Spring Training has roughly reached its mid-point (depending on how you count the time before games started), and....
so far, few of the questions have been answered and a couple of new ones have cropped up. I wrote a fan post a few weeks ago highlighting some of the story lines I would be watching. This is an update.*
- Brad Ausmus and his revamped coaching staff. So far I would say the coaching staff is at least meeting, if not exceeding, expectations. Clearly there is a very strong emphasis on base-running. Brad either did or did not derp a game away with an inadvertent pickoff sign, but either way he handled it perfectly by taking full responsibility, deserved or not. He is doing a masterful job of getting the entire expanded cast of characters into games (including some of the young, non-roster kids). And if you listened to Kurt's comments on yesterday's podcast, his personal presence is impressive. I for one am thrilled with the early returns.
- The arrival of Nick Castellanos. So far we are seeing about as good as what we had hoped out of Nick. He seems comfortable with the bat (hitting the Tigers' first home run of the Spring and doing a pretty good job of using the whole field). He clearly is still adjusting to the defensive part of his position; he has made a few nifty plays, and not converted some other chances. He is still a work in progress, and Ausmus is, rightfully, showing plenty of patience with him. I would have to say the worst fears have been dispelled and there is cause for optimism regarding Nick at this point.
- Justin Verlander' readiness. All reports are that JV is fully recovered and well ahead of schedule. In a bit of bad luck, his first start was rained out. It remains to be seen whether he will be fully stretched out in time for his first regular-season start, but he will be close. This is a good thing.
- Andy Dirks' rebound. OK, well that has not gone so well. Back surgery and the necessary rehab are going to put him out of the lineup until some time in June, at the earliest. This has created a hole in the roster which will need to be filled either internally or perhaps by trade. More on that below, but do not expect a trade until the team has had a chance to fully evaluate the internal options.
- Rajai Davis' role. So far it is fair to say that Rajai is not getting on base at the pace we would like to see. He has logged as many strikeouts as he has hits. When he HAS reached base his speed has been obvious, and refreshing to see. He was able to score from third tagging up on a pop-up to the third baseman in one early game. Let's hope he can get that bat going, because speed is useless if you are not reaching base.
- Steve Lombardozzi's tools. Small sample size but it appears Steve is going to be a decent backup at SS, or likely wherever he is needed. At least the radio guys are impressed with him.
- The resurrection of Joba Chamberlain. So far, while not allowing a run, Joba has been OK but not great. Yes, it is still early, and he is no doubt pitching well enough that he will stick with the team out of Spring Training, but of the pitchers who have thrown more than one inning only Phil Coke and Luis Marte have a higher BA against. Putting that in perspective, though, a .150 WHIP is acceptable for a setup guy if those walks and hits are not translating into runs. Stay tuned.
- Phil Coke. Phil is a notoriously slow starter in the Spring, but so far he has the worst stats of any pitcher who has thrown more than one inning. He is going to have to do better than a .474 BAA and 2.50 WHIP if he is going to earn that $1.9 mil.contract. Right now Ian Krol and Blaine Hardy are looking like better options than Phil, and we have not yet seen Casey Crosby take the mound.
- The rest of the bullpen. This has been the big question mark going into the Spring, and at this point there is reason for a bit of cautious optimism (I will concede, I was cautiously optimistic to begin with). Nathan, Rondon, AlAl, and even Joba have performed about as we might have expected. Krol has pitched well and is likely very close to nailing down a roster spot. That leaves two spots to fill. I still expect the roster will include two left-handed relievers, but both Luke Putkonen and Evan Reed have pitched very well and if the decision were made today it would be hard to justify leaving either of them off the roster. Putkonen still has an option year left (Reed does not), so if it comes down to a choice between the two, Luke will probably start the season in Toledo. If Crosby pitches well once he finally toes the rubber, he may have a solid chance to grab the second lefty spot (as far as I can tell, when he is not battling his control/command issues he is not really a LOOGY, and as a former starter he would be useful as a long reliever). Otherwise, Blaine Hardy, a non-roster invitee signed in 2013 out of the KC organization, looks like he may challenge Coke for that spot.**
- Starting Pitching depth. This one is always hard to judge, but let us just say that so far, from what we have seen, the combination of Lobstein, Alvarez and Putkonen (if he does not get the bullpen spot), together with prospects Drew VerHagen and Robbie Ray, will likely provide adequate, if not impressive, depth of starting pitching.
- The last bench spot. Because of Dirks' injury, there are now actually two open bench spots to fill. Don Kelly, whom I previously identified as the likely front-runner for the last spot, has not played himself out of contention (indeed, over a whopping 14 AB's, he is sporting a .429 BA with an OPS of 1.11). Pencil him in. However the other spot appears to be wide open, and could be filled in a number of ways without a trade. I had expected Ezequiel Carrera and Trevor Crowe to provide injury insurance in the outfield, but I am not sure the Tigers want to rely on either of them to team with Rajai Davis in LF for two-to-three months. Of the two, Carrera probably has the inside edge. I have speculated that Tyler Collins could play himself into a temporary spot on the roster, but, other than hitting a game-tying home run against Miami he has not shown much so far, hitting well below the Mendoza line. Another possibility would be to rely on a combination of Davis, Kelly and Lombardozzi to handle left-field duties for a couple of months and bring along an extra utillity infielder such as Hernan Perez or Danny Worth. There are some serious downsides to that approach, however--Worth's post-injury struggles at the plate seem to be continuing, and while Perez would probably be a nice addition to the roster as a defensive infielder and pinch-runner (see 2013 post-season), his development would be better served by playing every day in Toledo. Plus who besides Jim Leyland really wants to see Don Kelly penciled into the starting lineup on a regular basis? Is filling half a position for two or three months such an urgent need that it warrants making a trade at this point? Probably not, but remember that the one concern about this year's team is a likely drop-off in run scoring, and in the early going that concern remains.****
- Fringe players. Of the names I mentioned here in the earlier post, Carrera and Hardy seem likeliest at this point to contribute and maybe even make the opening-day roster. Justin Miller has not impressed. Jordan Lennerton has not set the world on fire, as he would have had to do to force his way into consideration for a roster spot.***
- Young Prospects. There have been no disappointments in this regard. Devon Travis, Daniel Fields and Steven Moya have all been pretty impressive. Eugenio Suarez has also had some bright moments. Drew VerHagen, Robbie Ray, and Melvin Mercedes have looked quite good at times, good enough that it would not be inconceivable that one of them could make an appearance in a Tiger uniform at some point in the season. And we have even caught a glimpse of Austin Schotts. Fun stuff.
*Before anyone over-reacts, I know we are still very early into the pre-season and sample sizes are minuscule. There is no way to project anything significant from results this early on. Still, it is fun to watch for possible trends emerging. Besides, what else do I have to write about? I am not funny like HookSlide, TomduhB or Mrs. DTF.
**Although he won the poll in my earlier post for the dark-horse candidate likeliest to make the roster, Duane Below's chances are not looking great.
***In what capacity, I could not say.
****Update to the update. It now appears there is a chance Jose Iglesias will not be fully ready to play by opening day, thanks to the recurrence of his shin-splint issue. Whether that will necessitate a visit to the DL is not yet known, but either way if he is not fully healthy it may affect the dynamics of the remaining roster decisions. It probably takes Lombardozzi out of the outfield mix, at a minimum. It may also necessitate bringing another utility infielder along for the short term, as Kelly is not an option to play shortstop except in an emergency.