- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 21, 2017

LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) - Open competition for a starting position has become a rarity in spring training. Yet that is what the Detroit Tigers have in center field as they prepare for this weekend’s start of the exhibition season.

“The guys involved know it’s open, and it’s a performance-based game,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “I don’t love judging people in spring training, but in this case we’re going to have to use it a little bit.”

As many as seven players are involved.

Tyler Collins, who started 22 games in center field for Detroit last season, and Mikie Mahtook, acquired from Tampa Bay, will get long looks. Anthony Gose, who started 125 games in center in 2015, is back in the competition along with utility player Andrew Romine and 24-year-old JaCoby Jones. Non-roster players Juan Perez and Alex Presley are long shots for the position left open by the November trade of Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels.

Mahtook, a 27-year-old right-handed hitter, was acquired in January.

“They said it was a competition in center field, so I’m going to go out there with the mindset of winning the job,” he said. “Anytime you go somewhere new and you have a fresh start it is exciting, and it kind of gives you a rejuvenation and a little more motivation.”

The 26-year-old Collins, who bats left-handed, is getting his first legitimate shot at a starting role after spending most of the last two seasons with the Tigers.

“(The decision) is not my problem,” he said. “My job is to go play. Let them make that decision. It’s about getting ready for the season. Whatever happens with the center field position, I’m going to do everything I can to prepare myself.”

Both players have trained extensively to get ready. After hitting nine home runs in only 105 at-bats for the Rays in 2015, Mahtook battled through an oblique injury and a broken hand last season, hitting .195 in 185 at-bats.

“It’s tough to play and get hurt, and then play and get hurt again,” he said.

Collins, too, went into the winter expecting more of himself.

“I was battling some stuff last year,” he said. “I’m in a great state of mind now, just ready to go play. I don’t think I progressed as much as I could have physically, so I went and got some better information and took care of myself this offseason.”

The switch-hitting Romine started 13 games in center field last year, but he also played in nine or more games at every infield position.

“How much he plays (in center) is really going to come down to how well the other guys do that are vying for that position,” Ausmus said. “(Romine) is like an insurance policy for a manager; he can go anywhere.”

Every other position is locked down, and the Tigers have at least eight candidates for their pitching rotation. But unless they trade for a veteran, the identity of their center fielder for the season opener at Chicago on April 3 will remain a mystery for a while.

“We’ve just got to see ‘em, simple as that,” Ausmus said. “That’s why we’re here. If we knew which one was better, we wouldn’t be talking about who’s going to play center field.”

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