On paper, the Tiger lineup looked to be all set entering the 2014 season. There may have been a question of whether manager Brad Ausmus would fill the final roster spot with an outfielder such as Don Kelly, or another infielder such as Hernan Perez, but the 25 man roster was as set entering Spring Training as it has ever been.
Then, the injury bug bit, and it bit them hard. Andy Dirks was penciled in to take about 70% of the at bats in left field, and now he is scheduled for back surgery that will sideline him for two months. Jose Iglesias was supposed to show his defensive wizardry at shortstop in place of All-Star Jhonny Peralta, but he is out indefinitely with shin splints.
Replacements for the two injured Tigers have yet to be determined, but unless a move is made to acquire another player or two, all of the internal options project only to provide replacement level production, at best. Whether the Tigers start Rajai Davis full time in left field, or whether they give Dirks' playing time to Don Kelly, or one of the two former Cleveland Indians -- Trevor Crowe or Ezequiel Carrera -- earns a roster spot, the Tigers are looking at a couple of holes in the lineup every time that they face a right-handed pitcher.
At shortstop, Steve Lombardozzi, who was acquired in the Doug Fister trade with Washington, would be the odds-on favorite to fill in for Iglesias, even though he has a grand total of two games at shortstop in the major leagues under his belt. His stat line of .264/.297/.342/.639 makes him the best option, at least offensively, at both positions of need, but that's not saying very much. That on-base percentage is a result of having the lowest walk rate in the National League in 2013, among hitters with at least 300 plate appearances.
The Tigers have not invested a lot in their bench, nor do they have to. Not many teams have starting caliber players riding the bench. But the reality is that the players that they have to fill in when one of their starters goes down are just not very good with the bat. That applies to the catcher position as well. Bryan Holaday may be adequate, but he won't hit like Bryan Pena did last year, nor like Gerald Laird did in seasons past. A backup catcher normally gets about 50 starts over the course of a season.
Everywhere you look on the Tiger depth chart -- in the infield, the outfield, the rotation, the bullpen, or the catcher -- there are questions. Don Kelly has provided below replacement level performance over the past three seasons, with a WAR of -0.5. making him a non tender candidate in December. Rajai Davis has a wRAA of -33.2 against right handers over the past two seasons, and Lombardozzi -11.7. Pick your stats, and pick your poison. There are no attractive options in house.
They say that a baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes more than just nine players on the diamond, or five on the mound, to get through a 162 game season. Every team has to have it's Johnny Grubb, or Dave Bergman, or Rusty Kuntz to fill in when the going gets tough. Does this team have them? Maybe.
There is no need to panic... yet. It's not like Miguel Cabrera is injured, we're talking about Dirks and Iglesias. There will be teams who have a surplus of outfielders, or infielders who will be willing to deal before the season starts. I wouldn't worry about selling the farm, because there's really no farm to sell. If an opportunity presents itself to swap a minor leaguer or two for a legitimate starting player, taking on some salary in the deal, the Tigers should jump at the chance.
That being said, the Tigers have pared the roster down by ten players, including Dirks, but not counting the non roster invitees this spring. There will need to make five more cuts to get down to 25. If they stuck to just players on the 40 man roster, there is just one position player to spare, and four extra pitchers.
Here is a look at where things stand in major league camp after the latest round of roster cuts.
*Francisco Martinez, Steven Moya, Jordan Lennerton, Daniel Fields, and Ramon Cabrera are players on the 40 man roster that have been optioned. Devon Travis and James McCann are non-roster invitees that have been sent to the minors.
Casey Crosby, Justin Miller, Jose Valdez, and Melvin Mercedes are pitchers on the 40-man roster that have been optioned. Jhan Martinez, Drew VerHagen, Robbie Ray, and Duane Below are non-roster invitees that have been sent to the minors Luis Marte was released.