Jim Leyland: ‘I love being a target’

LAKELAND, Fla. — When you follow a trip to the World Series in 2012 by adding Torii Hunter and getting Victor Martinez back for 2013, you remain the team to beat.

Those expectations were something Tigers manager Jim Leyland felt worthy of addressing Friday, when he met with his players to discuss training camp, rules and a little philosophy.

“I love being a target,” Leyland told reporters before meeting with the players in small groups. “That means you have a good team. Other teams are going to get sick of reading about how good the Tigers are. I warn the players: Don’t get wrapped up in it. You are either the hunted or the hunter, and we’re the hunted. We won [the AL pennant] last year.

“How you handle it is important. [Media] clippings don’t win anything. They ain’t [crap].”

The Sporting News ran a story this week quoting the odds from the LVH SuperBook in Las Vegas on favorites to win the World Series. The Angels, with the addition of Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke — the top two free agents this winter — joined the Tigers as co-favorites to win the Fall Classic. Both were given 7-to-1 odds.

“The No. 1 thing about expectations — embrace it,” Leyland said. “Be thankful you’ve got expectations. It’s fun when you go to spring training and you are supposed to win.

“I like the fact that we’re supposed to win. But I never talk to the team about winning. I talk to them about preparing to win. If we’re prepared, we’ll win. How many [games], I don’t know. But if we’re prepared, we’ll win our share.”

The 2008 Tigers had perhaps as much World Series hype as any team in club history, but finished 74-88 and 14 ½ games out of first place. So expectations can go awry.

But there is a quiet confidence about the 2013 Tigers, and catcher Alex Avila is a good spokesman in that regard.

“The Tigers are the team to beat, and that’s a good thing,” Avila said. “It shouldn’t be downplayed.”

Detroit lost the 2011 ALCS to the Rangers and got swept by the Giants in the 2012 Series, taking important strides toward the ultimate goal.

“Maybe this is the year we can finish the job,” Avila said. “A lot is expected. I’ve never gone to a camp feeling we don’t have a chance to win. And this is by far one of the best teams I’ve been on.”

Hunter was asked about other teams, such as his club last year, the Angels, also making big improvements on the quest to win it all.

“I’d pick us,” Hunter said. “I’ve come to the best team. I don’t play for the Angels. I don’t play for the Twins. I play for the Tigers, and I come to win.”
Leyland said the main focus in the last week before the Grapefruit League opener on Feb. 22 with the Braves in Lake Buena Vista will be “making sure the arms and legs are ready” and noting if there are any players who would benefit from being eased into game action.

There’s also the mental side to be considered.

“I need to rev the team up and then back ‘em off,” Leyland said. “And then rev ‘em back up again for the season.”

The opener is April 1 in Minnesota against the Twins.
Andy Dirks appears to be the front-runner for the bulk of the playing time in left field after hitting .293 with 15 home runs and 63 RBIs in 533 at-bats over his first two seasons. However, Brennan Boesch and Quintin Berry also will be given a chance to show their stuff in Grapefruit League play.

“Everything’s a competition in baseball,” Dirks said. “You don’t perform, and you don’t play. You play the best guys — the hottest guys. I don’t worry about whether I am going to make a team or do whatever. I let them worry about that. I just want to be one of those guys that helps the team win.”
Leyland gets asked daily by national writers about whether rookie Bruce Rondon, 22, can be his closer.

“How it’s going to play out,” Leyland said Friday, “I have no idea.

“But he’s closing out those bacon and eggs.”

Leyland got a sly smile on his face after taking that playful shot at his big but well-conditioned pitcher, who is listed at 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds.