LAKELAND, Fla. -- Long before the first snowflake fell in Michigan this winter, the Tigers had planned to re-sod the playing surface at Comerica Park for the first time since 2007. Now that Detroit is on the verge of breaking its record snowfall for a winter season, having just witnessed eight more inches fall on Wednesday, the question is whether the new grass will be in the ground before Opening Day on March 31.
The answer from the Tigers is yes. It won't be as easy as head groundskeeper Heather Nabozny and her crew would've liked it, but it'll happen.
"There will be a playing field on Opening Day," Tigers vice president of communications Ron Colangelo said Thursday.
The old sod was removed ahead of the Hockeytown Winter Festival in December, which brought outdoor hockey to the park over the holidays. Nabozny said a couple of weeks later that the new sod would be installed in March, and that they could do so even if the spring thaw hadn't arrived yet. They would have to do so in segments, rather than all at once.
The plan goes into place next week when the sod arrives from Colorado. The re-sodding is scheduled to begin next Thursday and last three days. That will give the field a little over a week to take root before Opening Day.
As for Thursday evening, the forecast for next weekend in Detroit calls for temperatures in the low 40s.
Kelly could play his way into increased role
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Don Kelly spent years of his Tigers tenure with the reputation as a Jim Leyland favorite. It's a new era of leadership in Detroit these days, but Kelly seems to be making some of the same impressions on new manager Brad Ausmus.
"The thing I didn't know about Don Kelly is, one, he's got some baseball savvy to him," Ausmus said Thursday. "He knows what he's doing on the bases. We talked about his versatility, but I don't know that I realized what type of outfielder he really was and what type of arm he had.
"I'm certainly learning things about Don Kelly that I didn't know. I knew he was a valuable utility guy that you could put in many spots with a left-handed bat, but so far he's been much better than my initial thoughts or projections were. And he's a great guy, great teammate to boot. They don't really have ratings that put a number of that."
Whether those impressions earn Kelly a share of the left-field mix at season's open remains to be seen. As Ausmus looks for a left-handed hitter to plug into left field with Andy Dirks out until June, that insight is worth noting. It doesn't mean Kelly will comprise the lefty half of the left-field platoon, but if the Tigers end up filling Dirks' absence from within, Kelly looks bound to get some starts.
Kelly had Thursday off after playing in each of the previous three games. He's 9-for-23 this spring and 8-for-19 in March, having hit in every game he's played this month. He has three doubles, a home run and five RBIs, as well as four walks.
"He's swinging the bat well right now," Ausmus said.
Kelly said earlier this week that he's not trying to make a big impression, but that he's seeing pitches well. He has made a habit of that in Spring Trainings past. A year ago, Kelly beat out Quintin Berry and others for a utility spot by hitting .320 (16-for-50) with four homers and eight RBIs. The spring before that, he batted .321 (18-for-56). In fact, Kelly has batted .300 or better every spring since 2010.
With Iglesias out, Suarez impressing at short
LAKELAND, Fla. -- While Jose Iglesias tries to work through the stress reaction in his shins that has now cost him two weeks of Spring Training action, the Tigers have had to fill the hole at shortstop in their games. One player's setback becomes another player's opportunity.
Eugenio Suarez is one of the beneficiaries of that opportunity.
"I think he's opened some eyes a little bit this spring," manager Brad Ausmus said, "even from some of the people that have seen him play in the past."
The scouting report has usually cited Suarez as a defense-first shortstop who could field in the big leagues right now, but is further behind in his hitting. His upside in the latter has been much-debated, and usually determines how highly people regard him.
So far this spring, the 22-year-old has held his own. His 0-for-4, two-strikeout performance Thursday afternoon against the Marlins dropped his average to .250 in Grapefruit League play, but he hasn't looked overmatched.
"He shows power at times," Ausmus said. "He's got the ability to really extend through the ball, which can give the baseball carry, but I think he's learning -- not only his swing, but I think he's got to learn how to build some consistency into that swing, not trying to do too much with the baseball when it's being thrown to him. Let his swing take care of itself."
Defensively, Ausmus said, Suarez has caught his eye.
"He might not have quite the range that a guy like Iglesias has," Ausmus said, "but he certainly has some really good hands, and he doesn't look overmatched out there. I haven't seen a ball come at him where there's any type of panic in his body. He's very collected when he's playing defense."
As for Iglesias' status, Ausmus said nothing has changed. At this point, it's unclear whether Iglesias will be able to return to game action this weekend.
Ideally, Ausmus said, Suarez could benefit from more playing time in the Minor Leagues. Whether that would rule him out from filling in for Iglesias if he opens the season on the disabled list is unclear.
