Tigers set to open Grapefruit season

Tigers set to open Grapefruit season

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers' road to defending the 2006 American League pennant unofficially begins with a long stretch of Florida's Turnpike.

Most Tigers Spring Training schedules include a couple of long road trips, but they usually come during the middle of camp or as part of a split-squad day. This year, the Tigers begin the Major League portion of their spring schedule heading to the Atlantic coast on Wednesday to visit the Mets in Port St. Lucie for a 1:10 p.m. ET game. It's a matchup of two World Series contenders, but it's also a long drive -- 2 hours, 40 minutes, according to Major League Baseball's Spring Training media guide.

It's the kind of long bus ride many players remember from their days in the Minor Leagues, though the way to spend the time on board has certainly changed over the years.

"I'll get the paper, books, an iPod," Tigers first baseman Sean Casey said, likely echoing many other players' plans.

Manager Jim Leyland will spend part of the time talking with members of his coaching staff, then chatting with players. He chooses to the ride the bus, not just for long trips, but all of them, and he wants most of his players to do the same, unless they have homes close to where they're playing on a given day. He believes it sends a message.

"One reason is, I thought it was real important to this team last year," Leyland said. "I think it helps the atmosphere a little bit."

The message has been received. When Chris Shelton was pulled from the trip to tend to an abdominal strain, Leyland went to Casey, the starting first baseman, and asked him to go. Casey had no qualms about it.

"I guess I'm from the old school," Casey said. "If the boss asks you to do something, you do it."

Curtis Granderson is the only other projected member of the Opening Day lineup slated to make the trip. Marcus Thames is expected to start in the outfield before playing most of the game at first base, furthering his learning process for the position shift. All three utility infield candidates -- Omar Infante, Neifi Perez and Ramon Santiago -- will be on the trip, as will top prospects Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller.

Miller will pitch in relief after Chad Durbin makes the start. Others slated to pitch include Zach Miner, Bobby Seay, Felix Heredia, Preston Larrison and Yorman Bazardo.

The Tigers' projected rotation won't swing into action until Thursday, when Mike Maroth will take the mound for the Tigers' spring home opener against the Phillies. However, Leyland emphasized that he wants to get a look at Durbin, who is out of Minor League options as he tries to contend for the last spot in Detroit's bullpen and/or a possible role as an insurance starter if someone is injured.

"He's a candidate," Leyland said. "I liked him a lot last year. You look at his numbers in [Triple-A] Toledo, and he did a pretty good job. He's not being discarded."

He'll be on the bus, too, passing the time. One such way that hasn't changed, however, is sleep. Considering that the Tigers' bus is scheduled to leave Lakeland at 7:30 a.m., there should be plenty of that.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.