February 20th, 2012

Day 1: Prince Fielder’s rock show hits Lakeland

Let’s be honest: It’s not as if the Tigers haven’t had a superstar before. They didn’t have one when Ivan Rodriguez signed in 2004, which made him the potential savior of a 119-loss team as soon as his car pulled into the parking lot at Tigertown that February. Miguel Cabrera was a superstar on the field when the Tigers got him about four years later.

Justin Verlander has pitched his way into superstar status, complete with his image on the cover of a video game and a cereal box, and his face on Conan. In many ways, he’s the face of the franchise, and baseball’s headline attraction each time he takes the mound.

Still, there’s something about Prince Fielder. And his arrival at camp Monday drew a reception that hasn’t been seen here in a while, whether from television cameras, microphones, fans or even teammates. Maybe it’s the fact that he grew up a Tiger. Maybe it goes back to the draw of a big home-run hitter. Or maybe it’s the fact that one of the best free agents on the market actually chose Detroit. Or it might even be the fact that a Tiger has the third-largest contract in baseball, . Whatever the reasons, Fielder’s arrival Monday had the attention of an event.

Fans, who had been asking when he was expected to show for a couple days, lined up against the fence separating the practice complex from the clubhouse for a chance at his autograph. Photographers followed his every move around the fields, then his interaction with fans. His warmup throws with new teammate Miguel Cabrera became a sight.

Teammates weren’t immune to it, either.

“When star players show up, people take notice,” manager Jim Leyland said. “They might say they don’t, but they do, particularly the young guys. I don’t mean they’re in awe or anything, but heck, that’s pretty nice. Heck, that’s a thrill.”

Then he took batting practice with Cabrera — back-to-back, like they’re expected to bat in the order when the games start.

“It was fun,” said Brennan Boesch, who shagged fly balls (or watched home runs) while they hit. “I mean, they’re in my opinion the best left- and right-handed hitters — especially with power — in the game. They’re great hitters, too. They’re not just sluggers. Obviously, everyone knows what they can do — Prince from the left side, Miguel from the right. So it’s a deadly combination to have, and you’re glad to have them on our side.”

The chemistry seemed to be immediate, Cabrera watching Fielder’s homers in awe, and Fielder joking about how hard Cabrera hits the ball.

“Double,” Cabrera said about one of his own drives to the gap.

“What???” Fielder exclaimed, looking out beyond the fence. “You hit that alligator.”

There was no alligator out there; Lake Parker, where many a gator call home, is beyond even these sluggers’ reach. But you get the point: They enjoyed hitting with each other, and they admire talent.

And a lot of fans admire what Fielder can do, which is why he had the crowd he had. Whether Fielder relishes that kind of response or not — he said he got used to people asking for autographs when he was a kid — he’s getting that reception.

(Page down after photo for more camp notes)

Speaking of rock stars: Look for a bigger story Tuesday, but Justin Verlander talked with reporters Monday morning about his upcoming season and how he worked this offseason. He said he turned down some off-field opportunities this winter because they would have interfered with his training routine.

“What I tried to do,” he said, “was choose the things that would be fun and brought the most attention to the Tigers, myself, the organization, the city. Those are basically the things that I kept in mind. And obviously, doing the Conan show was huge, being on the cover of the game, going out and shooting the commercial. And I’m doing a couple other cities that are in the works but haven’t come out yet.”

The Conan appearance, he said, was “awesome. That was a lot of fun. I was a little nervous going into it, didn’t know how I’d feel. Then I sit down in the chair and just start talking and I felt very at ease and just had fun with it.”

That, he said, was his favorite thing of the offseason.

“That, and shooting a commercial with Kate Upton isn’t too bad,” he said with a smile.

Monday, by the way, was Verlander’s 29th birthday. He got a watch.

Actual workout item of the day: Watch these drills for enough years, and it sometimes looks like a ritual rather than an actual exercise. But manager Jim Leyland takes these things seriously, and he lets players know if he doesn’t like what he’s seeing. He met with one group of pitchers during pickoff drills and hammered home the point that they need to make their pickoff move look as much like a normal delivery as possible until they’re whirling and firing. Of course, Leyland has been hammering home the need for Tigers pitchers not named Verlander to hold runners better for a few years now.

The Tigers don’t have all-day workouts, but when they’re working, Leyland wants them to be productive. He didn’t use his most common phrase today — Work Hard, but Work Smart — but he related it to game situations.

“I think it makes you better in close games during the season if you have more discipline,” Leyland said. “I truly believe that. I believe disciplined teams perform better from the seventh inning on.”

Actual workout item runner-up: Nobody, and I mean nobody, has more fun in spring training workouts than Jose Valverde. I said it last year, and the year before, and it still holds.

Valverde was yelling and cheering during random parts of pitchers fielding practice Monday morning. He covered first base with a flair every once in a while, drawing a cheer from the fans in attendance. He slammed his glove to the ground in mock disgust when Phil Coke missed a throw to first. He doesn’t blow these drills off, mind you, but he has fun doing that.

The better sign of who takes these early workouts seriously will come when Jim Leyland starts trying to hit fungoes past pitchers during infield work.

