Larish working to make Tigers' roster
Left-handed power hitter ready to contribute at first and third base
DETROIT -- Jeff Larish feels like he's finally in a good position to hit. Whether he's in a good position to play on the Tigers roster is the next matter to decide.
As a left-handed power hitter, Larish is a precious commodity in Detroit. But he's also one they have to find a way to play, whether it's on the infield corners or as a pinch-hitter. Yet for someone who manager Jim Leyland has pegged in the thick of an impending camp battle for the final spot on the roster, Larish takes a decidedly calm approach. And that might end up being one of the best things going for him.
"I never thought there was a chance to be up in the big leagues last year with the group of guys that they had," Larish said during TigerFest last month. "But in my very brief time, I've learned that you never know what's going to happen. I try not to think about that stuff too much and just go about my business and control what I can control. That's great to be considered in that. It's an honor. But whether that happens, I guess that's up to me."
On the one hand, Larish is a decidedly laid-back personality. He wasn't overly excitable during his Detroit stints last season despite his surprising situation. He just quietly went about his business.
Part of the reason is a quiet confidence that seemingly refused to be overwhelmed. Larish believes he can play at this level, and he sees himself as a third baseman, with the ability to play first, as he tries to get the repetitions to shore up his play.
His work ethic and his preparation feed into his confidence. Instead of staying satisfied as a slugging first baseman, Larish has made the adjustments and done the drills to make himself into a potential utility player.
When Larish sat on the bench down the stretch last season, he unintentionally got Leyland's attention with his ability to take what he observed into his preparation. Larish's knack for hitting off the bench -- 5-for-11 last year as a pinch-hitter, and 7-for-16 as an in-game substitute -- kept him from lingering at the end of the roster.
"I like what I've seen," Leyland said last September. "I like guys that figure things out and are smart, and I think Jeff Larish is smart."
Larish credits his teammates.
"I was blown away, to be honest with you, with the amount of guys that would go out of their way to help me out," Larish said. "I mean, talking to [Gary] Sheffield, [Curtis] Granderson, [Brandon] Inge, [Carlos] Guillen, [Placido] Polanco, Magglio [Ordonez] -- all those guys, they've got their jobs to do, and for them to take time out of their preparation and all the commotion that they have to deal with to come and be proactive about helping me, I can't even describe the feeling you get as a young player."
His work at third in the fall wasn't a learning process as much as building off of what he already knew, having played the spot at Arizona State. His Arizona Fall League work included a steady diet of ground balls and learning the tricks to playing third at the professional level.
"I've always taken a lot of pride in my preparation," Larish said. "And I think the big thing, the history of my career, when I've dealt with a new situation, I've always had that struggle in the beginning, but eventually I'll figure it out. I'm very routine oriented, so when I'm able to then experience and know what I'm going to be dealing with, I'm able to get a routine. And I feel like that routine, that consistency, then translates into success."
If it does, Larish might become the left-handed bat that complements Inge at third. He'll probably never match Inge's defense, but he can fit the situational offense that the Tigers could use alongside right-handed hitters like Inge and Marcus Thames. That would expand Larish's portfolio greatly beyond spot starts at designated hitter or first.
The Tigers' roster has four bench spots. Catcher Matt Treanor takes one, utility infielder Ramon Santiago likely another, and fourth outfielder Marcus Thames probably another. If that's the case, Larish could be competing with infielder/outfielder Ryan Raburn, among others. Larish also might have the capability to play the outfield, but no plan has developed.
What almost went overlooked in the Fall League was that Larish developed as a hitter, too. For that, he thanks tips from hitting coach Lloyd McClendon that he had been quick to take in over the summer but proved slow to take effect.
"I always knew what I was doing wrong," Larish said, "but I didn't know how to fix it until Lloyd kind of gave me some stuff [to think about]. So I just tried to continue that and keep working on that, and I think it's helped out a lot. I mean, it showed in the numbers."
Larish and his quiet batting stance hit .260 with the Tigers last year, but struck out 34 times in 111 plate appearances, including 15 strikeouts in 40 September plate appearances. His batting average on balls he put in play, however, was an impressive .368.
Once he put himself in a better position to hit and made more consistent contact, the difference in his Fall League numbers were striking. He fanned just 25 times in 142 plate appearances, a lower rate than he had at Triple-A Toledo, yet produced a .331 average and .548 slugging percentage with nine doubles and six home runs.
That raised offseason interest from other clubs, but the Tigers held onto Larish and traded fellow left-handed hitting prospect Matt Joyce instead.
Larish never worried about the trade talk. To a great degree, he has little control over the Tigers roster this spring. All he can do is force a tough decision one way or the other.
"Not too many things make me too nervous anymore," he said. "I'm pretty laid back and relaxed about things. Things are going to work out the way they're going to work out. It does no good to sit there and worry."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.