Fighter's mentality fuels Niko Goodrum’s hot spring for Tigers

By John Vittas
Special to The Detroit News

Port Charlotte, Fla. – Niko Goodrum isn’t changing his mindset.

After a breakout rookie season for the Tigers in 2018, Goodrum’s spot on this year’s team is safe. Despite that, he isn’t changing his approach to spring training.

Niko Goodrum

“My mentality is always to make the team,” Goodrum said. “Nothing is ever given to you. You’re not entitled to anything. You have to make the team, so I come to spring training that way every spring.”

After picking up two more hits in the Tigers’ 7-3 loss to Tampa Bay Rays on Friday, Goodrum is batting .371 in Grapefruit League play while slugging well above .600.

To understand his mindset, you must understand his background. Goodrum was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the second round in 2010 after starring at Fayetteville County High School in Georgia.

BOX SCORE: Rays 7, Tigers 3

“Coming out of high school, you’re not really knowing what to expect,” said Goodrum. “You just talk to the scout that signs you and go from there. You actually think you’re going to be in the big leagues in a couple years. That’s your thought as a high schooler, not really knowing the process.”

The process was a slow one for the now 27-year-old. Drafted as a shortstop, Goodrum spent his first three professional seasons in rookie ball, doing most of his training on the hot Florida fields of Fort Myers with nobody but his teammates and coaches watching.

“It was a grind” he said. “High school ball is not anything like professional ball. People are throwing harder, there’s long days. I was up at 5:30 in the morning every day. You have your early work, your extra work. It was much different than I thought.”

Goodrum played in 674 minor league games over the next eight years, finally reaching Triple-A in 2017 – seven years after he was drafted. After a September call-up to Minnesota later that season, the Twins outrighted him off the 40-man roster and back to Triple-A. Minnesota offered him a minor-league contract, but Goodrum wasn’t keen on starting the process all over again.

He and his agent decided to explore other opportunities. That’s when the Tigers called. With a fresh start, Goodrum impressed the team’s evaluators in 2018, earning a spot on the club’s Major League roster. He’s not been sent down since.

“I won’t let that happen,” Goodrum said. “It’s a thing where if I have the opportunity to play, I’m not going back (to the minors). Six hundred and seventy-four games you said? I’ve done enough in the minor leagues. I don’t need that anymore.”

Niko Goodrum

Goodrum has paid his dues. When the big league at-bats finally came, he was ready. His 2018 season would not have been fully appreciated without those 674 sweaty, rarely-watched efforts. He admits that there were plenty of dark days where he doubted he would ever get the chance to live out his dream.

“I would be lying if I said there wasn’t,” he said. “Going through the experience of eight years, you think, ‘Is my chance going to happen?’ But you never lose faith in yourself. You always feel you can get there when the opportunity presents itself. God blessed me to get the opportunity and I made the most of it, so here I am.”

Turnbull impresses in audition

Right-hander Spencer Turnbull had the first chance to impress the Tigers’ coaching staff after Michael Fulmer was shut down “to refine his lower-body mechanics.”

Turnbull did just that, profiling his full arsenal against a lineup of Rays’ starters Friday. He limited Tampa Bay to one run over four innings, striking out two and walking one.

“I thought I did pretty well,” Turnbull said. “I mostly just mixed my fastballs early, and then I started throwing my slider and my curveball later. I was throwing a two-seamer and a four-seamer and they usually play off each other pretty well.”

Turnbull’s fastball ranged from 91-95 mph, relying on the same natural sink that earned him an extraordinary 54.6-percent ground ball rate with Double-A Erie last year. Of the 16 balls put in play against him Friday, 14 were on the ground. He didn’t record a single fly ball out.

“I’ll tell you what, his ball has teeth on it,” Tigers bench coach Steve Liddle said. “It just eats the batters up. I think four of their five base hits were ground balls that just got through the infield.”

Turnbull faced the minimum through the first two innings, rolling ground ball after ground ball. After allowing multiple hits in both the third and fourth innings, he pitched out of trouble with strikeouts of Daniel Robertson and Avisail Garcia.

“He did outstanding,” said Liddle. “It’s great to see him step up. Really, he was our star of the game. Today was a good day and a step in the right direction for his development.”

Liddle deferred to manager Ron Gardenhire on whether Turnbull has a realistic chance to make the team. In the wake of Thursday’s Fulmer news, it appears Turnbull will have a chance to earn a spot in the Opening Day rotation.

“I don’t think it affects how I go about it,” Turnbull said. “It’s definitely awesome for me to have any kind of opportunity. I’ll throw wherever they tell me to, whenever they tell me to. I’m just trying to make the most out of any opportunity that I get.”

Hardy struggles, others impress

Three of the Tigers’ relievers projected to make the club threw on Friday. Shane Greene and Buck Farmer each looked solid, but things didn’t go as smoothly for left-hander Blaine Hardy.

“Blaine scuffled a little bit during his inning,” said Liddle. “He got the ball up and he wasn’t sharp.” 

Hardy faced eight batters and recorded just one out, surrendering five runs on five hits while walking two. After allowing three singles and a double, a mammoth three-run home run from Rays infielder Yandy Diaz capped Hardy’s rough afternoon.

“He’s doesn’t have overpowering stuff and he has to pitch with his fastball and changeup and he just couldn’t seem to get the ball down today,” Liddle said. “It was just one of those days.”

Competition continues

Competition for the final Opening Day roster spots continued, with the Tigers sending nearly every player “on the bubble” to Port Charlotte.

Harold Castro won the day offensively, reaching base all three times. He stroked a double to the right-field corner in the first before drawing a walk in the third and reaching on an infield single in the fifth.

Ronny Rodriguez clubbed his fourth home run of the spring, a line drive onto the berm in the left-field corner.

“We’re just looking to see who has the versatility,” Liddle said. “One day doesn’t make the club. It’s good to see the home run (from Rodriguez), but he also misplayed a ball on the infield and it led to some runs. It was a good day to evaluate and a good day to get the work in.”