Max Scherzer can’t compete against himself. If he tries to top his 2013 season, he’s going to be fighting a losing battle. So instead, he’s already competing against his teammates, at least in his mind.
Tigers hitters won’t step into the batters box against pitchers until full-squad workouts begin Tuesday, but Scherzer needed some competition in his second bullpen session of the spring. So as Scherzer prepared to throw to Bryan Holaday, while Victor Martinez and Alex Avila watched from the sidelines, Scherzer pretended as if he was facing them — first Martinez, then Avila.
“Start him off with a fastball,” Scherzer said, predicting Martinez would take the first pitch. “We’ll set him up.”
In came the fastball.
“Gone,” Avila said, pretending to track a ball sail out to right field.
Not in Scherzer’s mind. And since this was Scherzer’s session, the imaginary at-bat went on, Scherzer approaching the switch-hitting Martinez like a left-handed hitter. Scherzer dropped in a curveball, then another one, setting up a high fastball. Then Scherzer delivered his knockout pitch.
“AH!!! Got him! No way he’s hitting that,” Scherzer exclaimed, pumping his fist.
On to the next hitter.
“Alex, first and second, two outs,” Scherzer said as he stood on the back of the bullpen mound.
Scherzer proceeded with another game plan, mixing in breaking stuff with fastballs. At one point, he lost a heater up and inside.
“I’m out for the next three games after that one,” Avila said.
“Don’t kid yourself. You’re jumping out of the way,” Scherzer said.
That put the count to 3-1. After another pitch off the plate, Scherzer — still with plenty of pitches before his limit — hit the reset button.
“Let’s do Alex all over again,” Scherzer told Holaday.
“He’s intimidated,” Avila told his backup.
Another fastball, another disagreement.
“Game over,” Avila said, hinting at a walkoff homer.
“Foul tip,” Scherzer contended, arguing he’d be late on the swing.
By this point, the other pitchers had finished their sessions. Over on the next mound, Anibal Sanchez was long since done, but standing around watching this unfold, suggesting pitches. Brad Ausmus let them have their fun. Martinez had gone back in.
As far as Scherzer’s concerned, he finished his session by striking out Avila, and celebrated as such. Avila let him have his fun.
Much as Tigers fans don’t want to consider the possibility, this could be a real showdown next season, depending on Scherzer’s contract situation. For today, though, it was a reminder that even Major Leaguers sometimes motivate themselves by imagining scenarios.
It’s also a nice reminder that while Justin Verlander works his way back from surgery, there’s still somebody atop the Tigers rotation with a disdain for hitters, no matter what uniform they wear.
Special thanks to Tigers team photographer Mark Cunningham, who sent over a couple of photos from the Tigers’ rag ball drill this morning that give a glimpse of the reaction workout. If there’s any difference in the Tigers’ workouts, it’s this. It’s more intense than the usual PFP (pitchers fielding practice), but it’s meant more to test the quick reactions that pitchers need on comebackers. So far, pitchers seem to be raving about it.
“I’m very happy we’re doing this,” Max Scherzer said. “We don’t get much of a reaction drill.”
It’s not that Jim Leyland didn’t try to get his pitchers into PFP. Justin Verlander always used to challenge Leyland to try to get a ground ball by him in PFP, to the point that Leyland would be smacking grounders at a pretty good rate. That was from a longer distance, though.
“It’s coming at you so fast, you have to be 100 percent on your toes,” Scherzer said.
Pitchers got such a kick out of it that Ausmus made it into a team competition, separating the roster into groups and keeping track of how many comebackers they field from infield coach Omar Vizquel and defensive coordinator Matt Martin.
“There is a prize at the end,” Ausmus said.
We’ll see how much of a difference it makes in the season, but it makes things interesting. So, too, will Kenny Rogers’ annual visit to Tigertown this week to work with pitchers on their fielding technique and holding baserunners. Rogers would have loved a drill like this, as he was a maniac fielding his position, whether in Spring Training or during the season.
“He really preaches the footwork aspect,” Scherzer said.
The other tangible difference Ausmus has brought to this camp happens before the workouts begin. Leyland made one speech to his players every spring — first before the initial pitchers/catchers workout, then before the full squad worked out for the first time. He would then have a brief meeting on the field before the workout. Ausmus has the same speech schedule, but he has met with players in the clubhouse before they head outside. They bring chairs around to one end of the clubhouse in a seminar type of layout and gather.
“It’s just a mixture of baseball discussion and some team fun,” Ausmus said.
