Tigers' Upton aims to carry hot bat into 2017

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — None of the Tigers wanted the season to end so soon in 2016.

Justin Upton really didn’t want the season to end so soon.

After all, Upton, after a horrific first 4 1/2 months in a Tigers uniform, finished on a tear to remember.

“I’m excited, I think, to try to carry that momentum over,” Upton said after arriving in town this week for the Tigers’ annual Winter Caravan.

“You don’t really want to be done, the way I was playing.”

Upton, after signing a six-year, $132.75 million contract to join the Tigers last offseason, started absolutely awful — batting .226 with 139 strikeouts in 113 games.

Then, in mid-August, manager Brad Ausmus took extreme measures, taking Upton out of the starting lineup for three days.

From that point, Upton batted .309 with a 1.162 OPS, 18 homers and 41 RBIs over the final 38 games.

So, was it the three-day break, or did something else finally click?

“It was a combination of that, and being able to work in the cage without having to take it to the game, and really get some of the bad habits I had, get those out of there,” Upton said. “And it’s not bad to give your body a little rest.”

One thing Upton discounted, though: Pressure.

It’s human nature to try to live up to a big contract, but Upton said that wasn’t on his mind — after all, he noted, this was the second significant free-agent contract he has signed. And with Detroit being his fourth stop, he’s not uncomfortable with new surroundings.

“It was my second contract,” he said. “Yeah, new town, new fan base, you obviously want to get off to a good start. But I can honestly say there was no extra pressure. It was just a bad stretch.”

When it was all said and done, Upton, a 10-year veteran who played his first nine seasons in the National League, tied a career-high with home runs, but had the worst OPS (.775) since his brief cameo during his rookie season.

This year the Tigers hope they get the real Upton for six months, rather than six weeks.

If so, he’ll be a centerpiece of a lineup that remains among the game’s most-feared, with Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez, Nick Castellanos and James McCann.

It’s a lineup that should look almost identical to last year’s, despite all the offseason rumblings about possible trades.

“The offseason’s not over yet,” Upton said, with a chuckle. “So I’m not gonna speak too fast.

“You do want to see what two years of having that group together (can do).”

Buzz off

The Tigers are used to the buzz about their postseason and World Series chances.

Not so much this offseason. There’s barely been a peep of praise from the national pundits, and that makes sense, since Detroit missed the playoffs in 2015 (badly, last place) and 2016 (barely, second place).

The Tigers’ last playoff appearance was in 2014.

“I’m fine with where we’re at,” Justin Verlander said. “Let all the other people have the buzz. We’ll figure it out.”

Said Upton: “Fine by us, that’s fine. The Indians deserve everything they’re getting right now. As far as the attention, in second place, you get overlooked. We’re fine with it.”

The Indians won the American League Central and AL pennant, losing to the Cubs in extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series.

So, obviously, the Indians, with their young, talented starting pitching — plus the addition of slugger Edwin Encarnacion — are going to be the popular pick to repeat as division champions.

“There’s no reason for us to try to go out there and boast anymore,” GM Al Avila said.

Added bench coach Gene Lamont: “The Cleveland Indians know the Tigers are there.”

Small talk

The Caravan always lends itself to some interesting Q&A’s with fans. Some highlights from a Friday stop at Wayne State:

■What do you do in the offseason?

Third-base coach Dave Clark: “I’m trying to marry off my second daughter.”

Starting pitcher Michael Fulmer, the reigning AL rookie of the year: “I do some part-time plumbing, so if you need a plumber, let me know.”

■What’s your favorite baseball movie?

Second baseman Ian Kinsler: “I know every line to ‘Major League.’ I don’t know if it’s my favorite movie, but I know all the lines.”

Avila: “ ‘Sandlot.’ Reminds me of how I grew up.”

■Who’s the best-dressed Tiger?

Fulmer: “I can tell you the (worst-)dressed. Jose Iglesias. I think he showed up at Chicago looking like Ronald McDonald one time.”