Spring-like weather fitting for Tigers talk

DETROIT — “When you goin’ down?”

It’s a mundane, gap-filling question, but it has a ring of anticipation when spoken during one of the dark holes in the sports calendar.

At a luncheon in downtown Detroit on Tuesday afternoon in which Detroit Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski was the featured speaker, “When you goin’ down?” was more of a statement than a question.

It’s a signal that this is the time each year when a change is coming — a change in seasons, a change in sports and an uplift in our spirits with the Detroit Tigers about to begin spring training.

Spring training is a sacred sports institution that is celebrated at this time of year in every corner of America, and it’s coming soon for the Tigers and their fans.

Pitchers and catchers report to the Tigers’ training base in Lakeland, Fla., on Feb. 19. The full squad reports on Feb. 23.

Even in a spring-like winter, when temperatures pushed above the 50-degree mark on Monday, there’s something about the approach of spring training that sets baseball apart from other sports. It’s the time of year when cities such as Detroit are looking for relief from a hard winter — and also for something to fill in the crater in the sports calendar.

Much of America is recovering from Post Super Bowl Stress Disorder. The NFL’s 2011 season officially ended Sunday with the Giants’ 21-17 victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.

The NBA lockout has given us a regular season that is nothing but filler until the start of the playoffs. The NHL grinds on, as it always does, and we’re a month away from the start of the NCAA tournament.

The anticipation of “goin’ down” to Florida fills that crater with hope.

In Detroit, where the Tigers have added to a potent everyday lineup by the signing of free-agent slugger Prince Fielder, the hope of having a World Series winner is real and not just hype.

The luncheon held Tuesday is an annual affair sponsored by the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association. The event had an easy flow to it, more on the order of baseball conversation than a true press-conference setting.
Dan Dickerson, the Tigers’ play-by-play man, acted as moderator while Dombrowski fielded questions from those in attendance.

The major question that was sparked by the signing of Fielder hasn’t changed.

With Miguel Cabrera moving from first base to third to give Fielder an everyday position at first, will the Tigers be productive enough on offense to overcome defensive deficiencies?

Dombrowski did not sugarcoat the issue. There is a trade-off — offense for defense — and Dombrowski likes the upside of having Cabrera and Fielder hitting back to back at the third and fourth spots in the order.

“The perfect player rarely exists,” Dombrowski said in answer to a question.

“What you do is put a club together that gives you the best chance to win. With us, it’s the offensive part and the pitching.”

Dombrowski listed a theoretical Tigers lineup that would be strong defensively. It included Brandon Inge at third and Ramon Santiago at second.

“That’s a very good defensive lineup,” Dombrowski said. “But I don’t think we’d win as many games as our offensive lineup does.”

The Tigers have two months to sort things out before they open the season at home against the Boston Red Sox on April 5.

Until then, there’s a lot of talk: about Cabrera’s transition to third, about the trade-off of power over defense, about which of the young pitchers — maybe Jacob Turner, maybe Duane Below, maybe Adam Wilk, maybe Drew Smyly — will take over the fifth spot in the starting rotation.

On an afternoon in early February that felt more like winter than spring, there was a warm feeling of baseball talk.