“It’s really just, a lot of times, getting to know young players,” Ausmus explained. “In some sense, it’s a little bit of team building type stuff. It’s fun. We laugh at each other. We laugh at things that are happening in the world. Nothing earth-shattering. It’s a way to get to know each other. There is baseball discussion.”
This wasn’t something Ausmus picked up as a player, he said. He got it from Padres manager Bud Black, having seen it over the past few Spring Training as a special assistant. The Padres, of course, have had much younger squads than the Tigers, with fewer veteran players.
Ausmus, you may remember, was in the running for the Cubs opening. Had he taken that job, it would’ve been a much different clubhouse he inherited. He can’t say how his camp approach would’ve been different with a younger team, since he has only put his planning into this one.
“But I would say, absolutely, yeah, it would be probably a different approach if you had a young team that was developing, a few years away from winning,” he said. “You would certainly cover things differently than you would with a veteran group, especially as you go deeper into camp and you’re kind of paring down the roster.”
That said, Ausmus added, “Even with veteran guys, I know that as a veteran, I learned things about the game, or someone pointed something out that I never noticed. I make a habit of trying not to assume that somebody knows something, even if I sound like moron telling them. If you assume they know it and they don’t, then I think it’s my mistake. But if I tell them and they think I’m an idiot for telling them because it sounds elementary, I’d rather that they think I’m an idiot and have it covered.”
More notes from Sunday:
- The unofficial reporting date for position players is Monday, so one would’ve assumed that many guys would’ve taken Sunday to enjoy the rest of their weekend before getting to work. Instead, several hitters filed into camp, including Ian Kinsler, Jose Iglesias, Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter and Danny Worth. They joined several who had already been in camp, such as Rajai Davis, Don Kelly and Daniel Fields. Together, they had enough of a group to begin unofficial workouts and take batting practice on the back fields. Even Ausmus was surprised and impressed by how many players were already around. It’s different from team to team, but the Tigers have had this culture of early reporting for a while. Reporting day has been a mythological date around these parts for at least the last five years.
- Ausmus sounded a bit like Leyland when asked today about Bruce Rondon and how he compares to the hardest throwers he caught. “He’s certainly up there, probably 10 people I caught who throw as hard as him,” Ausmus said. “But just because you throw hard doesn’t mean you’re an instant success. Everyone loves velocity. They want to see triple digits. Doesn’t mean you’re going to be an excellent pitcher. … Matt Anderson was here at about 102. He got injured. So there’s nothing guaranteeing success because you throw hard. Velocity doesn’t guarantee anything. It just gives you a little bit more margin of error.”
- Good news for anyone making the trip to Tigertown to watch workouts this coming week: The Cirque Italia wrapped up on Sunday, meaning there should be many more parking spots available. No offense to the circus, but it caused its share of confusion, including to Kinsler, who wasn’t sure if he was at the right place when he pulled in. Drew VerHagen planned on heading over and asking them about the show (not to be confused with The Show).
It took a little longer than planned, because the circus tents in the parking lot can prove a little confusing, but Ian Kinsler rolled into Spring Training this morning, making his physical presence with the Tigers for the first time since the early offseason trade that sent him from Texas to Detroit. He also talked at length with reporters for the first time since his November conference call following the trade.
Among the highlights:
- Kinsler long suspected a trade was coming, based on the Rangers’ glut of middle infielders, last year’s contract extension to Elvis Andrus, the team’s recent history, the front-office history and the never-ending rumors.
- Kinsler’s 10-team no-trade list that he had in Texas centered around non-contending teams. “The teams that were left off were teams I thought had a great chance to win,” Kinsler said, “and Detroit was at the top of the [contender] list among AL teams.”
- Kinsler dropped about 10 pounds from his frame because he no longer has to worry about losing weight during the summer in the Texas heat, and because his running game could be more of a premium skill in the big dimensions of Comerica Park. “I want to go back to where I’m a line-drive hitter,” he said. “It’s spacious [at CoPa].”
- After the trade, Kinsler talked with Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia about playing alongside Jose Iglesias. Pedroia told him to keep his glove up or else he could get his teeth knocked out by a strong, quick throw. “He said, ‘Iggy’s special, you’re going to have a lot of fun,’” Kinsler said.
Adam Berry has the full story here.
When Dave Dombrowski talked with reporters at TigerFest last month and again at a Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association luncheon last week, he left the door open for the Tigers to add a reliever for depth if the fit was right. That didn’t happen, in part because the Tigers don’t have many bullpen spots open for competition, let alone a late-inning role.
If the Tigers were still to consider adding depth, a guy on the comeback trail would probably make more sense. So it shouldn’t be a surprise if the Tigers are spotted scouting workouts for pitchers recovering from surgery and trying to find a club. Ryan Madson fits the profile, having lost back-to-back seasons to injuries, and he threw for teams a week ago.
