Leyland's early arrival symbolizes expectations
Many players already on hand before camp's official opening
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jim Leyland usually doesn't arrive at Joker Marchant Stadium for Spring Training until a day or two before the first workout. He isn't one to leave his family early to linger around a half-empty clubhouse or watch pitchers have an informal throwing session.
That's what made Leyland's arrival here on Thursday so surprising. The enthusiasm in his voice wasn't a shock, but it wasn't traditional, either.
"I can't say I've ever looked more forward to a spring as much as this one," Leyland said, as he settled into the cozy quarters of his corner office.
He isn't the only one.
Though the Tigers don't have their first official workout until Monday, the anticipation is already here, as players file in and out of the clubhouse. Most of the pitchers have already arrived. Some filed in this week, others have been around since last month's Winter Caravan in Detroit.
Position players are steadily joining them, too. Don Kelly filed in a while ago, though he insists he's here as an infielder rather than a catcher. Clete Thomas also came in, as did Jhonny Peralta. Miguel Cabrera is expected in the coming days. Even Tigers catching prospect Patrick Leyland beat his dad down to camp.
"I'm trying to get as close to midseason form as I can," said starter Rick Porcello, who has been working out here for close to a month.
Leyland's pitching coach, Jeff Jones, knows the feeling. He has been here all week, as he prepares for his first camp in charge of the pitching staff.
"I wanted to come down earlier and see some of the guys, even some of the guys we've had already," Jones said.
Leyland's anticipation is at least a little of a sign of what he thinks about the team he is charged to lead. However, it's also a statement about what they need to do to get there.
The skipper is looking forward, he said, "because we've got a lot to do. We've really got a lot, a whole lot of work to do this spring."
Leyland likes that kind of task. If it was an easy spring -- for good or bad reasons -- he would get bored easily. This is a team with lofty goals, high expectations and a long to-do list beforehand. It officially starts Monday with the first formal workout.
Regardless of what happened this winter, this would've been a highly-anticipated Spring Training simply for the question of how the Tigers will prepare to try to repeat their success. After several seasons as a dark-horse contender, they enter this season as a clear favorite in the American League Central, the only team having made major upgrades to contend.
Once Detroit made its biggest upgrade a few weeks ago by signing Prince Fielder, that anticipation hit new levels, maybe even surpassing what it had in 2007 and 2008.
When the Tigers had similar expectations four years ago, Leyland made a point of talking to his players about handling that kind of attention. This time around, he wants to send a message on relishing those high hopes.
"I want to make sure they know you make it a positive," Leyland said. "I want to make sure they know I'm thrilled we're picked to do something, because that's when you know you have a good team.
"But how is this team going to play out? I don't know. It's going to be fun. It's going to be very interesting to see. We have some changes going on. I've got a big job this spring. I'm really looking forward to it."
Almost all of the changes stem from the season-ending injury to Victor Martinez and the arrival of Fielder. Cabrera's early arrival is expected to get him a head start on his return to third base, in order to give him a decent chance to get a feel for the position again.
The reigning AL batting champion has had a few weeks to prepare for the move, and he's expected to report to camp significantly lighter than he did last year -- probably around 255 pounds, instead of in the 270s.
Turns out that won't be the only position change on the docket. Brandon Inge, who lost his third-base job to Cabrera, has asked for a chance to compete for the starting job at second base, a position he has never played in a professional game. The Tigers will try to give him a shot there, while also trying to polish Ryan Raburn's defensive game at the same spot and keep Ramon Santiago fresh there, too.
"We're going to push these guys hard this spring," Leyland said. "We're going to have more game-type infield drills at full speed than we've had in the past. It'll be a lot more intense, like game conditions. That's how you get better."
As tough as infield coach Rafael Belliard's job is going to be this spring, Jones doesn't have it easy, either. While Detroit's front four starters are set, the lone opening has at least five options in camp, none of them established veterans.
Top prospect Jacob Turner has been around for a while, as he tries to earn a Major League spot at age 20. Left-hander Duane Below left his native Michigan for Lakeland before New Year's Day. Adam Wilk has been working out in California before arriving this week, while hot prospect Drew Smyly did the same in Dallas after pitching in the Pan Am Games over the offseason.
There's a lot to decide, but even more to anticipate. That's why Leyland's already here.
"This is my 49th Spring Training," Leyland said. "Forty-nine years, and I'm still loving it."