Orlando, Fla. – Interesting dynamic.
The Detroit Tigers’ two new additions – center fielder Leonys Martin and right-handed starting pitcher Mike Fiers – were unceremoniously dumped by the playoff teams they played on last season.
Martin, who struggled offensively down the stretch, played in only five postseason games with the Cubs. Fiers, once a cog in the Astros’ rotation, lost his spot when they acquired Justin Verlander and wasn’t on any of the team’s three playoff rosters.
Both players spoke on a conference call with Detroit writers Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s a team game, man,” Fiers said. “Anytime you win a World Series, it takes more than the 25 guys on the active roster. So, I helped get us to that point and we made a big signing in Justin Verlander and he picked us up in September and he definitely picked us up in October.
“But what an experience it was for me. Not making the playoff roster, it wasn’t something I was happy about. But at the same time, I had to support my guys and my team as best as I could.”
Martin was acquired from the Mariners at the end of August to provide some speed and defensive help off the Cubs bench. His offensive struggles (career-low .172 batting average) kept him from playing a larger role.
“Last year was a really tough season for me,” said the Cuban-born Martin. “This game is a lot of ups and downs, but it’s about getting better every year. I am going to be ready to prove myself and get better at home plate.”
The rebuilding Tigers have thrown both players a lifeline. They were signed to one-year deals – Martin, who will be 30 in March, for $1.78 million, and Fiers, 32, for $6 million. Fiers, though, is still arbitration-eligible, so the Tigers could conceivably retain him.
Both players have the opportunity to rebuild their value with the Tigers, with the perk of potentially being flipped to a contending team at the trade deadline.
“I always liked the Tigers when I was with Texas; they were always going to the playoffs,” Martin said. “I want to be a part of that one day here. I know it’s a one-year deal, but I am going to do my best to stay a Detroit Tiger.
“Being in the playoffs is fun and I want to play and help this team get back to the playoffs.”
General manager Al Avila intimated on Monday that the center field job is Martin’s to lose.
“He’s a good fit for us because we need a left-handed bat in the outfield,” Avila said. “The main thing is, he’s an excellent defender. Our reports show he’d be a really good defender in our ballpark.
“Playing time comes down to performance, but we expect him to bounce back and be a better hitter than last year. And we expect him to play great defense.”
Martin and JaCoby Jones, a right-handed hitter, will compete for the job. And Jones still has minor-league options remaining. So if he doesn’t win the job outright, which he did last year before struggling at the plate, he will likely be sent to Triple-A Toledo so he could get regular playing time.
Mikie Mahtook is penciled in for left field and Nick Castellanos is slated to be the right fielder. Rookie Mike Gerber, the other left-handed hitting outfielder currently on the 40-man roster, will also get a chance to win a roster spot. He has played all three outfield spots in the minor leagues.
“I really enjoyed playing in Detroit (Comerica Park),” Martin said. “It gives me a chance to run, to make good plays. I like to run and I like to cover (ground). I am going to prepare myself. I knew there is a huge gap in center field, but I think I can do it.”
With the Rangers in 2013 and 2014, he played 302 games and hit .268 with 15 home runs, 89 RBIs and 67 stolen bases. But in the last three seasons, his offensive numbers, as well as his playing time, have fallen off – .228, though he did hit a career-high 15 home runs for the Mariners in 2015.
“We have had a lot of talk about that,” Avila said of Martin’s offensive issues. “There are reasons to believe he can bounce back and be better. There were mechanical issues, mental approach, coaches asking him to change things, him changing things himself that didn’t work.
“And by the time it all came about, he was far gone.”
Martin said it was a matter of putting more emphasis on that part of the game.
“I have dedicated myself more in the batting cage,” he said. “I need to be around the cage more and talking about hitting a little more than I used to.”
Fiers, who signed a one-year deal with the Tigers instead of a two-year offer from the Orioles, prides himself on taking the ball every fifth day. In the last three seasons, he’s made 30, 30 and 28 starts.
Which is why he doesn’t feel like he should be defined by one bad month – specifically the one he had at an inopportune time last August with the Astros chasing their first ever World Series win.
“It’s tough for one individual to be at his best all year,” Fiers said. “For me, I started OK, was really good in June and July, and I fell off at the end. I think everyone goes through tough times. There are times for everyone where, if you are 100 percent, you aren’t going to be 100 percent for long.”
There was an 11-start stretch in June and July where Fiers posted a 2.63 ERA and was pitching as well as he’d ever pitched. Then his body started to break down and in August, he lost command of his breaking ball and wound up and an ERA over 8.00 in five starts.
His sudden decline forced the Astros to make a last-ditch pitch to get Verlander.
“Everyone deals with their own things,” Fiers said. “It’s not an excuse. Obviously, I wasn’t 100 percent but I just tried to do my best and be available for every start I had. Taking me off the field is going to take a lot.
“I was doing everything I could to stay healthy and put up as many innings as I could and give us a chance to win, but yeah, I had a bad late last four or five starts. But other than that, I felt like I pitched very well.”
Fiers had already committed to the Tigers when it was announced they had hired Chris Bosio from the Cubs to be their pitching coach. That was like a bonus check for Fiers. He worked with Bosio in 2011 on the Brewers’ Triple-A team and went 8-0 with a 1.11 ERA.
“I think it’s awesome,” Fiers said. “Every coach is different, every one has his own thing. But me and Bosio just clicked that year. He’s a guy that really sticks up for his pitchers. He sticks up for his team and really fights for you on the mound.
“These guys here will like Bosio. He’s a winner.”