Detroit — Mikie Mahtook knew the text message was ominous. It was from the Rays assistant general manager and all it said was, “I have something to tell you.”
“So that probably means I got traded,” Mahtook said on Saturday during TigerFest.
It did indeed. Mahtook, who had played parts of the last two seasons in Tampa, was traded to the Tigers last Wednesday. His initial reaction was shock.
“I’ve never been traded, it’s my first time being traded,” he said. “Once they told me I got traded, there is like 15 to 20 minutes of taking a step back and realizing what went on. But once I talked to everybody, my agent, the organization, I realized this was a really good opportunity for me.
“That’s when the excitement really hit. I was ready to get going.”
Mahtook was never going to be the starting center fielder in Tampa, not with Kevin Kiermaier on the roster. But in Detroit, he has a chance to win at least a platoon role.
“We don’t know who is going to play center field,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “We don’t know if it’s going to be one guy or two guys or maybe three guys. We just don’t know. We have to see how it plays out.”
Mahtook, JaCoby Jones and Tyler Collins are the primary combatants for two of the spots. Ausmus, general manager Al Avila and assistant general manager David Chadd all agree that in a perfect world, Jones would get more seasoning at the Triple-A level.
So if Mahtook performs in spring training like the Tigers expect, he and Collins would form a platoon in center field. If there is a third center fielder in the rotation, it would be super utility man Andrew Romine.
The Tigers feel like they will get enough offensive production in other spots in the lineup to cover whatever offensive shortcomings they have in center. The priority was to improve an outfield defense which, in terms of runs saved, ranked last in the major leagues last year.
“With Mahtook, Jones and Collins, we have basically speed, athleticism and good defense,” Avila said. “That’s all you can ask for. They are going to help us with their speed and range in center field.”
All Mahtook wants is a chance to prove himself. And by the way, he warns against writing him off as an offensively liability just yet.
“Any athlete wants to compete,” he said. “Nobody wants to be given anything. Competition is good for the team, it’s good for everyone involved. I think it’s going to be a fun situation.
“I play the game hard. I go out every day and I play the game extra hard and I like to think I play it the right way. I’m going to come out and do whatever I can to help us win. They can expect that from me day in and day out.”
Mahtook, a right-handed hitter, hit .295 with nine home runs and a .970 OPS in 41 games late in the 2015 season. In one September series at Comerica Park he went 4-for-10 with a double, triple and homer against the Tigers.
All the momentum, though, was derailed by injuries last year.
“In 2015, I had a really good September and then a really good spring training (in 2016), but just the way the numbers fell, I had to start the year in Triple-A,” Mahtook said. “I was playing well the first couple weeks and I hurt my oblique. I was out for three weeks. Looking back at it, I probably should have stayed out a little longer. But, obviously, as an athlete or competitor, you want to come back and play.”
Soon after he returned to action, Kiermaier was injured in Tampa and Mahtook was summoned.
“They needed me up there earlier than they anticipated,” he said. “I played two or three weeks and I was just starting to feel good and I got hit in the hand. Broke my hand and I was out seven weeks.
“You never want to make excuses. I put a lot of blame on myself for not coming back and having success right away. But it was weird. I’d never been hurt before playing baseball. It was a weird year, but I learned from it and I will be a better player for it.”
When asked what kind of hitter the fans can expect, he laughed: “They can expect more of what happened in 2015 than last year. Like I said, last year was an anomaly for me. Offensively, I will be an asset for us.”
That would be a bonus. What the Tigers are counting on is his ability to cover ground in center field, especially at spacious Comerica.
“I’d rather play in a bigger outfield because you have more room for error, more room to run around,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about running into people or running into walls as much. It’s a big outfield but guys who are comfortable in the outfield, they like that. I am excited.”