Tigers camp report: High expectations, louder personality
The Tigers went to the World Series last season, but when they looked at their team they thought that it might have been just a little too quiet. That was going to change in 2013 with Victor Martinez coming back after missing a full season recovering from knee surgery, but the Tigers wanted even more. So they signed Torii Hunter, too.
"It's early in the morning, but he's already pumped up," Hunter said. "You see him, you can't help but be pumped up, too. When he walks into the clubhouse, he brightens the room."
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Call it the Victor Martinez effect.
To be honest, it's kind of like the Torii Hunter effect.
Now the Tigers have both of them. Between them, Martinez and Hunter have already changed the feel of a team that sometimes seemed just a little bit too quiet last summer. The Tigers have most of the same players, but they have a new personality.
"Just a whole different atmosphere," said Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline, who has a locker in the Tigers' spring clubhouse, and is there just about every day.
It's hard to say what it will mean. It's hard to say exactly how much it was needed. As much as the Tigers struggled at times last season, they still won the American League Central for a second straight year.
They still went to the World Series.
They still felt something was missing.
The Tigers knew they'd be getting Martinez back after he missed all of the 2012 season recovering from knee surgery. They knew Martinez, who had already played one season in Detroit after signing a four-year, $50 million contract. Martinez would slot into the lineup right behind Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, and he'd slot right back into the leadership role he filled in 2011.
The Tigers wanted more. They wanted Torii Hunter, who could fill the open second spot in their lineup (behind Austin Jackson, in front of Cabrera), and could fill an open spot in right field. Hunter wanted them, too, and very early in the free-agent process he signed a two-year, $26 million deal.
No team gives a player that kind of money simply because of what he does for them off the field. But there's no question that when the Tigers went looking for corner outfielders who could hit, they also liked the idea of finding one who could talk.
"I don't think you make a decision like that based on the personality of the player," general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "But it's one of the things when you look at putting a club together. I think everyone likes to have leadership that's a little vocal.
"That's also hard to find."
Dombrowski admits that when he looked at the 2012 Tigers, he saw "sort of a quieter group." Others in the organization wondered if that quiet nature had something to do with the way the Tigers played for much of 2012, when they seemed to lack urgency and spent the first half of the season below .500.
In a division they were expected to dominate, the Tigers didn't take first place away from the White Sox until Sept. 25.
Not everyone believes that fire and leadership were an issue, though. Catcher Alex Avila, whose spring training locker sits right between Hunter's and Martinez's, said the two were welcome additions, but that the need for a new personality may have been overplayed.
"I don't think we were missing something," Avila said. "We just gained something more. We'll see, because the personality of a team comes out during the season, not during spring training. I think the personality of our team last year was really tough. We dealt with injuries, and basically clawed our way back to first place.
"The team last year was very tough-minded."
The Tigers dealt with big expectations last year, but as Avila likes to remind people, they've dealt with big expectations ever since going to the World Series in 2006. Since then, owner Mike Ilitch has spent liberally, trying hard to win a World Series, and giving the Tigers what most years has been thought of as the most talented team in the division.
Manager Jim Leyland always says that expectations are great, "because it means people think you have a good team."
The Tigers do have a good team. They had a good team last year, and it's reasonable to think that they're even more talented now. The addition of Hunter and the return of Martinez should give the lineup a depth that wasn't always there in 2012, and the re-signing of Anibal Sanchez left the Tigers with six true big-league starters as spring training began (compared to four when last season started).
As spring training wound down, there was still a real chance that the Tigers would trade Rick Porcello, but also a real chance that they would keep him. There were questions about the back end of the bullpen, questions that will become more persistent if rookie Bruce Rondon has a blown save or two early in the season.
Perhaps the bullpen will become enough of an issue that the Tigers will struggle early in the season. Perhaps the new personality and new leadership will be tested.
Kaline, for one, believes that's when the Victor Martinez effect and the Torii Hunter effect will be felt.
"It's going to help over the course of the season," Kaline said. "You're going to have some streaks where you lose some games. Those two veteran players will be a calming influence.
"And I'll tell you what, both of them are fierce competitors."
Leyland prefers to focus on what Martinez and Hunter can do for the Tigers lineup. He likes to say that if a team wins, everyone will say the chemistry was good, and if a team loses, everyone will find reasons why it wasn't.
Still, Leyland likes this team's personality, just as he likes this team's talent.
"We've got good players, and we've got good guys," he said. "Now we've just got to play good."
They haven't won or lost any games that count just yet. But they have been pumped up, every single day.
That's the Victor effect.
"You wonder how he does it," Avila said. "I guess it's just another trait you're born with."
It's a trait the Tigers now have in duplicate. It's a trait they may well have been missing last year.
They still went to the World Series. But they still felt something was missing.
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