Leyland sets early tone for Tigers
Manager stresses results, not expectations, to his charges
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium was empty of players when manager Jim Leyland reported to Spring Training early Thursday afternoon. That didn't stop him from trying to set a tone.
From TigerFest last month to the Winter Caravan to the weeks leading up to camp, Leyland has emphasized the fact that expectations mean nothing if they're not backed up by real, tangible performance. Once his team gathers over the next several days for formal workouts, starting with pitchers and catchers on Friday and continuing with position players next week, it'll be time to take that theme to the field.
"This is a huge Spring Training for us," Leyland said. "You try to basically set your tone for the championship season. That starts today with us and the coaching staff and starts tomorrow with the pitchers. You want to make sure you set the right tone. No shortcuts. Time to go back to work."
For those players already in camp, it was basically another day at work. New dad Jason Grilli and setup man Fernando Rodney joined their ranks on Thursday, meaning most of the pitching staff from last year has checked in. Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman played catch on Thursday morning, while others worked out on their own.
Other than that, it was a somewhat sleepy day in Tigertown, a far different reality of reporting day from the image that fits into the theme of a new baseball season.
"They're not all pulling up in a big bus," right-hander Jordan Tata joked.
They are, however, pulling up to the parking lot in front of the complex and unloading their bags, readying for their first formal workout as a team on Friday morning. The first full-squad workout won't take place until next Wednesday.
The format, in many ways, remains the same. Leyland and third-base coach Gene Lamont will stick with their formula of practicing smart, not long, organizing drills with as much efficiency and as little downtime as possible, so that players don't get bored and lose their concentration. A team that practices with a purpose, Leyland believes, plays with a purpose.
In that sense, it's the same Spring Training as in previous years. In other ways, it's a Spring Training with expectations unlike most of these players have ever experienced.
"We'll have a lot of fun with the guys, but we'll work first and have some fun with it. Just make sure they're in good frames of mind, make sure everybody gets what they need to get ready." Leyland said, "We'll make sure all our players are ready. They'll have plenty of at-bats during Spring Training. I'm going to make sure they're ready. I think that's really important."
There's another key difference in this spring, and it comes with the makeup of the team. Two years after he inherited a relatively young, but maturing team from Alan Trammell, Leyland now has an overwhelmingly veteran roster with proven players, if not all older ones. Depending on the left-field mix, Curtis Granderson is the only member of the starting lineup with less than five years of big league experience.
"You get lulled to sleep sometimes with a team like this," Leyland cautioned, "because we're leaning towards more veteran players now, and it's the same old thing [for them]. Veteran players, a lot of times, think, 'Well, I know what it takes.' Well, they know what it takes, but then all of a sudden, Opening Day comes, and they're not ready. So I'm going to guard against that."
Getting those veteran players in shape is Leyland's first priority. After that, he said, he has to work out the final spots in his bullpen, especially the seventh-inning role on which he has placed a priority. He wants to find out what he has with the talented, but enigmatic, arms of Francisco Cruceta and Denny Bautista.
"It's huge," Leyland said of the role. "To get out of the sixth and get through the seventh, if somebody can do that, that's really big."
Several bullpen candidates are out of Minor League options and could be out of the organization if they don't make the team out of camp. Likewise, Brandon Inge's uncertain presence is a major factor in the makeup of the bench. Leyland points to those situations as examples of how the roster isn't as set as many make it out to be.
It's a camp with uncertainty, but it's a camp with potential. And it starts Friday.
"I'm ready to go," Leyland said. "I know what the task is ahead of us."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.