Tigers commence long climb back to title contention
Detroit — Opening Day. Always a party in Detroit, regardless of the weather or the state of the ballclub. This one feels different, though, more momentous somehow.
More than just the start of a new baseball season, it's the dawning of a new era of Detroit Tigers baseball.
“There is always a beginning for everything,” said designated hitter Victor Martinez, one of the few players left to bridge the old and the new. “We had a great team for seven years — a lot of expectations, even for ourselves. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get it done. Everybody got older and we needed a new beginning.
“That’s the way it is.”
It was an impressive run. From 2006 through 2014 the Tigers got to the World Series twice, won four straight American League Central titles and two AL Division Series. More than $1 billion was spent in player salaries.
A lot of excitement, a lot of thrills and ultimately, a lot of disappointment. As Martinez said, they didn’t get it done. The mission — to bring a World Series championship home to Detroit and especially to late owner Mike Ilitch —failed.
They spent another $584 million the last three seasons trying to fortify and piece together the remnants of the 2013 team that was perhaps one David Ortiz home run away from another World Series bid.
And that three-year, last-gasp effort ended horribly last season with a 98-loss season and with general manager Al Avila committing – in words and deed – to a full rebuild. Justin Verlander, Justin Upton, Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson, even his son Alex – all jettisoned for prospects.
“We couldn’t keep going in the same direction,” Avila said. “We had to change our business model and our approach. Rebuild. Get our payroll back in line. Rebuild our farm system with legitimate prospects and devote our energy and resources to scouting, analytics and player development.
“We feel this is our best chance to achieve and sustain success over the long haul.”
Here’s the best thing about beginnings, though – the old wounds, regrets and recriminations, the burden of expectations and past failure, it all gets flushed out. None of that is relevant to the Tigers of 2018.
“I think we have more of an edge about us than we’ve had in past years,” said veteran reliever Alex Wilson. “In years past we were a lot older. We expected certain things. Now everybody is hungry. Everybody is trying to win a job or keep a job or have a job.”
The energy is different. Less been there-done that, more eyes wide open and excited. Everything feels fresh and light.
“I think just being around the guys this spring, the energy and the way we are approaching the season in a fun way – I think we are going to be a lot better than people think we’re going to be,” said left fielder Mikie Mahtook. “This locker room is full of young guys fighting for their spot and playing well.
“It’s full of veterans who have a chip on their shoulder to prove they still have a lot left in the tank. We’ve had a great spring. It’s been energetic. There’s been a lot of learning and lot of teaching. But mostly, the culture we’ve created has been fun.”
The right way
That was manager Ron Gardenhire’s first order of business, to establish a positive, energetic, fun tone. He pulled the team together the first day of full workouts and essentially told them: We’re here to have fun. We’re here to play hard, play right and play together. We’re a family and all that matters is what happens inside our little bubble. Ignore the outside noise. Ignore the naysayers.
Just come ready to compete.
“It starts with Gardy,” said Jordan Zimmermann, who will be the Tigers’ Opening Day starter Thursday. “He’s got that drilled in our head that we’re going to do things right. Whatever happens, happens, but we’re going to play the game right.
“We’re going to play the game hard. We’re going to move guys over. We’re going to steal bases. We’re going to pound the strike zone. At the end of the year we will see what our record is. Nobody really knows. They’ve got us penciled in for 100 losses. I believe we are a way better team than that.”
Gardenhire preached fundamentals and then the team practiced them. From the frenetically-paced Good Morning America drills to specialized work with individual position groups, the players would be at their rotating stations bright and early every morning, even on game days.
But he has a way of making the drills fun. There wasn’t as much eye-rolling from the veteran players as you might have thought.
“I think the energy has been up,” Gardenhire said. “I don’t know what it was like before, but everybody tells me the energy level is different. And that was one of the things we planned on. Fundamentally, we worked really hard. We’ve had our good days and our bad.
“But I think there is a good feeling about what we’ve done here and what we’re doing.”
Proof of that is the bounce in the steps of veterans Martinez and Miguel Cabrera – who seem as rejuvenated by the new beginning as anyone.
