Tigers camp observations: Wearing big-league uniforms helps set pro tone at minicamp

Detroit News

Some random thoughts while we wait for position players to arrive for minor league minicamp on Monday.

Lakeland, Fla. – The first thing you noticed on Wednesday, when pitchers and catchers came out for their first official day of workouts, was that they were wearing Tigers’ classic home white uniforms.

You can’t even imagine what a subtle but huge thing this is. And it was the first clue how different things are under this new administration — from manager AJ Hinch down to player development boss Ryan Garko and pitching department boss Gabe Ribas.

Imagine what it must’ve been like for later-round draft picks like R.J. Petit, Blake Holub, and Mike Rothenberg to walk into that clubhouse and see a big-league uniform with the iconic Old English D on the chest and their name on the back. Imagine what it was like for 29-year-old A.J. Ladwig to put on that uniform? Something he’s dreamt of doing since 2014.

Something simple like that sets a tone.

In the past, players at minor league camp — mini and main — wore T-shirts and baseball pants. The T-shirts had the players’ names and numbers on the back, but by the second week most were badly faded. I remember seeing Kennys Vargas walking around the back fields in 2020. The Tigers gave the former Twins slugger an invite to minor league minicamp. And he was just bursting out of one of those shirseys.

I thought, man, the guy was hitting 460-foot homers at Target Field just a couple of years ago and now he looks like he’s trying out for a softball team.

But that’s the point of outfitting this camp with big-league unis. This isn’t a clown show. The organization has invested tens of millions of dollars into upgrading every aspect of their player development system. These players aren’t second-class citizens, they are future assets. They are professional players.

If you are asking them to act and perform like a pro, then treat them like a pro.

“Really, it’s approaching every day like a professional,” said Tigers pitching prospect Beau Brieske. “They talked about it on our first day — approach this like a pro. Make sure we’re preparing the same way every day and doing all the things necessary to compete and be consistent.”

Obviously, the Tigers won’t be able to outfit the full minor league camp when it commences the second week of March. Over 80 players will be cramming into the facility — you couldn’t pay the clubhouse attendants enough to launder that many uniforms every day.

But the message was delivered and received. Whether you will start the year in rookie ball, the big leagues or any level in between, the standards of professionalism are the same.

The full Moreno

… Covering minicamp, especially minor league minicamp, can be tricky. You need to keep it all in perspective. It’s February. This is a minicamp. Actually, it’s a combination instructional league and minicamp. It’s more of a laboratory environment than a competitive environment, at least right now.

So you can’t get too fired up when you see an especially electric bullpen performance or you see one of the catchers knocking the fire out of the ball while taking batting practice off bullpen catcher Jeremy Carroll.

That said, watching right-hander Gerson Moreno pitch is a treat. For all kinds of reasons. If you don’t know his story, he’s 26 and been in the Tigers organization since 2013. He was in big-league camp in 2017 but his ascent was interrupted by Tommy John surgery.

The Tigers signed him back on a minor league contract and he may get an invite to big league camp once the lockout is lifted.

I watched his first bullpen session the other day. He’s always thrown extremely hard (upper 90s) and has always struggled with his command. The first thing you notice now, though, is his delivery is simpler, pretty much just straight to the plate and he almost short-arms the ball.

But man, we got the full Moreno in this session.

His first pitch slipped out of his and went behind him. He gave a sheepish grin to the coaches. During the 30-plus pitch session, he twice knocked the catcher back on his heels with fastballs. There were no radar guns or Rapsodo machines out there, but they were humming.

He also nearly beaned the catcher working on the plate next to his. Just a bit outside, old Bob Uecker would say.

Roster decisions still tough

… There will be 62 players at this camp starting Monday. That’s a couple dozen or so more than the Tigers usually invite to minicamp. The bigger roster is a result of not having an instructional league this fall.

Still, general manager Al Avila and his staff had to make some tough decisions on who to leave off. Notably, catcher-utility player Brady Policelli, pitcher Nolan Blackwood, infielders Wenceel Perez and Trei Cruz and outfielder Bryant Packard.

Policelli and Blackwood are older players who have been around the organization for a while. Attending minicamp would be less important for them.

For a player like Cruz, the non-invite could be a kick in the pants. The Tigers invited younger shortstops Cristian Santana and Manuel Sequera to camp. Cruz is coming off his first full pro season, finishing at High-A West Michigan, where he hit just .161 with 70 strikeouts and 55 walks in 265 plate appearances.

Catchers encouraging

… It wasn’t that long ago that you could put all the catchers in the Tigers minor league system in a room, toss dozens of eggs at them all not hit a future big-league catcher. It was barren, is what I’m trying to say.

These are different days. There are three young catchers in this camp who are legitimate big-league prospects. Dillon Dingler you already know. The second round pick out of Ohio State in 2020 looks like a mini-Lance Parrish. There is a presence about him, a quiet confidence, to go along with his elite set of tools.

But right on his heels is Eliezer Alfonso, 22, sturdily built and the son of a long-time big-league catcher. He hit .304 over his first four seasons, making it to High-A West Michigan last year.

The Tigers actually have a pleasant placement problem with Alfonso and Dingler. Both would be candidates to start at Double-A Erie but both need to play every day. So it’s possible Dingler would start at Erie and Alfonso back at West Michigan.

Don’t sleep on Danuerys De La Cruz, either. He will be 21 in April and has an advanced hitting profile. Last year in rookie ball he posted a .432 on-base average while slugging .543 (seven homers in 162 plate appearances). He had a .975 OPS.

The Tigers are also still high on Cooper Johnson, a sixth-round pick in 2019 and their 11th round pick last year, Josh Crouch.

It’s an encouraging group.

… By the way, starting Monday, fans will be allowed in to see the full squad workouts. A chance to see most of the Tigers’ top prospects, of course including Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene.

Twitter@cmccosky

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