DETROIT — The Detroit Tigers have started their winter caravan, an annual reminder that spring training isn’t far off.
It’s a chance for fans to start thinking about baseball again — but this season, their hopes and expectations may be a bit subdued.
“Every ballclub in baseball has been through ups and downs. The one thing that I’ve said all along is: ‘Yes, we’re in a rebuild,’ ” said Ron Gardenhire, Detroit’s new manager . “When I took this job I knew this coming in — we were going to move people, and we’re still maybe not done. But the thing that you have here is a bunch of guys that have been a little battle tested from last year, that are hungry.”
After a 98-loss season, the Tigers enter the 2018 campaign with minimal buzz. Since last year’s All-Star break, they’ve traded J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Justin Verlander and Ian Kinsler, part of a rebuilding process that will probably require a lot of patience among the fan base. The next couple years could be difficult on the field — a far cry from a few seasons ago, when Detroit ruled the AL Central.
The Tigers met with media at Comerica Park on Thursday, part of this week’s caravan, which includes events all over Michigan. If the fans need a pep talk — or at least some reassurance — Gardenhire can try to provide that.
“We’re going to prepare these guys to come and do battle,” Gardenhire said. “How it goes, we don’t know, but we’re going to prepare to beat people. That’s the only way you know how. Yes, we’re going to rebuild this organization, but we’ve got a good start with some very talented people.”
Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez are still on the roster, although they aren’t involved in the caravan. The most prominent player at Comerica on Thursday may have been Michael Fulmer, the 24-year-old right-hander with only two big league seasons under his belt.
With Verlander gone and Cabrera getting older, Fulmer — the 2016 American League Rookie of the Year — is the type of player who can become a face of the franchise going forward. If he remains with the team, he could be Detroit’s opening day starter for a while.
“He’s the ultimate professional,” general manager Al Avila said. “He’s a star player, he’s got all of the ability in the world, but at the same time, he does all the right things — from keeping himself physically fit, from cooperating with the organization … he’s the full package.”
Fulmer had elbow surgery in September, but Avila said Wednesday he’s made good progress, and Fulmer echoed that sentiment Thursday.
“Ahead of schedule,” Fulmer said. “Yesterday was my first full bullpen with the catcher all the way back — about 20 fastballs. Honestly, I hate saying this, but I’m shocked at how fast it’s progressing, how good it feels. I’ve never had any setbacks, knock on wood.”
Now, however, Fulmer can take a bit of a break to participate in this week’s offseason events, which include TigerFest at Comerica on Saturday. It’s the type of outreach that may more important than usual this year, as both the team and its fans prepare for what could be a tough stretch ahead.
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” Fulmer said. “This is an awesome event — just excited to be able to try to put smiles on some kids’ faces, some fans’ faces.”