Lakeland, Fla. — Pitchers and catchers report Tuesday with the rest of the squad due in a week. But already, manager Ron Gardenhire has planted the seed.
“Keep the outside world out of your head,” he said, when asked what his message to the team might be. “All the distractions of people telling you this and telling you that, we just have to believe in ourselves inside this little bubble. We have to do the work. We have to understand that if we do the work, we’re capable.
“There’s talent here. We’re in the big leagues. We’re going to do the work and we’re going to compete.”
Since general manager Al Avila has fully implemented the club’s rebuild phase — trading off J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Ian Kinsler and Justin Verlander — the Tigers enter spring training without title expectations for the first time in more than a decade.
But don’t try to tell the players that.
“The only people who don’t have great expectations are the people standing here talking about it,” said closer Shane Greene, referring to the assembled media. “All we’ve got to do is score more runs than the other team. It’s a pretty easy game. We’re going to show up, compete and see what happens.”
Gardenhire has made no promises, other than the team will work hard, be fundamentally sound and battle-ready.
“I’m not saying we’re going to shock the world or anything like that,” he said. “But I know we’re going play the game right and we’re going to compete.”
The competition has already begun. With a new leadership group and a host of young, hungry players, the battle for roster spots should be intense.
“I think it will be fun,” right-hander Alex Wilson said. “We have a lot of young guys with a lot of talent and with a young crew you just never know. We could mesh and take off or we could take a few bumps along the way.
“We have the right amount of talent to start; we have a good starting point and I know everybody here wants to win. That’s just who we are as competitors and nothing is going to take that out of us. It’ll be challenging at times, but it will also be a lot of fun to watch.”
The players hear what the pundits are saying; they know the doomsday forecast. And don’t think for a minute it hasn’t put a chip on their shoulders.
“It drives a lot of us,” left-hander Blaine Hardy said. “Anytime anybody tells you that you aren’t going to be good, it lights a fire under you. It’s one of those things that drives you. Adding Gardy to the mix with a bunch of young guys, it’ll be fun to see how many people we can shock.”
By next Monday, there will be 62 players in camp, including 22 non-roster invitees. Here is a position-by-position look at the projected roster and camp battles.
Projected rotation: Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann, Matthew Boyd, Mike Fiers, Daniel Norris.
In the hunt: Alex Wilson, Chad Bell, Buck Farmer, Ryan Carpenter, Travis Wood.
Camp depth: Artie Lewicki, Spencer Turnbull.
Prospects: Sandy Baez, Alex Faedo.
Storylines: The fifth spot in the rotation is Norris’ to lose, but he does have a minor-league option remaining. There are health and productivity concerns with Zimmermann, too. Wilson, Bell, Farmer (out of options) and Wood also could be moved to the bullpen. If Wilson doesn’t win a rotation spot, he almost certainly would retain his set-up role.
Projected on the 25-man roster: Shane Greene (closer), Daniel Stumpf, Warwick Saupold, Joe Jimenez, Blaine Hardy, Drew VerHagen.
In the hunt: Johnny Barbato, Mark Montgomery, Kevin Comer, Jairo Labourt, Enrique Burgos.
Camp depth: Zac Reininger, Victor Alcantara, Paul Voelker, Eduardo Jimenez.
Prospects: Gregory Soto. Gerson Moreno.
Storylines: Other than Greene, there is no telling how things could shake out here. Especially if Wilson and some of the other starting pitchers get sent into the mix. The expectation is for Stumpf, Saupold, Jimenez and VerHagen to build off last season and play big roles. Keep an eye on Barbato and Burgos; both throw upper-90s heat.
Projected on 25-man roster: James McCann, John Hicks.
In the hunt: Derek Norris, Brayan Pena.
Camp depth: Grayson Greiner, Arvicent Perez.
Prospect: Jake Rogers.
Storylines: Hicks has a chance to serve as the backup in three spots: catcher first base and designated hitter. He’s out of minor-league options, too. Norris and Pena were signed to minor-league deals to provide veteran depth. Of the two, Pena might be first man up because he is a switch-hitter and could complement right-handed hitting McCann, and because of his expertise handling a pitching staff.
Projected on 25-man roster: Miguel Cabrera (1B), Dixon Machado (2B), Jose Iglesias (SS), Jeimer Candelario (3B).
In the hunt: Alexi Amarista (3B, 2B, SS), Niko Goodrum (3B, 2B, CF), Pete Kozma (3B, SS, 2B), Ronny Rodriguez (3B, 2B, OF).
Camp depth: Harold Castro, Kody Eaves, Edwin Espinal, Dominic Ficociello.
Prospects: Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara.
Storylines: The battle here is primarily for one or two utility spots. The Tigers want somebody especially to back up Candelario at third base and Machado at second. Of the four primary combatants, Amarista and Kozma have the most big-league experience, but Rodriguez might have the most explosive bat. Keep an eye on both Eaves and Lugo; both could be knocking on the big-league door soon.
Projected on the 25-man roster: Nick Castellanos (RF), Leonys Martin (CF), Mikie Mahtook (LF).
In the hunt: JaCoby Jones, Victor Reyes, Mike Gerber.
Camp depth: Jim Adduci, Chad Huffman, Jason Krizan.
Storylines: Reyes is a Rule 5 pick, so he will get every opportunity to win a roster spot. Jones has another minor-league option left. Another player who could work his way into the mix here is Goodrum. If he wins a utility spot, then Jones, Reyes and Gerber would be battling for one spot.
Projected on the 25-man roster: Victor Martinez
Storylines: By all accounts, Martinez is healthy and ready for spring training. Presumably, though, at age 39, in the final year of his contract and coming off a heart ablation procedure, he could be on a short leash. General manager Al Avila said no decisions would be made until they see how Martinez performs this spring. Without Martinez, the Tigers could opt not to carry a full-time DH.
Minor-league camp players of interest: RHP Frankin Perez; RHP Adam Ravenelle; RHP Phillippe Aumont; RHP Matt West; LHP Caleb Thielbar; LHP James Russell; LHP Will Lamb; 1B-3B Gabriel Quintana; CF Kenny Wilson; LF-RF Christin Stewart.