MLB.com’s Milwaukee reporter, Adam McCalvy, wrote about the level of Brewers interest yesterday. He also talked to one of the more than 50 scouts reportedly in attendance, who noted the Tigers among the scouts that appeared to be showing the most interest.
The Tigers did have a scout watching Madson. At this point, though, their interest appears to be limited to due diligence. They have a big enough Major League scouting staff that they can take a look when players hold workouts this time of year, but they don’t necessarily have the kind of role or offer Madson is seeking. MLB.com’s Phillies reporter, Todd Zolecki, cited sources saying Madson is seeking a Major League contract. The Tigers have always preferred a minor-league deal with a camp invite if they add anyone, which is as much about the pitchers they have on their 40-man roster as it is about who they would add.
The 33-year-old Madson was an outstanding closer in his last Major League season, saving 32 games for the Phillies in 2011 after several seasons as a workhorse reliever in their bullpen. He hasn’t pitched since, but by all accounts, he impressed in his workout, reportedly hitting 91-93 mph on his fastball.
Remember when Victor Martinez was trying on catching gear Thursday and said he was ready to do whatever the Tigers needed or asked? Well, turns out they had asked him about catching.
“I actually called Victor — this must have been January, right after New Year’s — and asked him about catching,” Brad Ausmus said. “He was thrilled about it. He was excited. I asked him if he wanted to come down with pitchers and catchers.
“There is a reason behind it. We play 10 games in National League parks and the first road trip of the season is L.A. and San Diego. We can’t not have Victor play for five straight games. This gives us another option. I wouldn’t want to just ask Victor the first week of the season, ‘Hey, get some catching gear. You might catch on the next road trip.’ So I told him, ‘Listen, I was hoping you would be open to the idea of catching a little bit.’ So when we get to LA and San Diego and we face a tough left-handed pitcher or maybe Alex Avila needs a day or something, whatever the case may be, we can stick Victor behind the plate possibly. Now, I don’t know if it will happen or won’t happen, but it gives us an option.”
Thus, Martinez was behind the plate Friday morning for the first round of bullpen sessions in Tigers camp. He caught Rick Porcello’s session with relative ease.
As mentioned Thursday, Martinez started three games at catcher last season, two of them against the Mets at Citi Field during Interleague Play in August. He was on a hitting tear, and with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder at the corners, the Tigers had nowhere else to put him. He didn’t catch at all that spring, not while he was working back into game shape with surgically repaired knees, but Jim Leyland acknowledged he could end up catching later in the year.
This year, Interleague Play comes much earlier. That plus Martinez’s health over the past year make a start or two in Spring Training a much more sensible option.
The Tigers face five more games in NL parks after that — three in Arizona July 21-23, then two in Pittsburgh Aug. 11-12.
Another option Ausmus confirmed is to play Miguel Cabrera at third for some of those games and move Martinez to first.
“It’s been talked about,” Ausmus said. “Again, there will be some things, we have to see how they play out, but it’s been discussed. I actually even mentioned it to Miggy. You know, Miggy is a team guy and he told me, ‘Listen, I still have two gloves. Whatever you need.’ So at the end of March, if you see Miggy play third for a game, you don’t have to immediately say that [Nick] Castellanos is in trouble or [Steve] Lombardozzi’s in trouble. It might be that we’re setting up to have options for these National League games where we want to keep our big bats in the lineup.”
Cabrera mentioned Wednesday that he brought his third-base glove with him.
If you were expecting some sort of new revelation from Max Scherzer on his contract situation or his situation in general when he reported to camp on Friday, it wasn’t happening. Scherzer reiterated his previous remarks from TigerFest: He wants to remain a Tiger, the Tigers are interested in keeping him, and he doesn’t want to negotiate once the season begins. However, he didn’t want to get into questions about contract talks, to the point that he didn’t answer whether contract talks were taking place.
“I’m not discussing negotiations with the media,” Scherzer said. ‘Those are private.”
Asked if he feels like he’ll be a Tiger a year from now, Scherzer said, “I just can’t answer that. I can’t even speculate like that. I hope it does, but in reality, you can never dictate whether these things happen or don’t. If it does, great. If not, we’ll hopefully resolve it in November. For me, now that I’m here in Spring Training, my focus right now is all about getting on the field and trying to win.”
Come Opening Day, that focus will have no room for contract issues.
“If it’s not done by Opening Day, then I’m not going to negotiate during the season,” he said. “This can be a major distraction. I understand I have a chance to secure my future here with the team. I want that to happen. But at the same time, I’m not going to drag negotiations out into the season. That’s unfair to the team, unfair to me and my teammates. They don’t need to have that type of thought process going on. For me, I’m all about [being] here to win.”
