victor Martinez has been earning his keep, at least early. He has hit three home runs. He hasn’t been getting blown away at age 39. But the actuarial chart isn’t likely to be kind. The Tigers owe him $18 million this year and will give him every chance to play for his pay. If it doesn’t work out, everyone at least tried. Finding a new DH will be as easy as placing a phone call.
This is what has been manifesting itself these past four weeks at Lakeland, where, until a cold front and north wind arrived early Thursday, each day had been in the 80s.
Spring camp’s weather, in fact, has been pretty much perfect. The baseball team, alas, is imperfect.
Get ready for more of the latter in 2018, all before the smoke clears and the charred wood cools, and that new-growth Tigers forest begins to emerge.