LAKELAND, Fla. — Will Rhymes had a delayed flight to New York the last time he got a call to the big leagues. The cargo door on his plane wouldn’t close, and it cost him a spot in the Tigers starting lineup against the Yankees. That was last August, when he was filling in for an injured Carlos Guillen.
He isn’t likely to miss his next Major League start. He’ll be traveling with the rest of the team out of Spring Training on the team plane and, most likely, starting at second base on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium against Yankees ace CC Sabathia.
“I think he deserves the first shot,” manager Jim Leyland said in deciding the Tigers’ second-base competition.
For someone who was left out of big league camp, off the 40-man roster and contemplating his baseball future a year ago, it was big news. But for someone who batted over .300 in just under 200 plate appearances, including a stretch run as the starting second baseman, it was something Rhymes had set as his goal, even as the Tigers received surprising performances from Scott Sizemore and Danny Worth.
“It means a lot to me, obviously,” Rhymes said. “Being in New York on Opening Day, that’s a pretty exciting thought. I feel like if you had talked to me at this time last year, it would’ve been in a little different frame of mind. But all that stuff’s in the past. I’m just happy to be here and get an opportunity and hopefully take advantage of it.”That stretch run, Leyland indicated, played a major role in separating Rhymes from the pack. He had a late July run at second base, then returned in mid-August once Guillen suffered what turned out to be a season-ending knee injury. He got an unexpected shot because he was the best hitter at Triple-A Toledo at the time, and he kept the job by playing his game — putting the ball in play, using the field and using his legs.
“He came to the big leagues and did his job,” Leyland said. “You’re supposed to reward people for success. How can you not reward that? What did the guy do to lose that opportunity? To me, he got an opportunity last year, he took advantage of it and he’s done nothing to lose that opportunity, …
The guy hit .304 at the major league level, was a nice little sparkplug for us. I love Sizemore and Worth. I think they’re all big league players. But right now we had a selection to make, and we selected Rhymes based mostly on his performance at the major league level during the regular season last year.”
Rhymes batted .304 (58-for-191) with a .763 OPS, 12 doubles, three triples, one home run and 19 RBIs. That included a .351 average (13-for-37) against left-handed pitchers for a left-handed hitter.
Not only will Rhymes get the bulk of the playing time at second, Leyland said he’ll likely bat second against right-handed hitters, giving him the coveted spot in between leadoff speedster Austin Jackson and the bulk of Detroit’s order with Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.
“I’m not saying he’s going to hit second all the time, but I like that little combination of things he can do to kind of set the table for the big boys,” Leyland said. “And in reality, he’s not afraid to knock in a run, either. He’s pretty good in that spot, and that’s the way we’ll start. …
“I think he’s a very usable offensive player, and I think baseball’s getting back to that more. It’s no longer a slow-pitch softball game.”
The way Rhymes performed last year, it’s no longer a surprise for him to get a call back, even with a close competition. He agreed that Sizemore and Worth have big league ability, but he didn’t want to downplay himself, either.
“I came into spring pretty confident in my ability and how I played last year and how I played my entire career,” Rhymes said, “and feeling that if I came in and played my game and did what I do, that I’d be on the team. And so my goal coming in was not to make the team. My goal was to get ready for a big league season.
“Yeah, I’m happy to get it out of the way, but I’m not jumping up and down about it. This is what I had expected. I’m thankful to the coaching staff and [general manager Dave] Dombrowski, everyone for another opportunity.”
Which infielder gets an opportunity to spell Rhymes has yet to be determined. Worth remains in camp, as does veteran Ramon Santiago, who’s under contract for this season. The Tigers could break camp with both of them if they took just one extra outfielder out of camp. Leyland said they’re still weighing whether that last spot will go to an infielder or outfielder.