By: Will Burchfield
The Tigers hired Ron Gardenhire last fall to lead their team head-on into a rebuild. They believed he had the right temperament to manage a young roster.
Through the first few weeks of spring training, Gardenhire has looked the part. He seems to possess a personal touch that former manager Brad Ausmus lacked.
“Brad is more analytical, more matter of fact. Ron, I feel like, is more approachable. He has a warmer, more welcoming personality — not saying that Brad didn’t, but with Gardy, he’s always smiling, always joking,” Nicholas Castellanos told 97.1 The Ticket. “He’s more approachable, I should say that.”
For a team full of young players, the 60-year-old Gardenhire brings the right mix of encouragement and accountability. He won’t excuse sloppy baseball, something the Tigers were often guilty of under Ausmus, but he also won’t get down on a youngster for making an honest mistake.
“For us, I think he’s perfect,” closer Shane Greene told MLB.com. “He controls the room, every room he walks into. He kind of sets the tone, whether it’s a serious tone or a little bit of a lackadaisical tone. He has fun, but at the same time he’s teaching. He’s perfect for us, and we’re looking forward to working with him all year.”
If Gardenhire’s coaching gets through, the Tigers will throw lots of strikes, play clean defense, excel at situational hitting and avoid unnecessary outs on the bases. (Gone will be the days of the Tigers recording the worst base-running metrics in the league.)
“He’s been around the game for a really long time,” said Daniel Norris. “If anything, he’s going to teach the young guys, including myself, how to play the game the right way.”
Like the rest of his teammates, Michael Fulmer has felt Gardenhire’s enthusiasm.
“He’s a big we’re-gonna-have-fun guy. The first day of camp he was up there taking ground balls at first base during practice,” Fulmer said. “We were just happy that he made it out without pulling a hamstring.”
Castellanos said the vibe in Lakeland this spring has been altogether different than his first four years with the Tigers, when it felt like the team “needed to win the World Series yesterday.”
“I like it a lot. It’s definitely a complete shift from what we’ve had in the past. We have pretty much the entire team here before 7:30 a.m.,” Castellanos said. “Everybody’s excited, everybody’s getting after it, everybody has something to prove for the most part, where in the past we pretty much had our set lineup from the first day of camp.
“It’s different. There’s a lot of competition right now, but not in the competition of us wishing bad amongst each other, wanting to succeed from other people’s failures, but genuinely creating an atmosphere where everybody is wanting everybody to do as well as possible. That’s fun.”
One of the lone players over the age of 30 on the Tigers roster is Miguel Cabrera, who’s hoping to rebound from an injury-marred 2017 season. Hampered by two herniated discs in his back, plus myriad other issues, Cabrera played in just 130 games, the second fewest of his career, and hit .249 with 16 home runs and 60 RBI.
Castellanos expects a resurgent season from the two-time MVP, who turns 35 in April.
“Miggy’s healthy, and when Miggy’s healthy he does amazing things,” Castellanos said. “For the past three years Miggy has not been healthy, from his sports hernia to his bone spur to his ankle, and him favoring that led to his hips being locked up.
“Finally he’s getting to a place with all the work he’s done this offseason, shedding some pounds and getting everything right, where he can kind of just go out and play again. We’ve kind of seen that already with how many times he’s hit the ball hard this spring.”
No one’s hitting the ball harder than Castellanos, of course. Through nine spring training games, the Tigers new rightfielder boasts a .381 average with four home runs and a 1.48 OPS. There’s a long way to go until Opening Day, but Castellanos already looks poised for a big-time offensive year.
The other veteran slugger in the Tigers’ lineup is 39-year-old Victor Martinez, who may well be entering the last season of his 16-year carer. He remembers clashing with Gardenhire’s Minnesota teams when he was coming of age in Cleveland.
“He’s definitely a competitive manager, a great manager. Back then he used to have a really good team, a winning team in Minnesota,” Martinez said. “He definitely knows what he’s doing, so I think he’s going to be good for these young kids.”