“It’s been refreshing,” Gardenhire said. “Coming in and not really knowing too much about the situation here. And seeing Martinez and Cabrera with smiles on their faces. (Jose) Iglesias coming in game-on willing to do whatever.
“That’s been the refreshing part. That those guys are on board. You have to have them on board and they’ve been 100-percent on board with what we’re doing, and that’s really refreshing, really cool.”
‘You never know’
Talent wins championships, of course, not intangibles like positive energy and an upbeat clubhouse. And nobody is saying the Tigers, in the first year of a rebuild, are going to contend for a championship.
But that doesn’t mean that young players can’t develop or even over-achieve, that veteran players can't bounce back from bad seasons or that the Tigers can’t play competitive baseball. As right fielder Nick Castellanos said during TigerFest – a rebuild can be as miserable or fun as you want to make it.
“In our eyes, we’re starting fresh,” Wilson said. “We’re not going in thinking we’re going to lose a lot of games. We’re going to go battle. In all honesty, we’ve got a couple of older starters who, if they rebound and have the years they are capable of having, we could be an interesting team to watch.”
He is referring to Zimmermann, Mike Fiers and Francisco Liriano, three veterans who are looking to return to form. Michael Fulmer, the American League Rookie of the Year two years ago, is also trying to bounce back from a season where he battled a nerve issue in his elbow.
Left-handers Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris, who will start the season in the rotation with Fiers on the disabled list (back), are X-factors – they’ve both shown flashes of brilliance the last two seasons without much consistency.
When it was suggested that the success of the rotation was the key between the Tigers being competitive and falling off the grid this year, Boyd said, “Pretty cool, isn’t it? Pretty awesome. Exciting.”
Boyd pointed around the clubhouse – there’s talent on the offensive side, he said, the defense is solid around the diamond, there is potential in the starting rotation and there are still star players like Cabrera, Martinez and a burgeoning star in Castellanos.
“We’ve got a really good ballclub,” Boyd said. “The potential is in this clubhouse. Just because some of these guys haven’t won any batting titles or Cy Young awards, just because some of these guys aren’t as well-known as some others we’ve had here – it doesn’t matter.
“It all comes down to us performing and playing the way we know how. Just being our own selves. I can’t tell you how many games we’re going to win or how many runs we’re going to score. But if we stick to us, in the grand scheme of things, I like where we come out. I think we will make a good first step.”
That’s what the 2018 season is for the Tigers. A first step. Some of the more established players – Castellanos, Iglesias, closer Shane Greene, center fielder Leonys Martin, Liriano, Fulmer, catcher James McCann – they could all end up being traded at the deadline, flipped for another batch of prospects.
It’s part of the process. There will be a lot of players moving in an out over the next couple of years. In reality, the win-loss record will be insignificant to the development and growth of players like third baseman Jeimer Candelario, second baseman Dixon Machado, outfielders JaCoby Jones and Victor Reyes, Boyd, Norris and reliever Joe Jimenez – and any other players the organization tabs as foundation blocks.
“A lot of guys got valuable experience last year and you can’t put a price on that,” said Mahtook, who could count himself among those players. “Some guys came up and failed (Jones, Norris, Jimenez, to name just three) and you learn a lot about yourself once you fail.
“Those guys have come back after an offseason to make their adjustments and are looking to make their mark. There are a lot of young guys ready to take that next step this year.”
It won’t always be pretty. There will be lots of lumps and lessons.
“I was part of a rebuild with the Nationals and it’s a long process,” Zimmermann said. “We have a lot of young guys and I am excited to be a part of this, to be able to watch these young guys grow and be able to help them along their way.”
Patience will be tested. That, too, is standard operating procedure in a rebuild.
“You have to try to come to the ballpark and be the same guy every day,” Zimmermann said. “If you get caught up in the emotions – if you are in a slump for a week and you are down and all of a sudden you hit the ball well for a week and you’re sky high – that’s not going to work.
“You’ve got to stay on a level plane. It’s a long season and there’s a lot of ups and downs. That part of it might be a little more difficult on some guys but it would go a long way if they could understand that.”
It goes back to what Gardenhire said. Ignore the noise. Keep plugging, keep playing hard, keep having your teammates backs and compete every day. Castellanos’ line could be the mantra: This season can be as fun or as miserable as we want it to be.