Spring Training is just around the corner, and....
let's face it, the Tigers' roster is already pretty well set, barring injuries or a late trade. There may be three or four spots to fill in the bullpen and possibly one seat at the end of the bench. The majority of the work these next few weeks will consist of position players regaining their timing and technique on the field and at the plate and pitchers refining their mechanics and, in the case of starters, stretching out. Still, that doesn't mean there are not plenty of interesting things and players to follow as Spring Training progresses.
Here are a few things that will have my attention in the coming weeks:*
- Brad Ausmus and his revamped coaching staff. Obviously during Spring Training the roles of the Manager and his coaching staff are quite different than they are during the season. At this time of year, the focus is on developing and evaluating talent. In addition, this year the mostly new coaching staff will have to take some time to get to know the team, and there are several key new players in the mix. Once the season starts, the emphasis shifts to winning games and, secondarily, managing the roster to keep players healthy and effective over a long season. So we will not really be able to fully evaluate during Spring Training the impact changes in the coaching staff will have when games start to matter. Nevertheless, we may get some clues from things like how aggressively the speedier guys run the base paths and how various role players are used.
- The arrival of Nick Castellanos. While Dave Dombrowski has, characteristically, and understandably, made a point of saying that Castellanos will need to earn his spot on the major league roster, it seems clear that third base is Nick's to lose going into camp. The team does not want to have to move Miguel Cabrera back to the left side of the infield, and there is no other obvious Plan B in place (no, it is not Don Kelly full-time, or at least it had better not be). However, that does not mean it is a foregone conclusion that Nick will immediately establish himself as a reliable major league third baseman. It will be very interesting to see how well and quickly he adapts to his presumed role through the weeks of Spring Training. He has had Omar Vizquel working with him over the winter, which should help on the defensive side, and no one really questions his long-term potential as a major-league hitter. How that plays out on the field in the near term is one of the really intriguing things to watch. Will he take to the position like a duck to water or will he need time to grow into it? Will he need to platoon with someone else while he settles in (Kelly, Lombardozzi, Worth, or Perez?), or will he perhaps even need some time in Toledo at the start of the season? Stay tuned.
- Justin Verlander' readiness. Coming off his surgery, when will he start pitching for real, and will he be fully stretched out by the end of March, or will he need an extra week or two?
- Andy Dirks' rebound. Ondyder is at what may be a critical point in his career. In the past, when he has been healthy, he has shown that he has the potential to be a gold-glove outfielder. Injuries have hampered his career development. Last year during spring training he injured his knee running into the outfield fence and it affected him the entire season. The year before, he struggled with a sore hamstring. If he can keep himself healthy, he could be in for a breakout year. Or not.
- Rajai Davis' role. As a new face on the Tigers' roster, Davis is hoped to help provide an element of speed to the team. Much has been made of the Tigers' inability/unwillingness to run in the past. Last season the entire team stole a total of 35 bases; Rajai stole 45 all by his lonesome. Some of that is attributable, no doubt, to coaching preferences (see above), but it will be fun to see just how much his presence on the team will contribute to a more dynamic offense. It will also be interesting to see how much he may play in roles other than as a LF platoon player.
- Steve Lombardozzi's tools. To me Steve is not much more than a name right now. Or perhaps an acronym. I know we saw him a bit last season in games with the Nats, but I honestly have no memory of him, positive or negative. I am anxious to see him playing on a regular basis in a Tigers uniform. How does he handle SS and/or 3B? Does he have an arm? Will he play some outfield, and if so, how well?
- The resurrection of Joba Chamberlain. Joba is also something of an unknown commodity at this point, for different reasons. After a brilliant start to his career, he struggled to make the transition to the Yankees' rotation, and then struggled even further with injuries and control problems. Word is, his velocity has largely returned, and he is working to rediscover what was once a very good slider. If he is able to turn his career around with the Tigers, his signing will be one of those events that have earned Dave Dombrowski his reputation as a genius. Expect him to get a lot of work and attention in the coming weeks.
- Phil Coke. Phil, Phil, Phil. What can you say about this guy? When he has been right in the past, his quirky personality, Coke-point, glove slam and the like have made him a fan favorite. Yet more recently, the sight of him charging out of the bullpen has been enough to induce an intense feeling of dread. Will he get himself turned around enough to re-capture a lefty reliever spot in the bullpen? The Tigers obviously still think it is worth giving him another chance, and even worth paying him $1.9 mil. if he is able to stick with the squad out of Spring Training. It is going to be up to him to earn that trust, however, as there are plenty of other candidates to fill out the bullpen if he cannot show he still has something to offer.
