LAKELAND, Fla. — Outside the Detroit Tigers spring training headquarters, Nick Maton walked up to two doors and froze — unsure which one to take to the clubhouse.
“Right or left?” he asked on Monday afternoon.
Maton, one of the newest Tigers, wasn’t sure. He arrived in Lakeland on Sunday night. By Monday morning, he was already going through an informal workout on the backfields at Tiger Town along with several new teammates. The Tigers acquired Maton in the Gregory Soto and Kody Clemens trade with Philadelphia.
“I gotta learn my surroundings here,” Maton said. “Me and Matt Vierling, we just got to make this our new home.”
In some ways, Maton is symbolic of this entire team — shoot, this entire organization — as it opens spring training this week. The first wave of players reported Monday, and pitchers and catchers will officially start practicing on Wednesday. There are new faces all over the place, trying to find their way. Trying to make this their new home.
This is the first spring training with Scott Harris in charge. Harries, the new Tigers president, replaced Al Avila.Manager A.J. Hinch is back … but the Tigers have a new hitting department. Thank goodness, right?
And there are questions all over the place, so many that this is shaping up to be a fascinating spring training.
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Who will start at third base? How will Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson handle their second seasons? Who will start in the outfield? Greene, Austin Meadows … and who, exactly? Will Miguel Cabrera show up in the best shape of his life? (Spoiler alert: Of course, he will.) There is a long list of guys coming back from injury, so how will they respond? When can they contribute? Speaking of that, will Spencer Turnbull be ready? And who will be the closer?
Oh, so many questions.
“Yeah, there’s gonna be a closer — for sure,” Alex Lange, one of the options, said.
Basically, sounding like Hinch.
Whew. So we got that cleared up.
Several players facing make-or-break moments
But that’s just the big picture.
Several individual players are facing crucial questions.
Let’s just rip through them, as they walk toward the clubhouse.
Here comes Akil Baddoo. He played 73 games for the Tigers in 2022 and hit .204. The Tigers are better when they have his speed in the lineup, swiping bases and taking an extra base. But will he hit enough to beat out Kerry Carpenter? After soaring from Double-A Erie to Detroit, Carpenter hit .263 with five homers in 28 games against righties in 2022.
“I’m looking forward to this year and what’s coming up for us,” Baddoo said. “Just having that mindset, just going in there having fun and using my abilities and playing the game like I know how to play. Everything else will take care of itself.”
That brings us to something else. This spring training is already different, if only because it’s normal again.
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Three years ago, 2020 was interrupted by COVID-19. The following year, we covered the team from a far, literally. And 2022 was messed up by the lockout.
“It’s a real spring training for the first time,” Baddoo said. At least, it is for him.
He has already started working with the Tigers new hitting department: Michael Brdar, Keith Beauregard and James Rowson.
“It was good talking to those guys,” Baddoo said. “Kind of tell them the game plan and how they kind of want to picture our season this year and kind of how they’re gonna attack us with different stuff.”
How different is it?
Is he hearing new things?
“Kind of similar but definitely some stuff that is a little bit different,” he said. “Looking forward to learning more about it, and seeing if it works for me, kind of thing. But definitely different but good.”
Different but good.
If that is how this Tigers season plays out, most would be happy with that. As long as the good is progress.
Everybody facing different questions
Here comes Jake Rogers, the one-time catcher of the future who is now a 27-year-old with a thin scar on his right elbow. He’s coming back from surgery.
“Coming off an injury, I haven’t played in a year,” Rogers said. “It’s definitely a big year for me.”
“So what’s it gonna be like getting back into a game for the first time?” he was asked.
“Like riding a bike,” he said. “Yeah, it’s been since July of ’21. So, it’s only been a little bit, huh, only been a little bit. But it will feel good.”
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Yes, everyone is feeling good this time of year, including catcher Dillion Dingler, who hit .238 at Double-A Erie in 2022.
“Last year, there was some up and downs,” Dingler said. “You’re battling certain things throughout the season. You kind of learn about how to how to deal with certain things, especially offensively.”
But when you look at Dinglers’ numbers, also take into account how he improved defensively.
“I was happy with my catching last year,” he said. “It definitely improved from the year before. I felt like I was more consistent defensively and throwing the ball especially.”
Let me just say, on a human level, the Tigers have some great guys who are catchers, including Dingler.
But here’s the thing: we don’t now how it will all shake out.
“I think the main thing is just maintain confidence,” Dingler said.
He said he knows he belongs, and he is already carrying himself that way.
“Do you have goals?” he was asked. “Is Triple-A the target —”
Before the question could be finished, he answered.
“Get to the big leagues,” he said. “Get to the big leagues.”
What a intriguing answer. Honest and direct.
Who will make it? Who won’t?
It’s going to be fascinating, watching it all play out.
Seeing what door they all walk through.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.
To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.