LAKELAND, Fla. -- For decades, Jim Leyland has had the rugged optimism of a prospector in the Old West.
Now he really is a forty-niner.
"This is my 49th spring training," Leyland said.
Like many of the original forty-niners in California, Leyland has quite a load of gold. His team that won 95 games last season now has Prince Fielder to step in for Victor Martinez. That happy description for a prospector's saddlebags also is being used for these Tigers. Loaded.
But Leyland knows that in spring training, he must purify and refine this gold.
"We're going to push these guys hard this spring," Leyland said. "We're going to have more game-type infield drills at full speed than in the past. That's the way you get better."
He decided to have more full-speed drills because Miguel Cabrera has moved from first base to third base.
"If you're going to have Cabrera at third, you want to hit balls in between him and Peralta" -- shortstop Jhonny Peralta -- "and see how good they can move," Leyland said.
As for turning Cabrera back into a third baseman, Leyland spoke with a rat-a-tat repetitiveness that foreshadows how Cabrera will see dozens of grounders on top of dozens of grounders. "We're going to work and we're going to work and we're going to work and we're going to work, and I think Miguel Cabrera is going to do absolutely fine," he said.
Spring training formally opened with the first pitchers and catchers working out Monday. The first full-squad workout is Friday.
When the month long major league exhibition season opens March 3, Leyland will begin to confront the typical roster decisions on the 25-man Opening Day roster. "We're not anywhere near a finished team," he said.
Leyland is 67. With the retirement of Tony La Russa, he has become the leader in games managed among active skippers. The enthusiasm that made him an engaging young manager now makes him a compelling mountaintop eminence.
"I can't say I've ever looked more forward to a spring than this one, because we've got a lot to do," he said.
The Tigers have perhaps the most typical spring decision for a club: picking the fifth starter to round out the rotation. The top four, all right-handers, are set: Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello.
Leyland said it looks "more and more" as if the fifth starter will come from within the organization, not in a trade or free-agent signing.
The obvious competitors are Jacob Turner, whom Baseball America continues to rate as the Tigers' top prospect, and a stable of left-handers from the farm system: Duane Below, Casey Crosby, Andy Oliver, Drew Smyly and Adam Wilk.
"I'm hoping from the organizational standpoint that somebody here steps up and takes that job," Leyland said. "To me, that sends the right message to our minor league players: There's always room for talent. It's a great story if we can have someone graduate into that fifth spot."
If that graduate is anyone but Turner, the Tigers will have a left-hander in the rotation, for a home park whose spaciousness in left-center is ideal for a southpaw. But last season's Tigers -- like the 1984 Tigers and the 1954 Indians -- emphatically finished first despite not having a successful left-handed starter.
Leyland said some of those losing candidates for the fifth spot could compete for the open spot in the bullpen. That spot could go to a long reliever. Leyland that such a long man is even more important "in a case where your fifth starter is a really young guy," such as the Tigers could have this season.
Is the long man more important in that case because Leyland might need him to bail out the young starter early in the game and pitch several innings?
"If you have a young kid you have to protect a little bit, then that bullpen becomes even more important," Leyland said.
Leyland won't let young pitchers work too many innings or get too beat up. During 49 years, you learn those things.
No matter what works or doesn't work this spring for the Tigers, Leyland will be happy to be here.
"Forty-nine years," he said, "and I'm still loving it."