Alex Avila is committed to making the hockey-style catching mask work for him. He is open to lowering his profile behind the plate, open to batting second if that’s what Brad Ausmus wants to do with him. He is less enthusiastic about the potential for a pitch clock in the Major Leagues in future seasons.
“I don’t even want to think about a pitch clock,” Avila said, shuddering. “That sounds ridiculous to me.”
The mask, or at least a prototype of it, is already in, sent in to clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel earlier this month. Avila tried it on Thursday. He expects he’ll have other types to try out in Spring Training, but the general idea is the same. He’s done with the traditional two-piece mask.
“It seems like it’s going to help a great deal,” Avila said. “It’ll take a week or so to get used to, but I think the transition will be pretty easy.”
Even if it isn’t that easy, Avila plans on working through it.
“Eventually I’ll feel comfortable with it,” he said. “I will be wearing it full time.”
Whether it makes a difference will be something worth watching. Though plenty has been written over the last few years about catchers, concussions and the role masks play in them, opinions have been mixed over whether the type of mask makes a difference. Catchers have taken concussions wearing the hockey-style masks, and some catchers switched back to traditional masks as a result. Other studies say one mask or the other protects better depending on the type of impact — direct foul tip, foul off the side, or backswing.
Avila didn’t simply change for the sake of change. He looked into it, specifically the physics.
“For me, always to my knowledge, [the traditional mask] was safe, so what was the point [of changing],” he said. “If I’m going to get a concussion with that, I’ll get a concussion with the other one. But just the design, it’s a little bit different the way the hockey mask is angled, so you’re not taking a direct blow. It’s not as flush. It’ll ricochet off it more. A traditional mask is more flat, so when it hits it’s going straight down or going up, so you’re getting a little bit more of a whiplash.”
It’s the foul tip, particularly off to the side, that has been a problem for Avila in recent years.
The other difference Avila noted was inside the mask.
“What’s different about the hockey-style mask is you can adjust the padding to be a little more custom-fit,” he said. “There’s much more padding in that helmet than there is in the traditional mask.”
That might not be the only change Avila makes for his long-term health. Ausmus said he has talked with Avila about setting up lower behind the plate.
“He really sits up high,” Ausmus said. “We’re going to mess around in Spring Training and see if we can lower him, because the higher you are, the more apt you are to get those foul tips off the top of the bat that are moving up. If you’re a little lower, they miss your head.
“I don’t know how effective that’ll be. It’s tough to change that, but we talked about it. We’re going to take a look at it in the spring, because the concussions are something to be worried about.”
Avila is at least open to it, though admitting that could be tough to change at this point.
“The thing is I’ve caught one way the last six, seven years,” he said. “I’ve got to make sure I’m still comfortable. One of the things I take pride in is blocking pitches. Not too much gets by me, and I want to make sure that I’m comfortable and mobile whatever position I’m in. It’ll be something we take a look at.”
That’s a wholehearted openness to adapt compared with his feelings on the pitch clock proposal that will get a test run at Double-A and Triple-A levels this year after its debut in the Arizona Fall League.
“It’s a terrible idea,” he said. “I’m not a fan of it. I can see it now: The clock going down, the fans going, ‘Five … four … three …’ That’s terrible. It’s a terrible idea. To me that’s not baseball. At all.”
His counter to game length is the break between innings, which differs from locally broadcast games to nationally televised ones.
“There’s no reason to have three or four minutes in between innings,” he said. “If you want to make it faster, you have to look at ways of doing that. It’s the stuff that you’re adding into the game that is what’s making the game long. Players have had routines going in and out of the batter’s box forever. The difference between nowadays and the 80s and the 70s is TV.”
For a trip up north into the thick of the Michigan winter, most players try to enjoy themselves when they come to town for TigerFest. Kyle Lobstein might have more fun with it than most.
