- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN Insider
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The infield drill that the Detroit Tigers worked through on Friday morning was the same drill run in every other camp, right up until the moment, early on, that Victor Martinez whistled for the first time. It's a sound that falls just short, in volume, of an oncoming train.
Martinez's whistle was missing last year after he blew out his knee with a season-ending injury, but now he's back, a little thinner and with maybe even a little more energy after missing the game so much last year. Other players will testify that Martinez is the most invested teammate they've ever had -- "He might even care about the other guys too much," said one former teammate, referring to the fact that Martinez's effort to help others can sometimes take away from his own preparation -- and he was fully invested in the Tigers' routine fielding drill.
Martinez began shouting in Spanish at the others in the drill -- Omar Infante, Jhonny Peralta, Miguel Cabrera, Don Kelly and Prince Fielder -- and even if I had studied Spanish 204 more in college, I don't think I could give a complete translation, because Martinez was yelling with such velocity and so loud, the words intertwined with his whistle, that I couldn't keep up. Simply put, he cajoled the others, telling them to pick it up, encouraging them, and before long, all of the others were into the rhythm that he had set, as the ball was fired from second to first to home to second to third, and back around, over and over, Martinez reacting to all of it.
By the time it was over, the Tigers had gone through this daily chore with peak efficiency and energy, which is the beauty of someone like Victor Martinez. For those eight minutes, he helped to make the rest of them better.
The Tigers have a lot of accomplished veterans in their camp, including Justin Verlander, Torii Hunter and Cabrera. In theory, they should have a very strong clubhouse -- although manager Jim Leyland laughed that off, saying that if they win a lot of games, it'll be said that they have great chemistry, and if they lose a lot, it'll be said they have terrible chemistry.
What they have, mostly, is a lot of terrific players, such as the very underrated center fielder Austin Jackson, the overshadowed Max Scherzer and Doug Fister and underappreciated left fielder Andy Dirks, who had a .370 on-base percentage last season. The Tigers' defense and failures in key parts of their lineup -- the No. 2 spot, the No. 5 spot -- really hurt them last year, but a full season with Infante should make the infield better, and Hunter will improve the outfield. Rick Porcello, a candidate for the No. 5 spot, has had better velocity and is throwing well, and so is Drew Smyly. The Tigers will have a nice quandary in picking that last starter, unlike last spring, when all of the No. 5 candidates threw terribly.
Some rival teams have done internal projections for the upcoming season, and what evaluators say is that the Tigers should be a markedly better team than last year, when they slogged their way to the division title before advancing to the World Series.
The only significant question for the Tigers is about the closer's role, but there is a lot of confidence in the Detroit camp that Bruce Rondon, the hard-throwing right-hander who might best fit the role, is figuring it all out after struggling early in camp.
Rondon normally pitches with an exaggerated hip turn in the midst of his delivery, and in his first appearances this spring, that disappeared -- a sign that he was rushing through his mechanics. But it has come back, and Rondon is again gathering himself before driving toward home plate. Instead of losing command of his fastball, he is darting the strike zone again. Leyland felt that Rondon's outing Thursday was a step forward, because he had thrown breaking balls for strikes -- really for the first time in this spring training. Yes, it was against the back end of the Mets' spring training roster, but in the days ahead, Leyland might work to get him into games earlier, against better hitters.
While media members (like myself) want immediate solutions plugged into place, Rondon's ascension figures to be more of an evolution.
"He doesn't have to be the closer right away," said one member of the organization. "He can get some save chances, but so can other guys."
Leyland and GM David Dombrowski have demonstrated time and again in their careers that they are really good at assessing when young players are ready to move up and in how they move them. Rondon may not necessarily be the closer at the beginning of the year, or even at the end of the season, but he has already demonstrated that he can be a weapon in some role, whether it's the sixth inning or the ninth. (The Tigers talked about promoting Rondon at the end of last season, Leyland said, but decided he wouldn't get as many opportunities as they wanted.)
Detroit is having a great spring training, quietly -- except when Victor Martinez is around.
John Harper thinks Wright should have thought of the Mets first and shut himself down.
• There is a ton of concern among scouts about Atlanta's Jonny Venters, whose command is way off. The velocity of fellow Brave reliever Eric O'Flaherty has been down, although O'Flaherty's problem might just be a spring training thing.
• Puerto Rico knocked out the U.S. in the WBC.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The White Sox made a cut.
2. Gary Brown was sent to the minors by the Giants.
3. The Nationals' bullpen seems set.
4. Tony Sanchez was reassigned to the Pirates' camp.
The fight for jobs
1. The Twins' center-field job is still open.
Dings and dents
1. An injury to a Cubs prospect shouldn't be a big deal, writes Gordon Wittenmyer.
9. Felix Doubront had his strongest start of the spring.
An outfielder who accidentally shot himself is back in camp with the Red Sox.
The Royals' players have a lot of winning history, Pete Grathoff writes.
Houston's No. 1 pick from last year homered on the first pitch he saw.
Pat Corbin never planned on a baseball career.
• The Angels' pitchers are taking batting practice this spring.
• The Rays are going bald for pediatric cancer.
• Vanderbilt pulled off a really nice upset.
And today will be better than yesterday.
3dJeff Banister, Special to ESPN.com
4dBrayan Pena, Special to ESPN.com
7dMatt Buschmann, Special to ESPN.com
8dA.J. Ellis, Special for ESPN.com
9dRob Manfred, Special to ESPN.com
9dSean Doolittle, Special to ESPN.com