February 16th, 2013

Saturday’s notes: Veteran players make Leyland’s camp work

LeylandmeetingOne of the oft-repeated messages when Jim Leyland came on board as Tigers manager seven years ago, and again as he went along, was having veteran players buy into the program. If the veteran players follow the message, the younger players would buy in. Of course, the Tigers didn’t have an roster of veteran players back then (Pudge, Magglio, Polanco, Guillen, Kenny Rogers, Todd Jones), but they had enough youngsters making significant contributions (Verlander, Zumaya, Granderson, Rodney, Craig Monroe, Bonderman) that they needed guys to lead.

As the years went on and the Tigers added more players, the roster balance tilted more veteran, but they still had younger guys who had to follow the program — Cabrera was really important on that end.

Fast forward to 2013, and the Tigers have a heavily veteran roster but still key young players. And the last few days, they’ve had to make some adjustments due to the weather. The latest was the decision to move Sunday’s workout back two hours to wait for the weather to warm up tomorrow morning. So instead of working out at 10am, they’ll work at noon, which means they won’t finish up until mid-afternoon. That can ruin a lot of Sunday afternoon post-workout plans.

Leyland told his players at the start of Saturday’s workout to make sure they had advance notice. After Saturday’s workout, he made a point to acknowledge his appreciation by repeating his old adage.

“When you manage, that’s the biggest plus you can get,” Leyland said. “When your veteran players buy into the program — and we’re fortunate that we’ve got good veterans — trust me when I tell you it takes a load off the mind of the manager. That just sets a precedence for everybody else. I think that’s one of the big keys to managing. When your veteran players buy into the program, you’ve got something going.

“I was a little concerned because I threw it on them. I don’t know if somebody had something planned. Everybody was, no problem. Nobody complaining. And I told them we’d be here for them if they had something else. We’d come in and do something [with them early] if they absolutely had to, but everybody was terrific. And it’s common sense.”

At that point, Leyland brought out his iPad to pull up the weather forecast for Sunday.

“I don’t want to sophisticate you guys,” he joked.

I’m not saying Leyland hasn’t had veterans unhappy with him over the years, because he has. Pudge obviously wasn’t happy with playing time at the end. Carlos Guillen’s remarks at the end of the 2009 season are a very public example in what was a particularly rough year, and others have had their turns since and kept it private. Yet never has player discontent become widespread and morphed into player mutiny, the kind that got Manny Acta fired in Cleveland and many others before him. With the kind of clubhouse the Tigers have now — with Victor Martinez, Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter and Octavio Dotel on board — you’d have to seriously, egregiously mess something up to turn that clubhouse sour. I’m not sure you could sabotage that clubhouse if you tried.

Anyway, you get the idea. More notes from a relatively slow Saturday:

  • As I wrote in the notes on the site earlier, don’t be surprised if you don’t hear much about Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer the next few days. They won’t be facing hitters in the first round of live batting practice that runs through Monday. Instead, they’ll throw an extra side session and go in the second round that begins Tuesday.
  • Phil Coke did not take part in Saturday’s workout. He was in the clubhouse in the morning, then left for what Leyland later called a personal matter.
  • The first Tigers pitcher for Leyland to single out in this camp was Jose Ortega, the high-strikeout, high-walk, high-ERA reliever from Triple-A Toledo the last couple years who made a cameo appearance in Detroit last season. “He’s throwing great,” Leyland said. “Oh boy, he’s got nasty stuff.” And then Leyland said it’s an example of why not to get carried away with early spring throwing.
  • With that last note in mind, Bruce Rondon is scheduled to face hitters on Sunday. I will probably write the crap out of it.
  • Had a great conversation with the always-positive Duane Below, who’s using his being left off the September and postseason rosters as motivation for this spring. Leyland said they’re still trying to decide whether to stretch out his innings for potential starter duty in Toledo or go all-in with him as a relief candidate. They’re already planning to stretch out Casey Crosby, and they can’t stretch out everybody, Leyland pointed out. Below said he’s ready either way.
  • One more note on Below: After the Tigers optioned him to Toledo in mid-August, he had a chance to watch Rondon face hitters. In fact, he was charting pitches and radar gun readings one night when Rondon was facing Louisville. Rondon hit 103 mph on the radar gun Below was watching, he said. And that’s at the end of a long season that included three different minor-league teams and a Futures Game appearance.