| The Detroit News
Been a while since the old — make that young — gang convened. Seven months, to be precise.
But they were back Saturday at TigerTown’s baseball fields. Back at the bullpen layout where a half-dozen pitchers can throw at a single time. Back at the weight-training complex that’s about the size of a shopping mall. Back limbering up, playing long-toss, unkinking baseball muscles that had missed the usual summer routine of minor-league games.
Tigers instructional camp began Saturday at Lakeland, Florida, and will wrap up Nov. 8. It’s not going to make anyone forget that 50 of the Tigers’ older and better minor-leaguers missed playing 100-plus games this year because of COVID-19. Nothing will compensate for months of hard-core development players, and an organization, won’t get back.
But for 35 days, young, professional baseball talent can sharpen thoughts and skills at a Lakeland complex where the business of salvaging a game from a pandemic’s scourge will be as full-throttle as bodies allow.
Quite a layoff it has been. Only a couple of weeks into March, just as a hundred or so minor-leaguers were settling into a routine at Lakeland, coronavirus canceled Tigers spring camp. Minor-leaguers who in three weeks would have been suiting up for five months of games instead were told to go home.
Since then, the players who would have been sweating at Triple A, Double A, and three Single-A stops, or going through initiation on two Gulf Coast League squads, have been left to train on their own. Mostly, they’ve been working from their homes and from whatever outlets they can scrounge: gyms, batting cages, sandlots, all while maintaining weekly conversations and communication with Tigers headquarters.
Their 2020 baseball seasons, competitively anyway, were otherwise all but dead.
The Tigers and their 29 MLB partners got a go-ahead last month to turn a COVID-crushed year into at least a late-season tutorial. MLB authorized instructional camps that could unify an organization and its best minor-league talent, reinforce past teaching, and act as a table-setter for 2021 and for what a world, and all of baseball, hope can be a year closer to past habits.
Some of the routine remains a coronavirus casualty. The Arizona Fall League, for example, which in past years was an October-November ritual for MLB team’s top-tier farm talent, is canceled. Winter league baseball likely will suffer, as well, although final pronouncements on what might yet be salvaged, or in what form winter ball might survive, are unresolved.
The Tigers have an approach in place for the next five weeks. It begins with being gentle until bodies catch up after the past seven uneven months.
“Getting feet on the ground, starting to assess where everybody is with respect to baseball skills,” said Dave Littlefield, who heads Tigers player development. “We’re kind of cautious about doing too much too quick. You’ve got to keep guys healthy. It’s a balancing act, really, conditioning and gradually getting guys working on skills.
“Trying to do too much too early is a common flaw in these situations. We’ll keep an eye on that, keep a little bit of reins on them. But we’re going to get a lot of work in.”
In time, that could involve playing games against other Florida-based clubs, even if fewer than ever are within Lakeland’s 100-mile radius. The idea is to play, beginning in mid-October, three games a week. The Yankees camp, for example, is 40 minutes away in Tampa. The Phillies are across the causeway from Tampa at Clearwater. The Blue Jays are a bit farther, in Dunedin, but still within an hour’s drive.
The Orioles are in Sarasota — 90 minutes to the southwest, with the Pirates a tad closer in Bradenton. The Rays are in Port Charlotte, another manageable commute.
The problem: Some teams, unnamed, aren’t necessarily comfortable with the idea of interacting with other clubs’ kids and staff. Nor for the skittish is even short-distance travel reassuring. COVID-19 has been a scary experience where anxieties haven’t always been eased even by strict protocols.
The Tigers are keeping conversations alive as they ponder what might work mutually for teams that want to compete with what both sides must agree is minimal risk.
Otherwise, pandemic policies that were everyday features at the Tigers’ taxi-squad satellite in Toledo are in place at Lakeland: testing every other day, body-temperature readings four times daily, emphasis on masks, washing of hands, distancing, etc.
There were no serious limits to the number of players the Tigers could bring to instructional camp. It was decided, based on budgets and the pandemic’s influences, to bring 50 to Lakeland.
The list does not include prospect pitchers such as Matt Manning and Alex Faedo. They’re on hand at Lakeland, working out and grooming arms that were shut down in September due to strains. But they aren’t part of formal practices.
Spencer Torkelson, last June’s top-dog draft pick, is in Lakeland following his two-month stint at Toledo, as is the team’s first pick from 2019, outfielder Riley Greene. Four more of the Tigers’ six draftees from this year — Daniel Cabrera, Trei Cruz, Gage Workman, and Colt Keith — likewise are on hand. Dillon Dingler, the Tigers’ second-round pick who labored at Toledo, is not on hand and no explanation has been offered, which is silence often observed during 2020’s COVID-stricken baseball year when privacy is premier.
Several dozen players from Latin America are present and Littlefield said there were no travel hurdles that altered plans there.
The players, all of them, are under tight watch at the TigerTown dormitory, as well as at an unnamed hotel that offers something of a “bubble.” Interfacing with the outside world is as restricted as realistically as possible, which MLB concedes isn’t to be mistaken with perfection.
But the ability to coordinate, in unison, coaching and even meeting-room lectures and videos will help, 30 big-league teams hope, offset a long layoff that made a mess out of development in 2020.
Will there be minor-league games in 2021? No one is saying. No one knows. A pandemic hasn’t been great at offering future glimpses of a world knocked off its axis, with baseball’s farm schedules but one victim.
The Tigers will stylize their daily training regimen to needs kid prospects will make clear during the next five weeks. The bosses will watch from surrounding bleacher seats or from that observation deck hanging over the Cobb, Cochrane, Gehringer, and Heilmann fields. They’ll meander along the pea-gravel paths and grass acreage to check on isolated workouts.
They’ll try and squeeze something meaningful from a year that has been painful for everyone and anyone. They’ll try and build better baseball players to the extent 35 days in Florida allows.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.
Below is the Tigers’ instructional camp roster in Lakeland, Florida.
Jose De La Cruz