- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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LAKELAND, Fla. -- Victor Martinez reported to Tigers spring training this week with the pitchers and catchers, his catcher’s mitt in his bag, his shin guards hanging in his locker. That didn’t just happen because he missed Lakeland.
Miguel Cabrera brought his third-base mitt to spring training even though he’s now the Tigers’ first baseman. That wasn’t exactly a packing mishap, either.
The Detroit Tigers of 2014 may be rebooted, rebuilt and rearranged. But the new manager, Brad Ausmus, knows one thing about his team, now that Prince Fielder no longer occupies the No. 4 hole behind Cabrera:
Victor Martinez needs to play. And needs to be on Ausmus' lineup card, ideally sitting behind Cabrera, as much as possible.
And so, on the first day of spring training Friday, Ausmus said he’d already spoken to Martinez about catching more this spring (and summer), and that he’d talked to Cabrera about possibly moving back to third base at times so that Martinez could play a little at first.
“I actually called Victor -- this must have been early January, just after New Year's -- and asked him about catching,” Ausmus said. “And he was thrilled about it. He was really excited when I asked him if he wanted to come down here with the pitchers and catchers. But there is a reason behind it. We play 10 games in National League parks. And the first road trip of the season is [to] L.A. and San Diego. And we can’t not have Victor play for five straight games. So this gives us another option.”
Last spring, when Martinez was coming off a missed season following reconstructive knee surgery, Jim Leyland didn't catch him at all. But during the season, stuff happened, as it always does. And Martinez wound up starting three games behind the plate, with minimal preparation. So this spring, both Martinez and his manager want to avoid a similar scenario.
“Like I told him, I appreciate that he got back to me and let me know that this year, I’m going to be doing more catching in spring training,” Martinez said Friday. “Obviously, last year, I didn't do anything [in the spring] and it caught me by surprise. Not really a surprise because I still prepare myself. I always have the mindset that I always get ready, like I’m catching every day, even knowing that I’m not doing it. But then I had to catch during the season, and thank God, my body felt good. And that’s the most important thing. My body feels great. And I like it.”
As recently as 2010, Martinez was still primarily a catcher, playing 110 games there for the Red Sox. But due to physical issues, he has started just 29 games behind the plate, total, over the past three years. And when he was asked Friday morning if he still missed catching, Martinez only had to mull that one over for about half a second.
“Definitely,” he said. “I like the challenge. You have to be in charge of everybody. Your teammates are watching you doing everything. You’re back there, and you’re just trying to help your team win.”
So when Ausmus asked him if he was open to catching more this year, Martinez said he replied, “Definitely, 100 percent yes. … I might not have used the word, 'excited.' I might have used another word. But I think that the day I don’t feel that way, I’m going to stop playing the game.”
What the Tigers most want Martinez to do, though, is swing the bat. His career slash line is .303/.369/.464. And the last time he hit below .300 was 2009. So whatever it takes to keep his bat in the lineup, Ausmus said he’s prepared to do -- including moving Cabrera back to third base once in a while.
“It’s been talked about,” the manager said. “Again, there will be some things [where] we’ll have to see how they play out. But it’s been discussed. And I actually even mentioned it to Miggy. And you know Miggy. He’s a team guy. And he told me, 'Listen, I still have two gloves. Whatever you need.’
“So if, at the end of March, you see Miggy play third for a game, you don’t have to immediately say that [Nick] Castellanos is in trouble, or [Steve] Lombardozzi is in trouble. It might be where we’re just setting up options for these National League games, where we want to keep our big bats in the lineup.”