Mahtook ready to compete for Tigers' CF job

Mahtook ready to compete for Tigers' CF job

DETROIT -- The Tigers introduced fans to their newest outfielder, Mikie Mahtook, at TigerFest on Saturday, three days after his trade from the Rays. But the former Rays first-round pick needed no introduction to Comerica Park.

He was wrapping up his rookie season two years ago when he rolled into Detroit and put on an offensive display, going 4-for-10 with a double, triple, home run and five runs scored. The Rays lost two out of three in the series, but the former LSU standout made an impression.

He started in right field all three games. He can't wait for a chance to roam the depths of center.

"I'd rather play in a bigger outfield because you have more room for error, more room to run around," Mahtook said. "It's a big outfield, but guys who are comfortable in the outfield, they like that. I am excited. I've played here a couple times. I love this stadium. Obviously the crowd here is going to be a lot different than the crowd I am used to."

Mahtook's sweet catch

He added a five-hit game and five more home runs that September, batting .353 (24-for-68) with 11 extra-base hits, 16 runs scored, 13 RBIs and a 1.103 OPS. That earned him a look in the Rays' outfield picture for 2016; injuries all but took it away.

"I had a really good September and then a really good Spring Training," Mahtook said. "But just the way the numbers fell, I had to start the year in Triple-A. I was playing well the first couple weeks and I hurt my oblique. I was out for three weeks. Looking back at it, I probably should have stayed out a little longer. But, obviously, as an athlete or competitor, you want to come back and play.

"After I came back, [Kevin] Kiermaier got hurt and they needed me up there earlier than they anticipated. I played two or three weeks and I was just starting to feel good and I got hit in the hand. Broke my hand and I was out seven weeks.

"You never want to make excuses. I put a lot of blame on myself for not coming back and having success right away. But it was weird. I'd never been hurt before playing baseball. It was a weird year, but I learned from it and I will be a better player for it."

The Tigers obviously believe he's a better player than what he showed last year.

"We like him a lot," general manager Al Avila said. "We feel that he's a high-energy, toolsy guy that still has some upside there."

Mahtook's long go-ahead homer

The Tigers had engaged the Rays in trade talks before Tampa Bay acquired Mallex Smith last week, but Smith's arrival from Atlanta through Seattle in a pair of trades made Mahtook expendable there. The Tigers had done their research through a familiar source, checking with LSU coach Paul Mainieri about him.

"I know Paul Mainieri very well from LSU," Avila said. "He told us he's probably one of the most electric players he's had ever in his program -- ever. And he's had a lot of real good ones."

Mahtook's enthusiasm, at least, fits the profile.

"I play the game hard," he said. "I go out every day and I play the game extra hard and I like to think I play it the right way. I'm going to come out and do whatever I can to help us win. They can expect that from me day in and day out."

Though the Tigers say center field is an open competition that includes Mahtook, fellow LSU product JaCoby Jones, Tyler Collins and Alex Presley, it isn't difficult to envision a platoon of Mahtook, a right-handed hitter who has pounded lefties, and the lefty-hitting Collins, with Jones getting more developmental time at Triple-A Toledo.

Verlander to start Opening Day

Unlike his first three seasons as manager, Brad Ausmus didn't even wait for Spring Training this time around to name his Opening Day starter. He got Justin Verlander's assignment out of the way on Saturday, when asked how much of his rotation is already set.

"Verlander's going to start Opening Day," Ausmus said. "I'll give you that right now. And if [Jordan Zimmermann] is healthy, he's going to pitch probably behind him -- he or Michael Fulmer, depending on how we decide to go."

The Tigers are scheduled to open the season on Monday, April 3, against the White Sox in Chicago. Assuming Verlander takes the mound, it'll be his ninth Opening Day assignment in the last 10 years. The only year since '08 that he didn't start Opening Day was '15. David Price got the honor that season, with Verlander opening the season on the disabled list.

Ausmus expects Tigers to improve

Quick hits

• While Ausmus said he's encouraged by what youngsters Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd did down the stretch last year, he isn't taking anything for granted. To that end, he said veteran starters Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey will work as starters in Spring Training, stretching out their innings to give him options. Thus, the Tigers will have seven starters for five spots. "Verlander will pitch Day 1," Ausmus said, "and we'll figure out the rest later."

• Alan Trammell said he never seriously considered returning to managing when the Triple-A Toledo post opened up, saying he likes what he does in a special assistant role. "I'm just doing what I enjoy," Trammell said of his combination of a instructional and front-office role. "And if somebody presents something, that's when I would think. But I haven't."

• Fulmer did not take part in TigerFest despite being around for the Winter Caravan, but he had a pretty good excuse. He spent Saturday night in New York for the Baseball Writers' Association of America dinner honoring him as American League Rookie of the Year Award winner. Avila traveled there to join him after taking the stage at TigerFest.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.