When the Tigers left-hander wasn’t photobombing pictures of other players with fans during Saturday’s event at Comerica Park, he was creating a stir with his hat, a giant lobster-shaped cap complete with eyes and antennae. The hat was personalized with Lobstein’s number 53 on the sides, his name on the back, and “Crustacean Sensation” on the top.
It was a visual demonstration of a nickname he undoubtedly heard often while he was growing up. The kicker, though, is that Lobstein’s family was in on the joke.
The hat, Lobstein said, came from a family member. Though Lobstein grew up in Arizona and makes his offseason home there, he has a sizeable family presence in Michigan, which gave him a loud cheering section at Comerica Park when he made his first Major League start against the Yankees last August.
Lobstein went 1-2 with a 4.35 ERA in seven games with the Tigers as a rookie last year. The 25-year-old beat the eventual World Champion Giants with 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball Sept. 7 in Detroit.
For years, Giants fans made a sensation out of Panda hats in honor of Pablo Sandoval, now with the Red Sox. If Lobstein finds his way back into the Tigers rotation this year — he’s currently a backup option who could make the Opening Day as a reliever — his hat could become a hit with his family, if not fans.
“Maybe it’ll catch on,” Lobstein said with a smile and a shrug.
Al Alburquerque said at the start of the Tigers winter caravan that he expected to have a deal done next week to avoid arbitration. Instead, he left town Saturday with a deal in place and the Tigers’ streak of avoiding arbitration intact for another year.
A source confirmed a report from Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com on the one-year contract with a base salary of $1,725,000. The 28-year-old reliever make an extra $12,500 if he pitches in 75 games.
The deal comes just over a week after the two sides exchanged numbers. Alburquerque and his representatives at Beverly Hills Sports Council filed for 2.05 million. The Tigers filed at $1,375,000.
Unlike some other clubs, the Tigers continue negotiating after exchanging numbers with players, often using the set of the numbers to find a middle ground. The midway point between the two figures was $1,712,500. Alburquerque made $837,500 last season, during which he set career highs with 72 appearances, 15 games finished, 57 1/3 innings and his first Major League save.
The Tigers have not faced an arbitration ruling since Dave Dombrowski took over team president/general manager duties in 2002. They had four cases to settle this month, including a record $19.75 million deal with David Price last week to avoid a hearing.
Dave Dombrowski had his annual TigerFest session with fans this morning. His overall theme to the 40-minute session: It’s still a contending team, but with a lot more that they have to figure out to get there.
“The one big difference for our club this year compared to other years is that there are a lot more unknowns,” Dombrowski said.
“It’s just a less certain club. When I say less certain, there are more unknowns. They don’t know how Iglesias is going to be at shortstop. Now all of a sudden, people are writing about Miguel Cabrera, they’re not sure about Miguel Cabrera. They haven’t seen Cespedes play. They haven’t seen Gose play center field. They’ve never seen Simon pitch. They don’t know Shane Greene. They’re not sure about Verlander and Sanchez because they didn’t have those years. They haven’t even seen David Price pitch all the time. They haven’t seen Soria. They don’t know how Rondon is going to be. People say these are all question marks. There’s a difference. They’re not really question marks to us. It’s not like they can’t play. It’s just that they’re unknowns. I think with that, people are not quite sure how to take that. But I think in our situation, I feel very comfortable with our ball club. I really like our club. I think we have a chance to be very good.”
The bullpen might be the biggest of the questions, and it was the first question he got when the session transitioned to fan questions. Dombrowski offered some insight on his philosophy on assembling a bullpen.
“Bullpens are the most inconsistent parts from year to year on clubs,” Dombrowski said. “There’s a lot of year-in and year-out uncertainty. What you try to do is build yourself a bullpen from the back end forward, try to get a closer to step into the job, and then you can build around him.”
On Joe Nathan, Dombrowski said, “Last year at this time, I thought he was a shutdown closer, even though he didn’t have overpowering stuff. He had done it the year before with a 91-92 mph fastball and a good slider and mixed his pitches. He didn’t have a real good start to the season.”
Soria, he said, is a”very, very good pitcher.”