Tigers have some glitches in first use of replay
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers had their first tryout of baseball's new replay challenge system Thursday with mixed results, not from the replay but from their system to decide whether to challenge.
The Fox Sports Detroit broadcast gave the Tigers a chance to run through the process, albeit with a rudimentary version of the system Major League Baseball will have in place in the regular season. They ended up challenging a safe call on a sixth-inning pickoff attempt from Joe Nathan with the Marlins' Adeiny Hechavarria on first base.
Hechavarria was called safe. After a quick consultation with officials at MLB's review headquarters, the call was upheld. That part worked fine, but the Tigers' decision whether to challenge it had some glitches.
As manager Brad Ausmus went out to dispute the call, he bought time for defensive coordinator Matt Martin to check the replay back in the Tigers' clubhouse and relay an opinion via two-way radio to bench coach Gene Lamont in the dugout. That relay never came.
"[Lamont] never heard back from Matt," Ausmus said, "and kind of gave me that 50-50 [sign], so I just decided to go with it. But it turned out he really was just saying he was unsure because Matt never responded. So we added another sign, I guess.
"Keep in mind, I only have five outs left to use my challenge until the seventh, when they can check it on their own, which in my mind, I think they generally will check it on their own if there's any question on a call. So, I have five outs to use a challenge. I'm running out of outs to use it. Had there not been a communication breakdown with the radios and I got a signal from Gene Lamont that they got the call right, I wouldn't have challenged. But we had the breakdown. It's Spring Training. Let's see how the process works."
The communication system worked flawlessly earlier, when Ausmus questioned a second-inning groundout from Steven Moya. Second baseman Ed Lucas' throw forced first baseman Garrett Jones to stretch to make the catch, and Ausmus questioned whether Jones' foot might have left the bag in the process. Replays showed it did not.
"[First-base coach] Omar [Vizquel] kind of indicated he might have been safe," Ausmus said, "so I went out and talked to him. Meantime, Gene Lamont was on the phone with Matt Martin. Matt was looking at the replay. As I'm talking to the umpire, Matt tells Geno he got the call right. I'm looking at Geno out of the corner of my eye while I'm talking to the umpire. Geno gives me a thumbs down and I said, 'All right.' And I head back.
Lack of cutter changes day for Smyly
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Drew Smyly spent most of his outing Thursday looking for a rhythm on the mound, never quite finding it. He has been looking for his cutter for the past two outings.
It's not that unusual, he said.
"I don't know where it went," Smyly said, "but I've got time to find that. That's the pitch I rely on most. On days it's not there, it makes it more difficult to find the right pitch. On days it is there, it's my go-to."
Even with his changeup working better than expected and his curveball dropping, the lack of a cutter was problematic for Smyly, forcing him to change his style. It's a huge pitch for him against right-handed hitters, because it runs in on their hands while it looks like a fastball.
"It's been like that every spring," Smyly said. "It's been hard for me to get a good feel for it, but it comes around the more you throw. I'm not that worried about the cutter. Hopefully it'll start coming around."
Smyly gave up four runs, three earned, on eight hits over 3 1/3 innings Thursday, walking two and striking out one.
Jackson kicking it into high gear
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The hit parade continued Thursday for Austin Jackson, whose 3-for-3 performance against the Marlins raised his average to .520 for the spring. Meanwhile, the foot tap that has been in and out of his approach at the plate the last few years has returned.
This time, however, it's more controlled, with help from new hitting coach Wally Joyner.
"I worked on it a lot in the offseason," Jackson said, "but I think when I got here, Wally was able to tell me what he saw and kind of give me some pointers on how to control it a little better.
"I try not to think of it as a leg kick like I did in the past. Now, when [the pitcher] starts, I start."
Jackson is 13-for-25 this spring, with a double, two triples, a home run and eight RBIs. He has struck out four times so far, compared with 17 strikeouts in 70 at-bats last spring.
Asked what he's seeing from Jackson, manager Brad Ausmus said, "Everything -- homers, doubles, singles, triples. He looks really good. He looks really balanced. I think his swings and his at-bats are speaking for themselves. There's really not much I can add."
• Former Tigers starter Nate Robertson is back in camp, this time on the Minor League side. He agreed to a Triple-A contract last week. The move came around the same time the Tigers signed another familiar left-hander, Wil Ledezma, to a similar contract. Robertson last pitched in the Majors in 2010. He spent last spring in camp with the Texas Rangers before going 4-4 with 3.04 ERA at Triple-A Round Rock.
• The Tigers confirmed they will have metal detectors installed at all gates at Comerica Park in time for Opening Day as part as a mandate from Major League Baseball. Though MLB set a deadline for next season, the Tigers beat the goal by a year.