Detroit Tigers open spring training with something new and exciting: Hope

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Miguel Cabrera’s voice boomed from the indoor batting cage at TigerTown on Sunday morning — a happy Miggy is a loud, boisterous Miggy.

Latin music blared through a speaker.

And Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch was hitting ground balls to new shortstop Javier Baez, who was hard to miss. Baez was wearing bright orange cleats.

The labor unrest seemed to melt away — a painful 28-day pause to spring training — and it was replaced with something else.

Something that feels like a long time ago.

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Honest-to-goodness hope and excitement about this season.

“There’s a buzz in the clubhouse,” Tigers outfielder Robbie Grossman said Sunday after leaving the batting cages. “We brought some really good players in. We’re only gonna be better, so our expectations just keep getting higher and higher.”

Enough with the teardown.

Enough with focusing on the rebuild.

Now it’s time to start winning games.

This team should be thinking playoffs. It has the talent and potential to push for the postseason — to make September interesting, at the very least. And that is the expectation in the clubhouse as well as in the manager’s office.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hinch said. “But I think you show up in the spring, wanting to and expecting to make the playoffs.”

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Dig into that quote and you find the essence of how Hinch has changed the culture.

He expects to make the playoffs. He is not afraid to say it. It is not a taboo subject for him. It’s almost like a collective mantra: As they all repeat the same thing, over and over, they are trying to speak it into existence.

Hey, whatever works, right? We’ve certainly seen the other side long enough.

“Am I declaring this a playoff team? I have no idea,” Hinch said, answering his own question. “We don’t know how the wins are going to come. But for us, when we show up to spring training, I’ve always told 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 would be any different.”

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With the addition of Baez, catcher Tucker Barnhart and left-handed pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez — not to mention the potential of adding talented prospects Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson — the Tigers have a better team and a far better opportunity to make the playoffs than they did a year ago.

The new collective bargaining agreement has expanded the playoffs to 12 teams — three division champions and three wild-card teams in each league.

But the Tigers aren’t even talking about the wild card.

“Winning the division first of all,” Grossman said. “We go day by day and know that’s our goal and we can be the best team in this division.”

How do the Tigers do that?

It’s pretty simple. The Tigers have to play better in the American League Central. They were 30-46 in the division last year — an issue that Hinch said that he raised with his team.

“Why were we bad in our division last year?” Hinch said. “Explaining some realities to our team and then attacking those issues. It’s kind of the same thing we did last year, we just have now some common experience together that hopefully the message will get through faster.”

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‘We need to set the bar high’

Hinch has changed the culture in the Tigers clubhouse; it has flowed through every person.

“I think the message is the same, which you’re going to hear me say, ‘Win the game today,’” Hinch said. “I mean, that’s the mentality that I live with. We need to set the bar high.”

Consider it set.

After an ugly 8-19 start in 2021, the Tigers played winning baseball the rest of the way, with a 69-66 finish. That included a 37-34 run in the second half, scoring 319 runs while allowing 299.

“We got the little feel of winning a little bit (last year), not a lot,” Hinch said. “And I think we need to continue that same message.”

The Tigers’ defense should be stronger up the middle with Barnhart at catcher and Baez at shortstop. Their outfield defense can only get better. And their pitching rotation is just about set. Right now, the big question mark is a fifth starter — if the season started today, it would be Tyler Alexander.

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A question of Tork

If I had to guess right now, I’d say Greene will make the team and start in center field.

The big question facing this team involves Torkelson.

Will he make the team for Opening Day?

He was the only player taking grounders at first base Sunday, and it’s his job to lose.

Even Cabrera is willing to move to designated hitter full-time to make room for Torkelson.

“We want Torkelson in the lineup,” he said.

That is the essence of the Hinch mindset.

The new culture.

Put aside egos and get the best guys on the field.

“Our manager, our organization last year was saying, ‘It’s time time to start winning,’ ” Cabrera said. “They showed that this past season, signing two big guys for our team. Hopefully, we can stay healthy and go out there and compete.”

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To fight for the playoffs, the Tigers need these 10 things to happen:

1. Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal can’t go backward.

2. Cabrera has to stay healthy and productive.

3. Jonathan Schoop and Jeimer Candelario have to hit.

4. All the newcomers need to produce.

5. Young pitchers such as Joey Wentz, Alex Faedo or Beau Brieske need to develop, since the Tigers are bound to need more arms at some point.

6. Eric Haase and Akil Baddoo take a step forward after their breakthrough 2021 seasons.

7. The Tigers figure out how to beat AL Central teams — that’s the biggest thing, actually.

8. Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter keep pushing the right buttons — I trust in this more than anything.

9. The Tigers pay attention to small details, like pre-pitch preparation, and improve their defense.

10. And they get something magical from Greene and Torkelson. In their rookie seasons. Which are bound to be fascinating but inconsistent.

That last one could push them right over the top. I’m not saying the two prospects are the determining factor — it would be crazy to put that pressure on them — but at the very least, they will have a huge impact on how the team is constructed.

Granted, this list is based more on hope and possibility than certainty.

But that’s the big change here.

There is hope.

And that’s been missing for years.

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Contact Jeff Seidel: Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

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