More from Scherzer:
- On expectations coming off last year’s Cy Young season: “My mindset is that you never stay the same, as a pitcher, as an athlete. You either get better or you get worse. Those are the only two options that go on. And so my mindset going into Spring Training this year is I’m going to get better. I’m going to find ways to be better than I was last year. I might not have the record or some of the numbers I was able to accomplish last year, but I can be a better pitcher than I was last year. And that’s my goal.”
- On opening message from new manager Brad Ausmus: “Same stuff: We’re here to work. Nothing out of the ordinary. It’s exactly what every manager says at this time of year. Obviously we believe we have a chance to win. It’s going to take hard work to get there, and there are no shortcuts.”
- On whether there’s a culture change: “When you have a team that’s made it three times to the ALCS, you don’t need a culture change. Skip was great. We appreciate everything that he did. He gave everything he could, all the way to the end. Obviously his time has come. I think Brad is going to pick up where he left off and add new stuff and make us even better.”
Miguel Cabrera has been in Lakeland all week, having reported early to get settled in and get in some early work. He also has been moving around without restriction after recovering from core muscle surgery. What he has not been doing is worrying about his next contract.
When asked if he has talked with his agents about a contract extension, Cabrera said there hasn’t been anything going on. He also said, though, that he isn’t worried about it right now. With two years left on his deal, he said, they have time. At some point, there will be more urgency than this, but not now.
The fact that Cabrera doesn’t seem overly concerned isn’t a bad thing for the Tigers, who have another contract situation they’re trying to handle with Max Scherzer entering his contract year. That doesn’t change the task trying to re-sign Cabrera, the back-to-back American League MVP and three-time reigning AL batting champion who turns 31 years old in April.
The Tigers lost a piece of catching depth Wednesday with Ronny Paulino’s 100-game suspension for exogenous Testosterone, but it wasn’t a big piece.
Considering the inexperience of the surrounding cast, Paulino was veteran insurance. He was once a promising young backstop in Pittsburgh before things went south, until he was mired as a Triple-A backup last summer. The Tigers acquired him from the Orioles organization because Luis Exposito had nailed down the job at Triple-A Norfolk. Exposito is now in the Tigers system, having been signed as a minor-league free agent this offseason. He has the best chance to back up prospect James McCann in Toledo.
Exposito is in big league camp for depth, as is fellow minor-league catching signing Craig Albernaz. The Tigers signed Albernaz from the Rays organization. Paulino’s minor-league deal did not include a camp invite.
Major League Baseball announced Paulino’s suspension Wednesday afternoon. He received a 100-game suspension for a second positive test.
The big story about Justin Verlander on Tuesday was his throwing status and his expectation that he’ll be ready for the start of the season. However, Verlander touched on quite a few other topics today in his first interview with reporters since last fall. Among the bigger topics was his transition from pitching for Jim Leyland, his only manager since 2006, to Brad Ausmus, whom Verlander faced as a pitcher (0-for-2 with a double play).
Verlander and Leyland had their differing views, to the point where Leyland often joked that they rarely see eye-to-eye on anything, but deep down they liked and respected each other. The dynamic between Verlander and Ausmus is bound to be different.
“That’s what’s exciting about it, right? I don’t know, I’m kind of anxious, nervous,” Verlander said. ” And when it comes down, what do I call [Ausmus]? I say Skip, and immediately this picture of Jim Leyland pops into my mind. I’m going to have to talk with him: ‘Hey, what do you want me to call you? I’ll try to call you Skip.’ It might take me a little while before it really sets in.
“Eight years of my life, [Leyland] been the manager. It was a great relationship Jim and I had. He’s still going to be around, which will be nice, becuase he’s a friend of mine now. He was a friend of mine. But it’s going to be interesting for me to see the differences, because I’ve never had another manager other than Jim. We’ll see a different managerial style.”
When Verlander’s record against Ausmus was pointed out, he smiled.
“That’s kind of a weird thing, right? I always thought it was weird with managers, especially guys like Andy Pettitte when Girardi was his catcher. I always thought, ‘That’s when you’re getting old.’”
Verlander knows he’s getting old, but he insists he’s not feeling it, despite his offseason injuries.
“No, I feel great,” Verlander said. “I lost a little bit of weight. I just keep telling everybody I’m like a fine bottle of wine. I’m getting better with age.”
