LAKELAND, Fla. -- Thursday marked Justin Verlander's 31st birthday, which he celebrated by taking in a serenade from fans. More pertinent to Spring Training, it marked six weeks since his core muscle surgery, which technically ends his rehab process.
He's still not on the same timetable as the other Tigers starters, and he probably won't be until a rotation turn or two into the Spring Training schedule. But he's at the point where even manager Brad Ausmus hesitates to say he's dealing with an injury anymore.
That said, the Tigers are going to have backup options ready if Verlander suffers a setback, with multiple pitchers stretching out as starters in the early weeks of Grapefruit League play. That includes Jose Alvarez, who will start next Friday's split-squad game against the Phillies while Max Scherzer faces the Yankees.
"We have a couple guys," Ausmus said. "Alvarez is one of those guys. [Luke] Putkonen is a guy we've talked about. [Kyle] Lobstein is a guy we've talked about."
Lombardozzi practicing for role as backup shortstop
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Steve Lombardozzi has already played quite a few positions in his brief Major League career. Shortstop is the least familiar of them.
He's about to get a crash course. The way the Tigers' bench projects to line up, there's a good chance Lombardozzi will be the primary backup to Jose Iglesias on the Opening Day roster. New manager Brad Ausmus' goal with him this spring is to prepare him for that likelihood.
"I told him the first day [of full-squad workouts], 'We want you working at short and third,'" Ausmus said Thursday morning. "That doesn't mean he's not going to get his looks at second or maybe in left field, though we think left field is farther down the pecking order for him. But if Iglesias needs a couple days, we need a guy to play short."
It's a different spot for the Tigers, who had a natural shortstop on their bench for years. While the starting job has been a carousel ever since Carlos Guillen was moved out of that spot in 2008, Ramon Santiago was a constant. Detroit did not re-sign him as a free agent, and he ended up agreeing to a Minor League contract with the Reds just before Spring Training.
Instead of a true utility infielder, the Tigers are expected to go with two super-utility players in the switch-hitting Lombardozzi and veteran left-handed hitter Don Kelly. Ironically, Kelly came up through the Tigers' farm system as a shortstop, but isn't considered much more than an emergency option there at this point in his career, having turned 34 last weekend.
The 25-year-old Lombardozzi has very little experience at short at any level -- 20 games in the Minor Leagues, and one start there in 2011 and 2012. He's a natural second baseman who added playing time at third base and left field once he made it to the big leagues in Washington.
"He has played short. He hasn't played a ton of short," Ausmus said. "So we want to see him play short. We want him to be comfortable there. We want him to be comfortable at third, although we also have Don Kelly."
Iglesias, as long as he's healthy, isn't likely to need many days off at age 24. If he gets injured, the Tigers will have options down the road at Triple-A Toledo, including middle infield prospect Hernan Perez and utility infielder Danny Worth. Lombardozzi doesn't have to be able to cover shortstop for a stretch, but a day or two at a time would be enough.
Catchers practice as usual, awaiting rule changes
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Like many teams, the Tigers are awaiting word from Major League Baseball on any rule changes regarding home-plate collisions. At the same time, they have a Spring Training camp to conduct, including catcher drills on throws home and run-downs.
That puts new manager Brad Ausmus and instructors in a bit of a bind.
"Right now, it's business as usual until we get something different from Major League Baseball," Ausmus said Thursday. "There's no guarantee that there's going to be an actual rule change at this point.
"We've already gone over it once as far as practicing plays at the plate. You just have to treat it like it has been for decades."
Ausmus isn't suggesting that no rules change will come down. The longer it takes, though, the less time there is for teams and their catchers to change their practice before the season starts.
"On March 29, you can't say, 'All right, there's no contact at the plate, and the catcher has to be in fair territory when he receives the ball,'" Ausmus said. "There has to be a tipping point where Major League Baseball just says, 'We have to wait another year for this.'"
Reports have suggested a decision could be imminent, but those reports have lingered.
Ausmus has his opinions on it. He supports the push for catcher safety, but worries about limiting contact altogether.
"I like the intent, I do," he said, "but I hope they don't turn home plate into just another base. … I don't know what's going to happen, but if they do eliminate contact at home plate, what happens to the takeout slide at second base? You would have to, I think, eliminate contact at every base."
Spring Training means tryouts for players' gloves
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The parade of glove manufacturers began to roll through Tigertown on Thursday, providing an annual reminder that it's not just Spring Training for players. It's training time for their gloves.
Spring Training is often the time when players start to break in new gloves, whether they plan on using them in the coming season or not. For some, it's an insurance policy for when -- or if -- their current glove finally breaks down. For others, it's more urgent.
"I got this one in Spring Training in 2012," utility man Don Kelly said, pulling a somewhat-worn infielder's glove out of his locker. "And I still haven't used it in a game yet."
Kelly has two six-year-old gloves that haven't worn down yet, though both are starting to tear despite his best efforts to preserve them. Every year, he looks at gloves in hopes of finding one with the same fit as those he currently uses. The same model glove, the same size, often feels completely different. In an emergency, he said, he can get a glove ready in two weeks.
It's a little less complicated for some younger players, especially outfielders.
"I'll play catch with it for about a week," Austin Jackson said.
But he tries to stick with the same model each time.
"If you try to change, it can mess with you," Jackson said. "It's all about feel."
Kelly's switch-hitting super-utility counterpart, Steve Lombardozzi, tries to keep things simple. He keeps two game gloves -- one for the infield, the other for outfield-- and two backup gloves.
"I've been fortunate," he said. "I've used the same model since I was in junior college."
• Somebody was going to make the miscue of calling Ausmus "sir," and not necessarily a prospect. Joba Chamberlain became the latest to do so Thursday, answering an instruction in the clubhouse with a "Yes, sir."
The 44-year-old Ausmus, who would rather be called anything but that, took it in stride.
"Don't call me sir," he replied kindly.
• The Tigers held popup drills Thursday, and the weather cooperated with sunny skies and a good breeze to make things interesting.
"It doesn't hurt," Ausmus said, "but I'll tell ya, it's different in a game regardless."