Pitchers and catchers get down to business

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Valentine’s Day produced one of the most beautiful gifts of all, the official return of baseball.

The familiar presence of Jeff Jones, Gene Lamont and Dave Dombrowski at Joker Marchant Stadium mitigated some of the changes the off-season brought.

The ‘smoke often' policy Jim Leyland followed religiously is gone. Leyland and Ausmus are polar opposites in that regard as Ausmus does not allow smoking in the clubhouse at all.

In most ways though, Friday was business as usual as players began their first official workout of the season. Equipment was scattered on the grass as pitchers and catchers began warm-ups and ran the Tiger Mile. The bullpen took on a life of its own while the few position players who'd arrived early took to the cages.

Brad Ausmus has brought in a drill Tigers pitchers have never had before: reacting to ragballs, the purpose of which is to improve a pitcher's reaction reflexes. The distances those balls traveled were slightly exaggerated by Max Scherzer.

"We had one of those stations where Omar Vizquel was hitting with these soft balls, baseball-size but soft balls, just absolutely hitting lasers at us. We've never had that in the past," Scherzer told reporters on Saturday.

"We had Omar about 20 feet away just smoking balls right at us. It's something we've never done before but I liked that we did it." The distance was closer to 50 or 60 feet, according to Brad Ausmus.

Donning catcher's gear for the first time in a while was Victor Martinez. Brad Ausmus had discussed the possibility of catching and getting in time at first base with Martinez back in January, but the Tigers kept it quiet until last week.

Miguel Cabrera, who just moved back to first base, has given his blessing, although he could probably play on the moon and it would still make him happy.

Justin Verlander is showing no signs of his recent surgery and is now pitching off the mound without any problems. He threw 41 pitches off the mound on Saturday, not far off the 50 or so he would have normally thrown by now.

Verlander admitted he could have had a higher count at this point but is holding himself back to avoid re-injuring himself before the season even begins. Still, he participated in nearly every drill including the already-beloved ragball drill, and said he's well ahead of where Dr. Bill Meyers had placed his recovery check-in, which is this upcoming Thursday.

"I feel like it's going pretty well to this point and everything's on track so, knock on wood, I should be ready," said Verlander. "I'm not real concerned about quality right now as I am quantity. For me, getting my body working and getting my arm used to throwing every day, that's most important for me right now."

Alex Avila has catching duties and other drills to complete, but he's also been in the cages getting some revenge for being treated like a live piñata last year. Avila showed up to Lakeland a week ahead of when pitchers and catchers were supposed to and has been working hard since then.

Sunday was no different. "Well today because it's so windy we were working on pop-ups, made it interesting today, made some games out of it and we had a good time out there," said Avila.

With the additions on the mound this year, Alex has his work cut out for him. "I always try to catch some of the new guys we have. A few days ago I caught Joe [Nathan] and today I caught Joba [Chamberlain], catching Justin [Verlander], him getting back into it after the surgery he's looking pretty good so it was nice to get that work in," he told reporters.

One of the more noticeable differences throughout the club was the weight that players such as Bruce Rondon and Melvin Mercedes, among others, had ditched. Although most players knew they needed to get in shape, others like Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kinsler had already been working on arriving to spring training in optimum health.

Bruce Rondon has reportedly shed over 30 pounds and is feeling much better. "I just looked back at 2012 and how much slimmer I was and how much better I felt. I wouldn't get tired as quickly," he said.

"I wanted to get back to that. Last season, I just got a little bit careless with what I was eating. At the end of the season, I realized and made it a goal to get back in better shape like in 2012."

Winning the World Series has been on the forefront of every pitcher, catcher, and position players' minds coming into Spring Training, and for the remaining position players arriving Monday it's no different. For the time being, however, the Tigers have Spring Training to get through.

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