Raburn relishing chance at starting role

Raburn relishing chance at starting role

LAKELAND, Fla. -- If all goes right, Ryan Raburn will take his place in left field at Yankee Stadium on March 31 and be in an Opening Day lineup for the first time in his career. In the opposite dugout, and the opposing starting lineup, will be former Tiger and current Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson.

They came up to Detroit on the same September day in 2004. But while Granderson has been a starting outfielder since the end of the 2005 season, Raburn has had to wait his time, and had to make the drive between Detroit and Toledo more times than he'd care to count.

Now, after years of trying to prove he belongs on the roster, then in the lineup, it's finally his time. No I-75 shuttle in April, no mid-June lineup stint and mid-July disappearance, no situational starts.

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"Awesome," he said Thursday. "It's going to be awesome, especially in New York. It's going to be a great feeling. It's something I've been working for my whole life. Yeah, it's been [big] getting up to the big leagues, but getting an Opening Day start, I mean, it's a dream come true. I'm going to cherish it and hopefully run with it."

The Tigers are counting on that last part. They wouldn't have signed him to a two-year, $3.4 million deal contract otherwise.

It has made a vast difference in the tone of his spring.

It's difficult to remember a Spring Training in which Raburn hasn't been near the top of the list of roster battles. From 2007-09, he was a second and third baseman battling for a utility spot, having added outfield work at Triple-A Toledo. He made the Opening Day roster in 2008 but lasted less than a week before he was optioned back to the Mud Hens to clear a roster spot. A year later, Jeff Larish powered his way into a spot on the bench, and Raburn was a Mud Hen again. He had a utility spot alongside Don Kelly a year ago but was optioned back to Toledo five weeks into the season.

Every year, he came back to Toledo, eventually hit and found stretches of playing time in the summer. Each time, the debate would start up: What could he do if he played every day? And each time, the answer had to include the situations in which he was often being used, facing left-handed starting pitchers and certain right-handers.

There's a different feeling for him this year, at the plate and in the clubhouse. It's not so much confidence, which he has had, as assurance. It's more about what he can do during the season.

"Last year, I did real well," Raburn said. "I think the difference is I'm not so worried about results right now. Just a matter of getting comfortable, getting the swing down, stuff like that, and just preparing myself for the year instead of trying to prove I belong on the team. Now I can just get myself ready."

This year is his chance, and it wasn't simply as a fallback option. The Tigers announced at season's end that they expected Raburn to get the majority of at-bats in left field, not just in certain situations. Part of that was financial; the Tigers weren't going after Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth with their payroll. But it was easier to do knowing what they had.

Raburn had to earn that. He has never been the top prospect with the glowing reports. And he loves it.

"The last few years, I've tried to work my tail off to get where I'm at," he said. "It hasn't been handed to me, which has actually I think made me a better person and a better ballplayer in itself, having to work day in and day out. You know you never stop working."

He's still easier to find in the batting cages than the clubhouse. His RBI triple was the Tigers' lone hit off Phillies lefty Cliff Lee Tuesday, and he added a home run off ex-teammate Eddie Bonine. He's starting, after all, for his bat.

But if Raburn needed a push for improvement, a full-time spot in left field will do it. He's motivated to prove himself again, this time with the glove.

"I don't understand why people give me such a bad rep," he said. "Yeah, I've made mistakes, but so have a lot of other people. I'd like to see [others] go out every so many days ... and try to do the best they can. They're not going to be perfect, but there's nobody in this game that is perfect. All I can do is go out and play my best and get myself prepared. I think the more reps I get, yeah, I can be a really good outfielder."

Manager Jim Leyland believes there's a better outfielder in him as well, given time. In a first for Raburn, time is something he has. He might share some spots with a left-handed hitter, but he won't have to wait for days on end to get in.

The only wait he has is on the family side; his wife, Suzanne, is expecting their first child sometime later in the month. He'll become a dad around the same time he's expected to become an Opening Day starter.

The combination has the chance to produce no shortage of stress come late March. It beats worrying about a roster spot.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.