They have relief options among their young starters with Kyle Ryan, Kyle Lobstein and Drew VerHagen, depending on the depth of their need.
More from Dombrowski’s session:
- He reiterated that they were not in talks with Scott Boras on Max Scherzer, in large part because they knew what it would take to sign him. “They called us about Max’s situation as time went on,” Dombrowski said. “He made it clear, and it probably started around the winter meetings, that he would be open-minded to playing here again. But we never had any negotiations at that point, because we thought we had made a strong effort to try to sign him and it was clear he was looking for the numbers he received now, maybe even a little bit more. And just in passing conversations that was given to us and we just didn’t feel comfortable going, so never got in any additional negotiations.”
- More to the point, Dombrowski added, “If there was a mystery club involved, and I’m not sure if there was or if there was not, it was not us.”
- On Miguel Cabrera, Dombrowski wouldn’t say for sure he should be ready for the start of the season, but that it’ll be close. “If he’s not ready for Opening Day, it’s going to be very, very close,” he said. “And we’ll find out more Feb. 15 (after his follow-up exam). I think at that point, for a short time period we have Victor Martinez, who can play first base at that point. Alex Avila could play over there for a little bit. We could DH some of the other people we have in the organization at this time, so we’ll tackle that as it comes but we still hope he’ll be ready for Opening Day.”
- On Don Kelly: “We tried to re-sign Don Kelly. … But he also thought his opportunity to make the Major League club was better with Miami.”
- On potentially replacing Kelly, Dombrowski noted Hernan Perez and Andrew Romine as candidates. Both are out of minor-league options, which Dombrowski admitted has an impact. Both will take fly balls in the outfield during Spring Training.
- On a question regarding restocking the farm system, Al Avila noted that they’ll have two first-round draft picks coming up — their traditional pick, plus the compensation pick they receive for losing Max Scherzer. That reinforced the expectation that they will not pursue James Shields, who would cost them their traditional pick to sign.
Jose Iglesias briefly caught himself in a time warp Thursday when he was asked about working with infield coach Omar Vizquel this spring.
“I can’t wait,” he said. “We’ve got a new manager … ”
Well, Brad Ausmus was new. Last spring.
“Well, he’s not new anymore. I’m the new here,” Iglesias said, correcting himself.
And that’s the impact of a lost season. While Brad Ausmus was learning on the job managing the Tigers last summer, and Vizquel built his influence on the Tigers’ defensive philosophy, Iglesias was working out at home in Miami, rebuliding strength in his legs.
Stress fractures in both shins put Iglesias’ career on pause. When Spring Training opens, he can hit play again. But he can’t simply pick up where he left off.
“We have a manager that I haven’t played before,” he continued, “and we have a great coach that I haven’t learned from much. I’m very fortunate to be healthy again and have the opportunity to help this team. That’s the bottom line, help this team win.”
For the most part last year, they won in spite of their shortstop, a revolving door that brought in aging Alex Gonzalez, brought up semi-prepared prospect Eugenio Suarez, and brought forth utility infielders Danny Worth and Andrew Romine. If they’re going to go beyond last season, they’re going to have to do it at least in part because of their shortstop.
Nobody knows how Iglesias will look after a season off the diamond. His condition was so rare that some don’t know what to expect of his health. Iglesias, for his part, sounded upbeat Thursday, but he sounded upbeat at this point last year too. Heck, he was healthy enough to wait tables at a National Coney Island on last year’s Winter Caravan, and he took it seriously, bringing out dishes at a near-professional speed.
So far, at least, he sounds good. He had a follow-up exam Jan. 16 and was cleared for more activity. He’s not at full speed, but as he said, “I’m close to it.”
“I’m about 75-80 percent [speed] every time I run. I’ve been running, fielding, hitting, jumping, doing everything, and pain-free. …
“I’ve been hitting on the field. I’ve been taking ground balls. I’ve been running. I’ve been doing everything without pain. And that’s my goal, being healthy.”
