Eleven of the 25 players who were on the Tigers' roster on Opening Day a year ago are no longer on the roster. Four of the five starting pitchers and six of the nine starters in the lineup are returning. But the Tiger bench has undergone a complete overhaul, and the bullpen will barely resemble last year’s model.
Among the changes to the 2014 Tigers roster, at least three (and maybe all four) reserve position players could be occupied by different players than they had last year. Here's a preview of the new-look Tigers bench:
Bryan Holaday is expected to back up Alex Avila, replacing veteran Brayan Pena, who signed a two-year deal with the Cincinnati Reds. Pena did a reasonable job for Detroit, at least at the plate. He appeared in 71 games, starting 55 of them, posting a batting line of .297/.315/.397/.713. His defense, however, left something to be desired.
Holaday has a reputation as a defense-first catcher. The rookie hit .260/.312/.372 /.684 last season at Triple-A Toledo. If he can duplicate those numbers in Detroit, the Tigers will be thrilled. He will have the benefit of having a very smart catcher for a manager, as well as a very good pitching staff to work with him. The key for Holaday will be how he works with the veteran starting pitchers when he gets behind the plate.
Should Holaday fail to seize the opportunity, the only other catcher on the 40-man roster is Ramon Cabrera, a 25-year-old switch hitter from Venezuela who hit .304/.392/.388/.780 in 84 games at Erie, but only .242/.311/.336/.647 in 39 games at Toledo last season. James McCann is considered the top catching prospect in the organization, but he is not yet on the roster. He had a promising season at Erie in 2013.
Matt Tuiasosopo had a very good first half for the Tigers at the plate, hitting .329/.447/.624/1.070 in over 100 plate appearances while platooning with Andy Dirks in left field. But his production tanked in the second half, batting just .152 and missing the playoff roster. He’s gone, and in his place is the speedy Rajai Davis, whose 45 stolen bases totaled more than the entire combined Tigers roster in 2013.
Davis will also be used in a platoon with Dirks. He crushed lef- handed pitching in 2013, with a .338/.378/.511/.889 batting line. If he’s going to steal nearly as many bases, however, he’ll have to see right-handers as well, as most of his plate appearances and half of his steals came against righties. He hit only .205 against right handers. Last year’s splits were no fluke, either. Davis has a career line of .294/.354/.425/.779 against southpaws in 889 trips to the plate. No doubt he will also get some pinch-running assignments as well.
Don Kelly is back in camp, after being signed to a one-year, $1 million non-guaranteed contract. Kelly hit .222/.309/.343/.652 in 251 plate appearances last season, which included 78 games in the outfield and 29 in the infield, plus another seven games as the DH. He played every position on the field with the exception of shortstop and catcher.
Also on the roster are Daniel Fields, son of Tigers coach Bruce Fields, who had a fine season at Double-A Erie, batting .284/.356/.435/.791 with ten home runs and 24 steals while playing center field. Fields could get a call up if there is an injury, but the Tigers surely want him playing every day, so he won’t be on the opening day roster. Steven Moya, said to be the best pure power hitter in the organization, has not played above Low-A ball at Lakeland, and he figures to be a couple seasons away from the show.
The Tigers will have a couple of non-roster invitees among their outfielders at spring training this season. Former Indians Trevor Crowe and Ezequiel Carrera have been signed to minor league contracts with an invitation to Lakeland. Tyler Collins will be in camp, but is not expected to compete for a major league job just yet.
Gone are starters Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta, as well as long-time utility man Ramon Santiago, who appeared in 80 regular season games, starting in 56 of them. Santiago had a very mediocre season at the plate, batting just .224/.298 /.288/.586, amazingly an improvement over his 2012 season.
Taking Santiago’s place on the roster will be utility man Steve Lombardozzi, who was acquired in the trade that sent Doug Fister to Washington. In 307 plate appearances with the Nationals, Lombardozzi hit .259/.278 /.338/.616, which would be an improvement in that spot. One area of concern is that he walked only 2.6 percent of his plate appearances, dead last in the league among players with at least 300 plate appearances. He is a switch hitter, but he has hit much better from the left side of the plate.
Another concern is that while Lombardozzi has played second base, third base, and the outfield frequently, he has very little experience at shortstop, where rookie Jose Iglesias will be the primary starter. Lombardozzi has played just two games at there in the majors, and 20 in the minor leagues, although he has not committed an error at the position. The Tigers still have Hernan Perez, who can play multiple infield positions and was primarily a shortstop until the 2012 season. Danny Worth is also still in the organization, although he has been removed from the 40-man roster.
Also on the roster are Francisco Martinez, and prospect Eugenio Suarez. Martinez went to Seattle in the trade that brought Fister to Detroit, but was reclaimed by the Tigers off waivers during the 2013 season. Suarez spent most of the 2013 season at Double-A Erie; he is the most promising among Tiger infield prospects, but is not likely to see much action in Detroit, barring a serious injury in 2014.
It may make more sense for the Tigers to go with Perez as a second utility infield backup, and use Lombardozzi as the fifth outfielder behind Davis, rather than keeping Kelly on the roster, where he would be no better than the third best option at any given position. Kelly has no options remaining, so he’d have to clear waivers and accept a minor league assignment to be sent down. Perez, Martinez, Suarez, and Lombardozzi all have at least one option remaining.
Overall, the Tiger roster looks to be more flexible than the 2013 team. They have more speed by a wide margin, and better overall defense. They still lack a power bat on the bench, but that is a luxury that many teams do not have. Jordan Lennerton is on the roster, but would only be called up in case of a horror scenario -- an injury to Cabrera at first base.
The Tigers may monitor Lombardozzi at the shortstop position in the spring to see if he can handle the backup duty there. If not, it’s difficult to see how Kelly makes the team heading north. Holaday, Davis, and Lombardozzi all appear to be locks on the roster.