Lakeland, Florida — One thing definitely is different at 2018’s Detroit Tigers spring camp.
Ian Kinsler is absent — from the infield and from the clubhouse.
Kinsler now works for the Angels. After four years of Kinsler doubling as an up-the-middle fortress and locker-room touchstone for elder teammates and for rookies, the Tigers are switching to a new man, Dixon Machado, a shortstop who will move to the infield’s right side.
No one is quite sure how it will go. Machado, who turns 25 on Thursday, has played in 105 big-league games, most at shortstop. He has a .246 batting average and .603 OPS. His glove and arm, considered to be pluses at short, are less predictable as he switches sides.
“The time I play last year, I got more confident, more comfortable, every time I play,” said Machado, whose smile is 100-watts-plus and flashes with frequency.
The Tigers would agree defense is primary at a middle infield post. Offense is necessary. How much of each Machado can deliver in 2018 is the question.
On the upbeat side, he has soft hands, good range, and an excellent arm — at least at shortstop. At bat, he does not strike out to any worrisome degree (32 in 181 plate appearances in 2017). But neither does he walk much (10 times, with a .302 on-base percentage). Nor, somewhat surprisingly, has he hit with quite the alley-splitting power the Tigers might have expected from a man who is listed at 6-foot-1.
But that might change in 2018. Machado no longer weighs his listed 170 pounds. He is “194, 193,” in his words. And it is not blubber. It is mostly muscle added when he chopped down on America’s fast-food order lanes and went for more protein and better additives.
“I changed my diet a little,” said Machado, whom the Tigers signed in 2008, when he was a teen growing up in Venezuela. “Not as much junk food. Even now, when I eat junk food, I feel bad. My stomach feels weird.”
He mentioned a Saturday night party not long ago. There was probably too much starch and too much fat. And too many naughty calories.
“Monday, I feel terrible,” Machado said.
So, with his appetite reformed, and with a body more capable of providing crunch the Tigers deeply need in their lineup, Machado is ready. And of the opinion regular work at second should be a ticket to smoother times for one of the team’s better past prospects.
One edge, he says, is tied to the Tigers’ new tutors. Ron Gardenhire is a manager who played in the big leagues as an infielder. First-base coach Ramon Santiago is the team’s primary defensive instructor and, of course, made his infield versatility at three positions a 10-season ticket with the Tigers.
“Santiago helped me last year,” said Machado, remembering a mid-season visit when Santiago, who wasn’t then coaching, dropped in on his old Tigers friends.
A man who had known how to handle part-time work, Santiago was able to help Machado deal with infrequent starts and occasional back-up shifts.
He recommended a book: “Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence,” by Gary Mack and David Casstevens.
“The next day I got two hits,” Machado remembers. “It kind of saved my year.”
Machado’s role in 2017 was crueler than that of the typical back-up. He was being carried on the big-league roster for one reason: Machado was out of minor-league options and the Tigers, with an eye toward 2018 and beyond, were not about to lose Machado to the waiver wire.
Andrew Romine was the team’s general infield fill-in. It left Machado sitting in the dugout, trying to maintain energy and a helpful mental groove, even when some days it seemed impossible.
He will begin the season as a starter and from there all parties will see how it goes. The Tigers ideally would prefer that Machado play shortstop. But there is an incumbent there, Jose Iglesias, and as Machado says, instantly: “Iggy is great. He’s a great shortstop. He deserves to be there.”
Machado says, “I can be patient” with whatever the future brings. That could involve, perhaps at mid-season, Iglesias being traded to a contender, which logically would relocate Machado to short and potentially deliver prospect Dawel Lugo as the Tigers’ new second baseman.
But that’s all part of some soothsayer’s forecast.
For now, he is at second, a likely regular, with work to do on all fronts.
“Playing every day,” he said, with a nod, should help, although that can cut both ways. “They (pitchers) see you more and know how to pitch to you.
"It’s all part of the process.”
The process begins, competitively, Thursday when the Tigers have their annual spring-camp debut game against Florida Southern. The next day, it’s a different world: big-league pitchers, big-league ground balls, big-league expectations for a man who at last is getting his shot at showing he belongs.