Lakeland, Fla. — Last spring, Mikie Mahtook was the new guy introducing himself to a new group of teammates. This year, he’s one of the few established veterans.
“Yeah, but I am still meeting a lot of guys for the first time,” he said with a laugh. “Just different new guys.”
For the first time in his young career, Mahtook comes into camp with a job to lose — he is penciled in as the Tigers’ left fielder, a spot he earned with a breakout season a year ago.
“It doesn’t really change anything for me,” he said. “You come into spring training with the goal of getting ready for the season, to get as ready as you can be whether you are starting or competing for a spot. So my mentality is the same.
“It’s nice to come in here knowing that there isn’t as much pressure (to win a job), but you put that pressure on yourself anyway. It’s a little bit different, but my mindset is the same.”
Mahtook, one of the few bright spots in a dismal 2017 season in Detroit, hit .276 with a .330 on-base percentage, producing 12 home runs, 15 doubles and six triples. But those final numbers don’t fully reflect how hot he was from June through August.
He was hitting .186 at the end of May when he finally got the chance to play every day. From June 2 through Aug. 18, Mahtook hit .337 with a .386 on-base percentage and .531 slugging. He hit seven home runs, nine doubles and four triples in that stretch.
Right about then, though, he started to feel some tightness in his groin which never fully went away and ended up curbing his production (he hit .204 the rest of the way) and eventually ended his season on Sept. 22. It also earned him a good-natured verbal joust from general manager Al Avila.
“There are players who won’t give you an at-bat or pitch an inning unless they are 100 percent,” Avila said last month. “That’s not what you want. Then there are guys like Miggy who will go out there crippled and won’t come out until they can’t walk.
“Mahtook is one of those guys. We’ve got to be careful with that guy because he’s a little bit of a nut. He really made me mad last year because he was playing hurt at the end of the year.”
Mahtook isn’t apologizing, nor he is changing his linebacker’s approach to playing the game.
“No, if I can play, if I can run, if I can play to where I don’t think I’m going to hurt my team, I am going to play,” he said. “I’m not one to complain too much. I might be off a step, but if I think I can still run, hit and swing, I am going to play.”
Manager Ron Gardenhire has yet to see Mahtook play, but he likes him already.
“He comes to play, I can see that,” he said. “From talking to him at TigerFest, and from talking to Lloyd McClendon and some of the guys who were here last year, you can tell — he’s ready to play. He gets after it pretty good.”
Mahtook said he grew up in the game emulating Evan Longoria, who has missed just 12 games the last five seasons. Also, he looked around the Tigers clubhouse last year and saw Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and others playing through aches and pains.
“If you play 162 games in a season, you aren’t going to play at 100 percent (health) every time,” he said. “I guess last year when I knew I couldn’t do it anymore, I went in and said something. But I know my body and I am not going to hold back for anything.”
Mahtook said the groin was fully healed about a month after he was shut down.
“I had a good offseason, did a lot of things I wanted to do,” he said. “Get healthy was No. 1. I did all my speed work stuff to make sure I kept my speed. I leaned up a little bit, which you always do before you come into camp.
“But I feel good. I feel like I am ready to pick up where I left off and hopefully have an even better year.”
Mahtook played all three outfield positions last season, settling into left after Justin Upton was traded and Nick Castellanos moved to right field. He’s also changed jersey numbers — from 15 (Gardenhire’s number) to 8 (Upton’s old number).
“Actually, I was asking for No. 8 before Gardy was hired,” he said. “Eight has been my number my whole life, I was just never able to get it…Hey, if I can do what J-Up did last year, I will take it.”