Non-workout item of the day: Remember when Gerald Laird joked a few days ago that he would be picking up whatever loose change fell out of Prince Fielder’s locker next to him, because “he’s making $213 million more than I am.”

Fielder saw it, and joked upon his arrival Monday that he would be watching his money.

“Yeah, I heard about that,” Fielder said. “I’m going to make sure I keep all my change in my pocket.”

Quote of the day: “Beck, you missed my bullpen.” — Don Kelly on his way in from batting practice. He did not actually throw a bullpen session.

More from Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones

Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones was generous enough with his limited time to sit down for a lengthy interview a few days ago for the feature currently on the site as he approaches his first spring training in charge of the pitching staff. He had a lot of good answers to a lot of questions, not all of which made it into the story. Here’s a sampling of some other answers:

  • On how different of a task his current job is in spring compared to bullpen coach: “Especially during spring training when you have so many guys in camp, I knew it was going to be totally different. But there’s a lot of planning, a lot of sitting down, making notes, going over schedules and redoing schedules, that kind of stuff. You don’t want to get anybody hurt in Spring Training if you can help it. Hopefully everybody has thrown plenty before they get here, because it becomes a daily grind once you get to Spring Training. You’re going to play catch every day, you’re going to throw every day, and some of the guys aren’t used to doing that. As far as organizing the schedules and everything, Gene Lamont is just fabulous. He’s the best I’ve ever seen at having guys in the right place at the right time. Gene is going to be a huge help, and Jim will be a huge help.”
  • On Leyland’s view that fifth starter candidates shouldn’t view this as a competition: “I agree with him totally. He doesn’t want it to be like a competition as much as we want the guys to get ready for the season. Even though the guys that we have that will be fighting for that spot, I’m sure it’s going to be in the back of their mind: I’ve got a chance to be that guy. But we want them to just concentrate on the things they need to do to get ready for the season, regardless of where they pitch, whether it’s here or it’s in Toledo or Erie or wherever.”
  • On evaluation versus competition: “It’s all going to be evaluated, but we don’t want them to put any extra pressure on themselves. We want to see them at their best. I think if they put extra pressure on themselves, they might not be at their best. And I don’t want them to feel that if they have a bad outing, now I’m out of the running, or I have to go out there next time and do twice as good. That’s not the case, because everybody has bad outings.”
  • Does he leave Verlander alone or does he just afford tips now and then: “I think it’s a little bit of everything. Ver is extremely driven. You notice that, not in the season that he had last year, but in his preparation during Spring Training. Because the previous couple years he got off to a slow start, so he changed some of the things — not so much mechanically, but he changed some of the mindset during Spring Training in order to get off to a better start last year, which he did. He’s accountable for everything he does. He’s driven. He wants to be the best. I think his attitude is just tremendous, because he wants it really bad. And it seems to me, just being around him a couple times this spring so far, that he wants it as bad or worse this year than he did last year. And there’s something to be said for that, after the year he had.”
  • More on Verlander’s approach: “He’s different than what I remember three or four years ago during Spring Training. Last year, his focus was tremendous, and I see the same thing already this year. Because guys in this game, they want to be the best. And Ver wants to be the best. There’s no question in his mind. And in order to be the best, you have to be focused all the time. You can’t really take any days off. I see the same attitude from him this year as I saw last year.”
  • On whether Verlander has something still to prove: “I’m not sure he looks at it that way as much as he just wants to go out, give us a chance to win like he always does. I don’t think in his mind he’s sitting there thinking, ‘Ok, I won 24 games last year. I’m going to win 27 this year.’ Those are things that are out of his control. We have to score runs on those days and whatever. But it’s just like his mindset, his focus, is just unbelievable in Spring Training. It’s the same way during the season. He’s a special individual.”
  • Is workload from postseason run a concern with anybody: “It’s always a concern, I think. But normally, you make adjustments as far as how much you throw coming into Spring Training. I think it’s more of a situation when you first get to the big leagues and those innings jump, maybe from 150 to 200, and then you see how you feel that offseason. I think once you’re established and you pitch in the big leagues for a while and you’re used to throwing that many innings …
    If Ver had gone from 150 to 250, I’d be really concerned. You’re always a little bit concerned. It’s always in the back of your mind. But I’m not really overly concerned about it, unless he comes to me and says, ‘My arm’s tired.’ Then obviously you worry.”
  • On Porcello throwing earlier this winter: “It’s a fine line, there’s no question. I spoke to Rick and he had told me he wanted to start throwing his bullpens a little earlier this year, and I said absolutely. He didn’t have a great spring last year, and he wants to do the things, I think, that he did at the end of the season, earlier this year. He wanted to just change his routine a little bit, which I don’t blame him. He wanted to throw more this offseason. He did. I think he’s comfortable where he’s at right now. I don’t blame him for wanting to throw more.”

La Russa: Tigers will be “learning experience”

In case you missed it, Tony La Russa tweeted yesterday about his upcoming spring training visit with the Tigers, characterizing it more as a front-office education than anything to do with his friend and Tigers manager Jim Leyland.

Leyland announced a few days ago that La Russa would be joining the club for a couple weeks this spring in a non-uniformed, non-official capacity. It’ll be La Russa’s first baseball work since he retired as a manager after leading the Cardinals to another World Series title last fall.