‘We’re going to follow him’: With Javier Báez in camp, Tigers’ buzz feels legit

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — It was an optional workday Sunday morning, but even with decidedly un-Florida like temperatures struggling to get to 40 degrees, most of the infielders were on the short field outside the clubhouse at TigerTown taking several rounds of ground balls from manager AJ Hinch and infield coach Ramon Santiago.

Most of the faces were familiar: Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro, Harold Castro, Zack Short, even the younger guys, Ryan Kreidler, Spencer Torkelson, Josh Lester and Kody Clemens. But who was the smooth-fielding dude in the orange cleats?

Javier Báez, the Tigers’ new $140 million shortstop, wasted no time getting into the fray with his new teammates.

“We’re going to follow him, you know what I mean,” Miguel Cabrera said. “We’re going to say, wherever you go, we’re going to go. I’m really excited to play next to him. Hopefully we can have a great year together and we can push this team to the playoffs.”

Báez is as soft-spoken and unassuming as any high-profile player you’ll meet. But his presence, even in pre-camp infield drills, is commanding.

“Adding talent is never a problem,” Hinch said with a smile. “Guys have a way of adjusting to the personality of the clubhouse, especially when you have an elite player like Javy. He doesn’t garner a lot of attention inside the clubhouse. He really wants his attention to be out on the field.

“He loves winning and he loves competing.”

There is always a buzz when big-league players report for spring training. But on Sunday, watching players like Báez and lefty starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez and catcher Tucker Barnhart file out of the clubhouse alongside Cabrera and Candelario and Robbie Grossman — that first-day energy and optimism feels, for the first time in a long time here, legitimate.

“Our manager and our organization showed last year they want to win and they showed it again this offseason,” Cabrera said. “They signed some guys that are going to be good for our team. Hopefully we can stay healthy and go compete.”

It helps, too, that the Tigers finished last season with a winning month, going 68-61 after April.

“We should be good,” Grossman said. “We shouldn’t expect anything less than being a contending team, especially with the expanded playoffs (12 teams). Our goal should be to get into the dance. Nothing else will be acceptable.

“I’m really excited. We’re going to be better. There is a good buzz in the clubhouse.”

The overwhelming consensus among the players and coaches, especially after the 99-day lockout and 27-day delayed start to spring training, even on a relatively brisk morning, was, “Man, it’s good to be back.”

“It was kind of tough waiting,” Báez said. “Kind of like 2020 when the pandemic hit and we didn’t know when baseball was going to be back. Just thank God we are getting to play all of the games and baseball is back.”

The tricky part will be navigating a four-week spring training. Trying to prepare players for a condensed, 162-games season with camp time cut in half will be a challenge, especially for pitchers.

“It is up to us to get ready in the time we have,” Báez said.

Hinch said the starting pitchers probably will get just four starts in spring training games, so they will have to build their pitch counts faster. Veteran position players likely will play earlier, more often and for longer stretches in the 18 Grapefruit League games.

“It is what it is,” Hinch said. “Thirty teams have to deal with the same thing. Generally speaking, spring training has been too long for the most part — maybe not to managers and coaches, but to a lot of players.”

Other than the ever-present concern about injuries, the condensed spring means less playing time for the prospects and younger veterans in camp. There will be less innings for pitchers like Beau Brieske and Garrett Hill to showcase themselves against big-league hitters, fewer at-bats for players like Clemens, Kreidler, Lester and Jack Lopez.

“You are going to see the more established players get into games a lot faster,” Hinch said.

That does not, however, apply to top prospects Torkelson and Riley Greene. Both will be given ample opportunity to make the opening day roster.

“They’re going to have a chance to get a good look,” Hinch said. “On the one hand, it’s a great opportunity to make a team. And on the other hand, it’s not the end-all, be-all whether they break with us or not.

“We will make the decision at the end of the camp as to what we think is best for us.”

Torkelson took all the reps at first base in the drills Sunday. Afterward, Cabrera, who played 44 games at first base last season, was asked how much he hoped to play there this season.

“I don’t know, because we want Torkelson in the lineup,” he said. “I’ll take the DH spot. I’ll talk to the manager and see what his plans are, but I am open to anything. I’m just here to help the team win.”

It was clear, though, that Cabrera and other veterans were fired up about Greene, who could be the starting center fielder, and Torkelson being part of the mix.

“They’re really good,” Cabrera said. “Have you seen them play? They are really good. These guys are going to bring a lot to our team. I hope they are ready for opening day.”

More: Henning: Tigers’ Riley Greene is set for CF — but how long will he stick?

Hinch hopes so, too, though he’s going to make both prove they are worthy.

“Physically and emotionally, they’re in a good place,” he said. “I thought they handled the early minicamp, the disappointment of no big-league camp starting, even the extra attention you guys (media) have given them, pretty well. I think they are tremendous prospects and I think they are going to have an opportunity to showcase what they can do and how they fit.

“There’s a reason we love them so much. They are really good players. They’ve got that sort of ‘it’ factor on how they fit on a club, how they interact with people and handle pressure.”

Hinch is setting no limitations on this team. Nor is he making any proclamations.

“We need to set the bar high,” he said. “We got a little feel of winning a little bit last year, not a lot, and we need to continue the same message.”

The message being, win today’s game.

“I’m not declaring this a playoff team,” Hinch said. “I have no idea. We don’t know how the health is going to be or where the wins are going to come. But for us, when we show up to spring training — I’ve told this to every team I’ve ever managed — we need to win our division and we need to make the playoffs.

“I don’t know why this is any different.”


Twitter: @cmccosky

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