He doesn’t know exactly which day he’ll run at full speed, but he knows he will.
“I’ll have to check the schedule,” he said. “But definitely before Spring Training. I will be 100 percent for Spring Training, for the first day.”
He still has to deal with soreness, he said, but that’s to be expected. After a year off the field, including several months not being able to put much weight on his legs, he’s working out muscles that haven’t been used to that extent in a long time. That will take time to work out, but he expects it. After playing for at least a year with the pain of stress fractures — all the way back to his days in Boston — before doctors diagnosed it correctly, he can handle soreness.
“Just keep in mind, I dealt with this for a full year and performed at the highest level,” he said. “But I will try to get it out of my system. It’s part of your system, thinking about that pain every single night that I was feeling. But I don’t think it will be an issue. As long as the bone’s OK and there’s no fracture there, soreness I’ll deal with. Fractures, I was fortunate to deal with, but I would prefer not to, because it’s my career at risk. Thank God, knock on wood, I’m good to go, 100 percent.”
Doctors still haven’t pinpointed the exact cause, Iglesias said. Some suggested his biomechanics. Others argued his nutrition was a major factor, enough so that a nutritionist worked with him to put more calcium and Vitamin D in his diet.
“It was really rare to show fractures in both,” he said, “but it doesn’t matter how it came. I’m better physically, I’m on a nutrition plan and I feel pretty good. Actually this year, physically, I feel a lot better than last year.”
With it, he feels an appreciation for the sport that he lost for a year, and could’ve been taken away from him had something worse happened. Aside from a Division Series game or two, he said he didn’t watch much of the Tigers on television. He kept in touch with teammates, but didn’t want to watch.
“It made me to appreciate it more, because baseball is the sport I love to do,” he said. “This is what I love to do. To be away from it kept me more patient, more love for the game. I never take it for granted, but I was really disappointed that I wasn’t playing, because I love this game very much. This is what I love to do. Just being with my teammates, this is my family. We spend seven months a year competing every single night and helping each other out.”
The Tigers’ Winter Caravan ritual of putting players in regular jobs while interacting with fans brought them to Buffalo Wild Wings in Rochester Hills, where Nick Castellanos and Joe Nathan were waiting on tables and delivering orders to customers during the lunch hour. That, of course, led to the inevitable punchline — echoed by many on twitter — that Nathan was better at the lunch shift since he had so many struggles closing last year.
Nathan gets it. He also gets that he goes into Spring Training with something to prove.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I don’t want people thinking that I’m done. I think coming into not just the spring, but coming into the season, I want to prove to myself and other people I still have something left in the tank.”
He went into the offseason, he said, with that in mind. He says he felt better near the end of the season than he did at the beginning. What he wanted to do was find a way to feel that way when this season begins.
“I want to get off to a quicker start,” Nathan said. “I think if we can get off to a good start and really kind of set the tone, it can help — not just myself individually, but it can help this club to have confidence and hopefully put in the minds of other teams that we’re not going away. This team is still here to play. Hopefully as a team and individually, we can get off to a quicker start, so that’s why I’m trying to prepare myself as well as I can and get as close to game ready as I can by the start of Spring Training.”
The answer wasn more than arm strengthening. He wanted to feel stronger, but he also wanted to feel more agile, more limber. The result was a little different approach for a 40-year-old.
“It’s almost like I’m going back to the younger days as far as agility-type stuff and seeing if we can get some more in my legs, keep my spring in my legs, as opposed to just doing squats and squats and squats,” he said. “It feels like they get kind of stuck. They’re strong, but they can’t move. So I wanted to be able to move more, so he’s incorporating more stuff there.”
He brought it up to his trainer, who adjusted his workout plan. It was a strong enough plan that it was challenging without him dreading it.
“As you get to this age,” Nathan said, “I think the question isn’t, “Can I make it through the season?’ It’s, ‘Can I get myself prepared for the season?’ You always hear the guys that retire say it just got too hard to prepare. So I came into this offseason really focused on trying to pay attention to my body and pay attention to what I need. And fortunately, it’s going unbelievable.