Other insights from Verlander …
- On the new-look roster: “I’m excited. Obviously it’s tough to see a teammate go like Prince and Fister. They’ve been around for the last couple years for some pretty special years. We weren’t able to win it all, but it was a lot of fun, and they were both a huge part of that. But you also need to understand that the game of baseball, this is a business. There’s a lot of money involved and you can’t just keep everybody. It just doesn’t work like that with the contracts people are getting these days. It’s the business side of it. I’m excited about the guys we brought in. I think we got more athletic. I think that’s the obvious thing you look at. I know I’ve talked about it with a few guys, I think maybe those tight ballgames that we had last year where we weren’t able to manufacture a run, that might be a little different this year. Brad’s got some options at his disposal with guys getting on and maybe being able to steal a bag in a big spot, whatever.”
- On possibly recruiting Max Scherzer to stay: “Max is his own guy. You guys know Max, man. He’s going to make his own decisions, but I don’t think I need to be a recruiter. I think from what he’s been saying, he’s made it loud and clear that that he wants to stay in Detroit. Whether that’s possible or not, I don’t know, but I don’t think he needs to be recruited. I think what this organization has done has recruited him — not just the players here. I think he enjoys being part of this team. I think the success that we’ve had, Mr. Ilitch has thrown so much more into this team than a lot of poeple would at his own risk, and he’s put a great product on the field. You can’t ask for anything more than what he’s done for this organization and this city. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to be a part of that?”
- On the explosion in salaries across baseball: “I think it’s great. Obviously, as a player you see the contracts and it’s great for everything that the players before us fought for, to get to where we are, to have free agency and we can exploit that and use it to our advantage. And the contracts show how good the game is going. I know the Dodgers are a great example of that. Their local TV deal allows them to spend a lot of money. I think it’s great for everybody involved. They’re getting money from their local fans and their TV deal and they’re putting it back into their ballclub and that’s the way it should go. It really bothers me when you see teams making a lot of money and then just shoving it in their back pocket and not putting a good product on the field. I feel like you owe it to your fans and your local area to at least put a good product on the field, and you see a lot of teams getting revenue sharing and stuff and they don’t put it back.”
- On attending the Super Bowl and his history with Russell Wilson: “I know his family very well. It’s a crazy story. I was in a suite, and a couple of the guys got asked over to the suite right next to us to take some pictures and stuff. I’m like where are they going, and they’re like, ‘Russell Wilson’s family is right next to us.’ I went over there and it was like a family reunion. I go over there and give his mom a big hug and talk to his brother for a little bit. It was just really cool and really ironic, just happenstance that they were right next to us.”
No polar vortex here. Though northern parts of Florida have had it rough this winter, the legitimately chilly temperatures supposedly haven’t gotten close to Lakeland yet. Sunny skies greeted the week on Monday, with temperatures in the mid-70s. The early arrivals here are much the same as in past years. Justin Verlander is already here, having an offseason home nearby. Rick Porcello has been working out and throwing. Drew Smyly made the trip early from his offseason home in Dallas, where a harsh winter wasn’t exactly friendly to workouts. Verlander tweeted a photo of himself and Smyly at an Orlando Magic game over the weekend. Anibal Sanchez has been around to throw and work out.
Phil Coke is here, and has been for a while. His family made the trip with him, including his wife and newborn baby (their second, born in Florida around the week of the winter caravan and TigerFest). Look for more on Phil Coke and his rebound attempt this week as we get closer to the first official workout Friday.
Duane Below has been here and throwing. That’s no surprise, since he was regularly one of the first to migrate during previous offseasons.
Max Scherzer supposedly hadn’t arrived yet as of Monday morning, but was supposedly due in shortly. He has an interesting spring ahead: His breakout 2013 season came after a relatively light spring to take it easy on his shoulder, but he said during the winter caravan that he planned on ramping up his routine again this spring to previous levels.
Add in catcher Alex Avila and pitching coach Jeff Jones, who arrived over the weekend, and the Tigers already have a sizable group. Realistically, reporting day is a formality for a lot of these guys. The surprise is when position players come on this early, which apparently Miguel Cabrera has done. The Lakeland Flying Tigers tweeted a photo of Cabrera working out on the field at Joker Marchant Stadium around mid-afternoon Monday.
— Lkd Flying Tigers (@LkdFlyingTigers) February 10, 2014
Cabrera has been reporting to camp earlier and earlier in recent years, starting with his move to third base a couple seasons ago. Still, for him to make it in well before even some pitchers is pretty impressive.
The new manager, Brad Ausmus, will also be an early arrival. He’s due in tomorrow, though he isn’t scheduled to address the media until Wednesday. His main coaches, Jones and Wally Joyner, are already here, and they’ll have meetings to go over the game plan for camp.