Lakeland, Fla. — The Tigers firmly believe Niko Goodrum can play center field, the fact he's never played center field in professional baseball notwithstanding.
On Tuesday, on a rain-soaked Publix Field, Goodrum took the first step toward validating their belief. He made six putouts in five innings in the Tigers' 5-2 Grapefruit League loss to the Blue Jays.
"That's what we wanted to see," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "The wind was swirling around out there pretty good, blowing from left field straight across to center, and the ball was doing funny things.
"But he did all right. He just made adjustments. He's an athlete."
Of the six catches he made, only a couple were routine.
He tracked and caught a ball hit to his right by Teoscar Hernandez in the first inning, and made two excellent catches going back on Kevin Pillar and Lourdes Gurriel.
His best catch, though, was a drive into the left-center gap hit by Billy McKinney that he ran down in the fifth, stabbing with a last-second lunge.
The one he'd like to have back was a bloop single by Danny Jansen in the second. He started back on the ball and couldn't recover.
"One ball fooled him," Gardenhire said. "Just like it does to a thousand different people. That's what you expect when you are out there for really the first time."
The Tigers hope Goodrum can get 400-500 at-bats this season, playing all over the diamond. If he shows he can play center field well enough — and it's a different beast in Comerica Park — then he could end up in a platoon with JaCoby Jones, if Jones doesn't produce enough offensively.
"You can't be adequate and play anywhere on the field in the Major Leagues," Gardenhire said. "Niko can play anywhere. I firmly believe that. He's just got to get reps out there. But I don't want adequate.
"If you play center field at Comerica Park, you need to be good. That's why we put him out there. He can run and he can cover ground and he gets a good jump on the ball. He can do all these things."
The plan, Gardenhire reiterated, is for Goodrum to essentially be an everyday player — just not at the same position every day.
"We're going to play him everywhere, except catcher," he said, with a grin. "We aren't going to catch him — yet."
Being safe, not sorry
Gardenhire called reporters into his office at about 9:40 a.m. Tuesday. Earlier he had changed his lineup, removing starters Miguel Cabrera, Nick Castellanos, Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison.
“I know you guys all tweeted it out, ‘Gardy changed the whole frickin’ lineup, guys are hurt, guys are dead,’” he said, as the room exploded in laughter. “I know how it goes. ‘Castellanos is traded, he’s out of here.’ I’m just trying to calm it down, OK?”
For the record, the lineup change was tweeted out. But the reason for it was believed to be the wet conditions caused by a steady rain Tuesday morning. It was more than that.
“Yeah, weather is part of it,” he said. “But it’s more the hard fields. Talking to a number of guys today, and because of these old, hard fields in spring training, we’ve got a little hip and groin soreness. I just said, ‘Hips and groin soreness, that’s not good.’
“I just changed the whole lineup and got the boys out of there. … Guys are sore. I don’t know how the fields are going to be. I just said we’re not going to deal with that.”
Gardenhire said all four players were willing and able to play. All four had played three games in the last four days.
“It’s always that way in Florida,” Gardenhire said, explaining the hard, sunbaked fields. “And they get worse as the time goes on here. They get harder because it starts getting really hot every day. By the end, your spikes don’t even dig in half the time unless the grounds crew really soaks them down.”
It’s a good bet none of those four players will travel to Disney for the game against the Braves on Wednesday, either.
“Disney is like a rock,” Gardenhire said. “I don’t even want to take my players over there, that’s how tough it is. Balls bounce like a Super Ball there. I’m required to bring a team there, and I will. But, I’m nervous.”
Matt Moore got his third start of the spring and struggled with his command. He walked the first two hitters of the game and then with one out surrendered a line-drive home run to Justin Smoak.
"In the bullpen, I probably had my best command that I had of all three of my starts, going into the game," he said. "Then, somewhere in the 0-2 count to the lead-off hitter, I got out of whack and my tempo kind of sped up on me."
Although he didn't allow any more runs after the Smoak home run, and just two more hits, it still took him 56 pitches to get through three innings.
"I went to the bullpen after the third inning, just wanting to get a good flow going with my hands (in his delivery)," Moore said. "It felt fine."
Around the horn
... Outfield prospect Daz Cameron entered the game in the fifth inning and got a pair of hits, including a hustle double. "He got into the ballgame and right away made an impact," Gardenhire said. "He showed what he can do, got a base hit and ended up on second base because he hauled (butt) out of the box. He wants to play, he loves to play and wants everyone to know he can play."
... Gurriel hit maybe the longest home run of the spring at Publix Field. He hit a fastball from Louis Coleman off the roof of the Corona Cabana, just under the scoreboard beyond the berm in left-center field.
... After the game, the Tigers optioned second baseman Dawel Lugo to Triple-A Toledo. "He needs to go find himself," Gardenhire said. "He's kind of lost right now. He doesn't look very comfortable. He's better than what he's showing. Just go find yourself."
... Brandon Dixon hit his third home run of the spring, including the one he hit against Southeastern University.
... Closer Shane Greene continues to look sharp. He needed just six pitches to get through the fifth. He got two ground balls and a fly out.