Tigers look to erase bitter Series taste
Start of camp first step toward defense of American League title
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The calendar read reporting day for Tigers pitchers and catchers. For many, it was simply business as usual.
All four members of the Tigers' postseason rotation have already been filing into the clubhouse for early work. Reigning American League Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander had been in and out all winter, since he owns a home here. Jeremy Bonderman had been around for about a month. Craig Dingman, working his way back to action after arterial bypass surgery derailed his 2006 season, had been down throwing since just after the new year.
Once manager Jim Leyland files into his office late Thursday afternoon after a speaking engagement Monday night at the University of Notre Dame and a snowy drive home, camp for the AL champs will be underway. But many have been going for awhile.
For most, it's a matter of practicality. Once they get into the latter stages of their offseason workout plan, it's easier to do the work at the facility rather than at home, especially if home is frozen over. Nate Robertson awakened to frigid temperatures at the start of last week and realized it was time to get out of metro Detroit.
"For pitchers, it's better to go outdoors and throw," said Robertson, whose bulk of offseason throwing consisted of indoor sessions with former Tigers strength and conditioning coach Dennie Taft. "Position players, they can stay in batting cages and things like that. They're not going to face live hitting anyway for a while, so it's not as big a deal to them. For us, it's good to get our long toss and get off of a mound outdoors, start getting that feel."
That's why many of these pitchers have been reporting early for several years. Previous years, however, included October off. With a month knocked off the offseason, they had a later start to their winter work, a little more emphasis on rest, and less time to catch up to where they wanted to be.
Most of the work goes on under supervision from strength and conditioning coach Javair Gillett, who puts together players' offseason workout plans. It's a lot of stretching, but also some throwing in the bullpen.
"It's similar to what we'll be doing next week," Chad Durbin said, "except not in uniform. We've had good weather all winter. I'm used to this stuff, so it's not much different. But the guys coming from up north need to get here early. It's important to get out here and run on grass and get your hamstrings ready."
In some ways, informal workouts are more efficient than the formal ones, since players can do them on their own schedule instead of set times as a group. There's more standing around after reporting day than before it.
Verlander, who rested more than most of his teammates after tossing 200 innings as a rookie last year between the regular season and playoffs, just started picking up a ball again a few weeks ago yet has already piled up bullpen sessions. And he already has a job relatively secure.
"It just kind of shows you how smart some of these guys are," Robertson said. "They just don't want to be behind. We're all trying to gauge where we're supposed to be as opposed to where we were a year ago. Because [in previous years] we had an extra month to get ready, and now this is a shortened offseason, and guys just don't want to be behind. So they're coming in, they're getting their work done, and they want to be ready.
Verlander started noticing more players filing in about three weeks ago. Now, it's as if the pitching staff is already here.
"I know I like the sense of what's going on around here," Verlander said. "You see a lot of the guys come down here working out early and preparing for spring. Skip talks about the championship hangover, and I think the guys coming down early shows a good sign that we're not pleased with what happened. We won the pennant and that's exciting, but we didn't get the ultimate prize. We didn't win the World Series, and I think we're showing that drive to want to be the best and to do what we've got going in the right direction."
Once official workouts begin Friday, there'll be one factor Tigers pitchers can't prepare for. The attention level in camp, both from fans and the media, will be unlike anything many of these players have seen. Some of it is the simple byproduct of a winning team. But coming off the record five errors from Tigers pitchers in the World Series, the first session of pitchers' fielding practice figures to be one of the more heavily publicized drills in modern baseball history.
Leyland has warned he doesn't plan on having those drills on the first day so his players don't get too uptight about it. But many seem to be ready, not only to throw to the base but to throw out the punchlines. It's a loose bunch.
"I just decided I'm going to catch the ball and throw my first 20 away this year and get them all out of my system [in camp]," Verlander joked.
Added Robertson: "We fielded the ball all year long. We just had a bad stretch during the most important time of the year. So if you want to go out and do a drill, let's do timing drills. [Errors are] going to happen. Just don't do it then. We should've just thrown it into the Royals series [at regular season's end], since that was a mess anyway."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.