DETROIT – Spring training is one of the most exciting times of the year. It’s the first sign that warm weather and baseball are nearing a return to Detroit, and with teams like the Pistons and Red Wings in town, that can’t happen soon enough.
But spring training is also a time of cliches and unwarranted optimism. Most of us hear the same quotes year after year, and it can be easy to get caught up in the aura of the spring and believe them -- but beware: They typically mean very little.
Here are nine cliches that Tigers fans are basically guaranteed to hear before the team heads north for Opening Day.
Miguel Cabrera is in the best shape of his life
Look, we all know Miguel Cabrera had a down year in 2019, OK? Yes, he hit just 12 home runs in 493 at-bats. Yes, he posted the second-lowest on-base percentage of his career. But he won the Triple Crown a few years ago, remember? And he is determined to get back to his old form.
When hitters report to Lakeland, we’re sure to hear about how Cabrera has slimmed down in hopes to staying healthy. And if he can stay healthy, “He might not be the Miguel Cabrera of old, but he’ll be better than last season.”
People around the team will assure you Cabrera can get back to some semblance of his old self. Heck, maybe he’ll even take some reps at first base.
“That lineup just feels different with a productive Miguel Cabrera in the middle.”
Someone is working on a new pitch and it definitely will not be a disaster
Did you hear? So-and-so is working on a new pitch. He already has some good stuff, you know, but with that pitch, man, hitters will never know what’s coming.
The infamous New Pitch almost always rears its over-hyped head during spring training. You can bet on someone adding a cutter. And that guy with the devastating slider is just a change-up away from being dominant.
More often than not, the New Pitch gets ditched when the games start to matter, or it’s rarely used because it’s not any good.
Sure, once in awhile you’ll get a Michael Fulmer change-up situation, where a player develops and improves a third pitch that solidifies his arsenal. But when you hear Joe Jimenez has a knuckle-curve in the works that will really diversify his arsenal, try to curb your expectations.
The Veteran Presence
Don’t even think about enjoying spring training without acknowledging The Veteran Presence. These guys have been around. They know the grind of the 162-game season. They’ll help the young guys learn more about the game than they ever could have imagined. Show some appreciation.
Spring training is always a popular time to pay homage to the older players who may or may not actually contribute to the team when April rolls around. Everyone needs a Nick Punto, a Rajai Davis, a Jordy Mercer. You can have these crazy kids turning the locker room into a frat house!
The Veteran Presence will be strong in Lakeland this spring. Not only do the Tigers still have Cabrera and Jordan Zimmermann, they also added Ivan Nova, Austin Romine, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop. Hopefully the rest of the team brought their notepads.
Youth providing a spark
There’s no Veteran Presence if they don’t have younger players to preach to. That’s very important. A 40-man roster of veterans is just an old team. They need a handful of early-20s guys wearing jersey numbers in the 70s to bestow their wisdom upon. Those are the rules.
Younger players will be described with words like “energetic.” They probably play “with a reckless abandon.” But they also bring a spark to the older guys. How can we expect Romine to muster the motivation to drive to the park everyday if he doesn’t get to watch Jake Rogers hit bombs in BP?
The Veteran Presence and the youth spark are codependent necessities of spring training. They’re like oxygen and carbon dioxide to photosynthesis.
Finally getting healthy
You’ll never believe this, but the players are less injured after four months without playing a professional sport.
Every team except the World Series champions will reference nagging injuries as a reason they didn’t get quite as far as they’d hoped the previous year. But there’s good news: The team’s health is starting to round into form.
The catcher’s knees are feeling better. Nobody’s shoulders or elbows are falling off. Franklin Perez threw a bullpen.
Please enjoy this phase of the off-season before your starting first baseman takes a fastball off the hand in the first spring training game and your third-best reliever has a bit of stiffness after a side session. Right now, your team is mostly healthy, and if it stays that way, this season could be special, let me tell you.
Coaches love somebody’s versatility
Oh my gosh, did you know the second baseman is taking reps in the outfield? And the left fielder is practicing at first base?
Few traits get overrated as much as versatility during spring training. Usually, versatility means a player isn’t a good enough hitter to lock down everyday at-bats at a single position. But to coaches, he’s a guy who can “give someone a breather” or “switch spots in a pinch.”
Ron Gardenhire will probably drop these lines about Harold Castro. With Cron, Schoop, Niko Goodrum, Willi Castro, Jeimer Candelario and Dawel Lugo on the infield and JaCoby Jones, Christin Stewart, Victor Reyes and Travis Demeritte in the outfield, there might not be a spot for Harold Castro.
But you’d better believe the Tigers love his versatility.
Forget the .689 OPS, the lack of power and the total disregard for drawing walks. This guy can play second base and center field. How do you not find a spot for a player like that?
He’ll have a chance to earn his spot
Of all the cliches on the list, this one has the best chance to actually come true for the Tigers. They don’t have many good players, so a strong spring might be enough to earn a spot on the roster.
Look at Troy Stokes Jr., Eric Haase, Lugo and Rogers. None of them are roster locks, but they have enough of a pedigree in the minor leagues that a strong spring might bump them onto the 26-man roster.
Don’t get carried away, though. Casey Mize could probably strike out every single batter he faces and still start the year with the Toledo Mud Hens. But don’t discourage the young man right off the bat. He needs to believe he had a chance.
Do the little things better
When coaches are asked what the team needs to work on during the spring, they rarely say things that, you know, actually win games.
“Coach, what are you hoping to see from your team this month?”
“Home runs. I want to see some bombs, man. Let it fly.”
No, spring training is sacred. We must respect pitchers fielding ground balls and tossing to first. And what better time to learn how to go first-to-third on a ground ball to right field?
Oh, and don’t forget the bunts. Managers love bunts. Announcers, too. You’ll almost never hear an announcer criticize a bunt. It’s either the most selfless act ever performed on a playing field or a savvy attempt to “get on base for the guy behind ya.”
And you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll show the bunter getting flooded with high fives in the dugout. So many high fives. “You know his teammates appreciate it."
Don’t bunt, kids.
Everyone is 0-0
In case you don’t understand the basic principals of how a season works, none of the teams have wins or losses before playing any games.
No matter what happens in the Grapefruit League, or how obvious the talent gap is, the Detroit Tigers will start the season with the same record as everybody else. They’ll be in a 30-way tie for first place, no matter how many Mookie Bettses the Dodgers trade for.
This is just a way for managers to say it’s a new season and anything can happen. Anything certainly cannot happen, but the Tigers can’t say that, and they shouldn’t. Spring training is about hope, and Tigers fans deserve to have some of it -- whether they can recognize any of the starting outfielders by face or not.
No matter how many cliches Gardenhire throws out this spring, remember that the Tigers are still rebuilding. Everything will sound great and promising, even though the team finished more than 50 games out of first place last year. The regular season will be rough, so try to enjoy the spring.
But also remember that the Tigers are 0-0, so anything can happen. If you forget, someone will surely remind you.