“I’ve gotten stronger than I’ve ever felt. I feel like I’m pushing more weight around than I ever have. Everything as far what my trainer’s done has gotten better and better. My range of motion has gotten better. We’ve done more agility-type stuff to keep my body young.
“I’m excited about how my body feels. The way I’ve been throwing now, I’m on pace, long-tossing at the distance I want to be at. I’m not going to go any further than what I’m at now, 80-85 yards. Just keep it there and come February get [on] the mound, start working on some stuff there.”
Arm strength, he said, will be his spring focus. He’ll work on specific pitches, like breaking balls, later in camp.
“I actually started the offseason throwing a football,” he said, “did that for a little while, and then put a baseball in my hand.”
Like a typical Michigan winter, Detroit was chilly to greet David Price back to town Thursday for the Tigers Winter Caravan. David Price, however, was not chilly to Detroit. If he did nothing else in Thursday’s media session, he wanted to clear the air — cold as it is — about that when he talked with reporters for the first time since season’s end.
“This is not somewhere that I disliked,” Price said. “I only said that it was different, and it’s not different anymore. It’s more normal now, knowing all the guys, knowing all the coaches, knowing everybody’s name and stuff like that.”
Going into his contract year, on the heels of Max Scherzer’s free-agent departure for Washington, that was a big point for him to get across. As the industry ponders what Price could get on the open market next winter given Scherzer’s contract, Price indicated he’s at least open to discussions on a long-term contract, though he acknowledges the strong lure of being able to pick his destination and see what his market value is.
Like Scherzer last spring, it’s only a season away for Price — or as he sees it, 30-some starts away.
“I’m open for anything, to be honest,” he said. “But once you have — I’m guess about a week short of six years in the big leagues right now — to get that far along in the process, some of you does kind of want to wait it out, but then some of you feels like, ‘Well, if they’re open to doing something, you can’t close any doors.’ That’s the way I feel. I enjoy it here. I enjoy the staff and the guys and the stadium, everything of that nature. …
“I’ve been doing this for a while. To get to that point where you can have your place to play, have your choice to pick where you want to play, this would definitely be on the list.”
The Tigers will take that. They’re interested in talking with Price and agent Bo McKinnis about an extension this spring, even if the odds seem long.
On Price’s stretch run in Detroit last year, he said, “It was a transition period. I remember feeling the same way when I was in Tampa in 2009. I was up in 2008 for about a month and into the postseason, and then 2009 I was called up. I remember 2009 still felt a little weird. You weren’t comfortable in that setting, and that’s kind of the way I was last year. It just wasn’t comfortable yet. Comfort comes with time and I’ve had time here. I know all the guys. I got to spend time with them last year, at the field and away from field, so it’s a lot more comfortable.”
More from Price …
- On the potential distraction: “I feel like I’ve been through a lot more distracting things than long-term extension talks. I mean, I’m sure it could be distracting at some point if it just lingered on, but if they’re throwing x amount of dollars at you, it’s gotta make you feel good. It’s gotta put a smile on your face. It can’t be a bad thing.”
- On in-season talks: “Honestly, I haven’t put any thought to that. I feel like once the season does get started, that would make it maybe a little weird, because I want to be able to focus on being there for my teammates and making sure I can get my work in every day and not having to worry about any extra stuff that’s going on. But they’re not talking to me anyways. They’re talking to my agent. He’s only going to come to me if there’s something to work with there. I’ll just listen to my agent and take it from there.”
- On Scherzer’s new deal: “Good for him. That’s awesome. It’s crazy. It’s definitely surreal, even though I haven’t been through that process yet. I’m definitely happy for Max. Good for him.”
- On his offseason: “That was definitely the longest year I’ve had in the big leagues, probably the most stressful year I’ve had in the big leagues with the rumors and then being traded and just being in a new environment. So I took some time off. I felt like that was the biggest thing I needed to, just let my body recharge, reset, and then I got back into the weight room, started throwing with all the guys at Vanderbilt. We’re there Monday through Friday. I’ll go up there Saturday or Sunday and play catch as well.”
