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Lakeland, Fla. – What if one of the pillars of the Tigers’ next championship-level team is a 28-year-old who was signed as a minor-league free agent after spending seven years slogging in relative anonymity in the Twins’ system?

What if one of the bedrock pieces of this rebuild never hit above .275 in the minor leagues and was projected to be, at best, a super utility player at the big-league level?

What if that player ends up being the Tigers' starting shortstop, a standard-bearer and competitive leader?

What if Niko Goodrum ends up being way more than the Tigers could have ever imagined?

Against all odds, perhaps, but it feels like it’s trending in that direction.

After spending the last two seasons playing all over the diamond – everywhere but pitcher and catcher – Goodrum, who turns 28 Friday, is settling in at shortstop and quietly, unassumingly taking charge in the Tigers’ clubhouse.

“I don’t have a problem saying stuff to people,” said Goodrum, who at 8 a.m. Monday had already worked up a sweat in the weight room and was heading out to the batting cage. “I expect a lot out of people and people have to check me, too. It’s that type of thing that goes into it.

“I hold myself accountable. I hold myself to a certain standard. I care.”

Nobody took the losing harder last season than Goodrum. He cares. But most nights he was able to lay his head on the pillow at night with a clear conscience.

“If something doesn’t go your way, that doesn’t mean you weren’t prepared for it or you didn’t work for it,” he said. “Sometimes it just doesn’t go your way. But every day, if you go out there and give 100 percent effort, I expect that out of everybody. And if you are slacking, then I have to check you on it.

“I have no problem with that. I want to win. I want everybody to feel like at the end of the day I left it out there. If that’s the last game they ever play, they’ll be able to say, ‘All right, boom, I did it.’ I don’t want them to go home and be like, ‘Dang, I didn’t do all I could.’”

It’s next-level time for Goodrum, and he is well aware of that. He was on pace for career year last season when he was shut down with adductor strain on Aug. 24. With a month left, he was hitting .248 with 12 home runs, 45 RBIs and 12 stolen bases.

“It’s time for a change, time for me to just step up,” Goodrum said. “It’s time for me to consistently be impactful, rather than just having spurts of it. That’s the step everyone takes and if you don’t take it, you are just in the mix.

“I hold myself to that standard. I’m never satisfied, always trying to get better. That doesn’t mean you have to do something crazy. Just be better and make the team better around you. That’s what the next step is for me.”

It’s crazy to contemplate how rapid he’s risen with the Tigers compared to the slow track he was on after being a second-round draft pick with the Twins.  And you don’t have to dig too far beneath the chiseled surface to see the chip – it’s still there.

“I always had confidence in my ability to perform and play,” Goodrum said. “I just didn’t get the opportunity. Out there with the Twins for seven or eight years, some people were just looking the other way and couldn’t see what they have. Every year, another draft – they had a lot of players to look at.

“I always said I appreciate them for drafting me and giving me an opportunity. But Detroit is getting the benefit of it. Everything worked out the way it was supposed to.”

Goodrum’s story should be inspiring to the growing list of good, young players in camp who find themselves fighting to be heard and seen above the hype of the Tigers top 30 prospect list.  

“That’s something that builds character,” Goodrum said. “It shows you what you are made of, what kind of player you are and what kind of person you are. You go through that kind of wait and that grind – when adversity comes to you, you know how to deal with it.

“You’ll never get away from adversity in this game and it helps that you’ve been tested. Those seven or eight years helped me. I grew up.”

What if the Tigers shortstop of the future isn’t a prospect? What if he’s a solid professional who steadfastly paid his dues, learned his craft, fought through the early years of the rebuild and ultimately straight-up earned the position?

It'd be kind of refreshing, wouldn't it? 

Twitter @cmccosky

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