- The rest of the bullpen. We know who will comprise the starting rotation. We can also be fairly confident that the bullpen will include Joe Nathan, Bruce Rondon, Al Alburquerque (provided he is healthy) and Joba Chamberlain (assuming he shows any sign of returning to some semblance of his former self). Beyond that, there are three spots to be filled in the bullpen, and who will claim those spots is anybody's guess at this point. Two of those spots will likely be filled by lefties, as none of the others named above have that attribute; on the other hand, it is hard to imagine three lefties filling out the 'pen unless there are no acceptable right-handed candidates (and there are likely to be several). The most likely left-handed candidates, aside from Coke, appear to be Ian Krol, acquired in the Fister trade, and Casey Crosby. Lefty Duane Below may be a dark-horse candidate to make the roster as a long reliever, a role he has previously filled for the Tigers. Right-handed candidates would probably be Luke Putkonen, Evan Reed, Luis Marte and possibly Jose Ortega. Melvin Mercedes may be another long-shot, although he seems to be a year or two away from being ready for the bigs.
- Starting Pitching depth. This is an interesting subject, in particular because you can be fairly sure that someone not named Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez, Porcello or Smyly will end up starting a few games for the Tigers this season. The front-line depth consists mainly of left-handers, a couple of whom have some experience pitching in the bigs. Jose Alvarez was the main fall-back for the Tigers last year. Duane Below has occupied that role in the past. Kyle Lobstein seem to be in the mix, as well. If Luke Putkonen does not make the roster as a long reliever, he is likely the primary right-handed option as a back-up starter. There are some other young players waiting in the wings, but none seems likely to be a candidate to start this season.
- The last bench spot. I'll be candid here. I think Don Kelly is likely to break camp as the 25th man on the roster, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. He no longer has the benefit of Jim Leyland's loyalty (or compromising pictures, perhaps?), but he is very much a known commodity and his versatility as a defender is unquestioned. He may not be even the second-best defender on the roster at any position except possibly 3B (defensively, he is also a pretty decent 1B, but if Brad Ausmus ever substitutes DK for a healthy Miggy, he is fired). However, third base is the one position that may need a reliable defensive backup on a frequent basis. On the other hand, whether Donny sticks with the team and earns that $1 mil. contract may depend in part on the performance of others, particularly since Lombardozzi appears to be similarly versatile. Those others might include Hernan Perez (who occupied that last spot during last year's playoffs), Danny Worth (who nearly made the squad last season), and maybe one of the other fringe players discussed below. If one of those guys comes on strong in Spring Training, Kelly's redundancy and weak bat may cost him the job.
- Fringe players. These are the guys who, while not necessarily top prospects, have the potential to fill a need in case of an injury or even perhaps to stick as the last bench player. In addition to Danny Worth, I would include in this group Jordan Lennerton(1B) and non-roster invitees Ezequiel Carrera(OF) and Trevor Crowe(OF). Lennerton has probably the least chance of seeing time in Detroit, because he can only play 1B, but while Carrera and Crowe will likely bide their time in Toledo as injury insurance, either could be called up at some point in the season. Pitchers in this group besides the ones mentioned above might include Justin Miller and non-roster invitees Jhan Marinez, Eduardo Sanchez and Blaine Hardy, although there seems to be quite a logjam of pitching candidates ahead of any of them.
- Young Prospects.** Every spring, there are a few sightings of prospects who, while not ready to make the big show, may have the potential to eventually become major-league players. Last spring, we we caught glimpses of Devon Travis(2B), Daniel Fields(CF), Steven Moya(RF), Dixon Machado (IF) and Tyler Collins(OF). Several of them are likely to show up again this year. In addition, we might hope to catch a glimpse of Eugenio Suarez(IF), Francisco Martinez(3B), James McCann(C) and Ramon Cabrera(C). Among the pitching prospects in the organization, there is a good chance we will see cameos from guys like Robbie Ray, Corey Knebel, Drew Verhagen, and, I think, Jose Valdez. Outfield prospect Austin Schotts and pitchers Jonathon Crawford and Jake Thompson are probably a year away from appearing in ST games, but one never knows. The possibility of watching some of the guys in this group play is as good a reason as any to watch to the end whatever ST games are televised.
*I have written this post primarily with an eye to readers who may not spend as much time and attention following the Tigers during the off-season as many BYB regulars, as well as to organize my own thoughts as I look forward to "the time for there to not be not baseball."
** I am in no way purporting to evaluate or rank prospects here. That job belongs to jgorosh and others.