- On James Shields: “He’s not talking to me right now, and I get that. He doesn’t want to I guess take the chance of something getting leaked or whatever that process is. I’m sure that is a very big deal, and that’s something he’s worked extremely hard for, to get to this point. He doesn’t want anything like me to ruin it for him.”
- On getting out and around town this week: “I didn’t get to do a whole lot in the city of Detroit [last year], other than taking the helicopter tour on my birthday [in August]. But just to get out in the public and meet with people and see what’s going on, I enjoy that stuff. It’s something I did a lot of in Tampa and I like doing that.”
While Max Scherzer was the star attraction at Wednesday’s press conference in Washington to announce his seven-year, $210 million deal, agent Scott Boras wasn’t far off. He talked with reporters about the way the deal came together, then talked with MLB Network Radio’s Casey Stern and Jim Bowden, who brought up the question of the Tigers’ involvement as the market came together.
Dave Dombrowski said Monday that Boras stayed in touch to express Scherzer’s interest in staying in Detroit, but that no negotiations took place after season’s end. Essentially, the six-year, $144 million deal Scherzer declined last spring was the end to negotiations, and FOXSports.com’s Jon Morosi suggested that owner Mike Ilitch wasn’t interested in pursuing an extension after that.
Boras took the high road, complementing the Tigers for how they handled everything. He did say they kept in touch, but didn’t get into the nature of the conversation.
“First of all, Mike Ilitch is much like the Lerner family: They’re owners that run their own shop. They do their own thing their own way,” Boras told MLB Network Radio. “I don’t think anyone should question anything about what the Tiger organization wants to do other than win. To suggest that, when a general manager makes a bright move and makes an offer for a player, I just don’t see the negative of it. And I don’t think that Mike Ilitch sees the negative of it either. And as you move forward and you continue to communicate, the Tigers and us were always in conversation, and the reason we were is that it was a place that Max Scherzer won 70% of his games there. He was a very important part to them potentiating them achieving Mike Ilitch’s goals in winning. …
“When you have a wedding, you don’t really talk about who you dated, and I kind of leave it at that. Certainly there’s nothing that the Tigers don’t do. They cross every bridge and they’re very conscientious about how they pursue players. They had great value for Max and it was a great relationship. Obviously this fit for Max was something that was, in his mind, something better for him.”
The Washington Nationals introduced Max Scherzer in a Wednesday afternoon press conference, and you figured there would be a lot of talk about two things: The Nationals rotation is really good, and the Scherzer contract is really big.
Asked why he chose Washington, Scherzer said: “Winning. I think this team is capable of winning and winning a lot. When you look at the near term and the long term, this is an organization you want to be a part of.”
That said, he admitted his reaction to the contract offer — a seven-year, $210 million contract with a good share of deferred money — was one of astonishment.
“It was jaw-dropping,” he said. “You just can’t even fathom it sometimes. You work so hard to put yourself in this position. And for me, like I said, it’s all about winning. I don’t play this game for money. Yet at the same time, when you have an offer like that, it makes you go wow. I’m very fortunate.”
Scherzer told MLB Network that the deferred money was the Nationals’ idea, and he was on board with it. He later told MLB Network Radio’s Mike Ferrin that the late-emerging market for him did not test his faith that free agency would work out for him.
“I knew this deal was going to get done,” he said. “I knew there were a lot of moving parts throughout the league that had to happen before my market would pick up.”
Scherzer put on a Nationals jersey with number 31 — his old number from the University of Missouri. He wore number 37 in Detroit, but that number belongs to Stephen Strasburg in Washington.
The Tigers have released their list of players and coaches scheduled to take part in TigerFest. Aside from Miguel Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez, Ian Kinsler, Joakim Soria and Tom Gorzelanny, it’s pretty much everyone. Here’s who to look for at Comerica Park on Saturday: