As spring training draws to a close, the Detroit Tigers have just a couple of roster decisions to make before Opening Day on April 6. They need to formally select a backup catcher, there looks to be at least one opening in the bullpen, and the competition to be the last man on the bus heading north appears to be down to a three-way race for two spots. Outfielder Tyler Collins is battling with infielders Hernan Perez and Andrew Romine for that spot.
I wrote in this article that my preference would be Collins, because the team could use at least one player on the bench who can hit right-handed pitching. Rajai Davis doesn't fit the bill, nor would the backup catcher. Anthony Gose and either Romine or Perez may make for a fine defensive replacement or pinch runner, if needed, but not a pinch hitter to send in against a tough righthander. That’s how the 2014 season ended, remember?
The club has been giving Perez and Romine some work in the outfield and at first base this spring. If Collins makes the team, they wouldn't need a sixth outfielder, and Collins would be a better option at first, where he has played some in the distant past. So, why would the Tigers consider keeping both Perez and Romine on the roster?
Well, for one thing, both backup infielders are out of options, meaning that they would have to clear waivers before they could be sent to the minor leagues. If another team were to claim them on waivers, the player would be lost for the waiver fee of just $50,000. The conventional wisdom says that Perez is more likely to be claimed, as he is thought to have more upside. Collins has two options remaining, and teams don't like to give away players.
If the club were looking to keep just the better defensive player, Romine would get the nod. He is more experienced at three infield positions and has been steadier in the field through his career, even if Perez is the more athletic player of the two. In fact, Perez has a grand total of 44 games, 79 plate appearances under his belt in the major leagues. That includes 1 2/3 innings at third base. In the minor leagues, he has fielded a total of eight ground balls at third base.
Should the Tigers want to bring in a defensive replacement for Nick Castellanos, they would be rolling the dice to have only Perez to bring in from the bench if Romine were lost on waivers. Romine has some experience at the hot corner, and has played it pretty well, but it’s very unlikely that the club will risk losing a player like Perez, who is still developing and has six years of major league service remaining before he becomes a free agent.
Romine will be eligible for arbitration next winter if he spends a full season in the major leagues this year. Perez is at least another three years from being eligible. The Tigers pretty much know what they have with Romine, a decent fielder and good base runner, who can hit for no power from both sides of the plate. Perez may become a regular infielder, or he may become another Romine.
Perez spent most of the 2014 season playing shortstop in Toledo. That’s the position where he started out as a 16-year-old in the Venezuelan Summer League, when the Tigers signed him to his first professional contract. After making 22 errors in one season, and 35 in another, he was moved to second base at West Michigan for the 2011 season, and had seemingly found a home.
When Detroit acquired Ian Kinsler prior to the 2014 season and then called up Eugenio Suarez from Double-A Erie to replace the injured Jose Iglesias, Perez was moved back to shortstop at Toledo, this time faring much better. He cut down on the mistakes, with just 16 errors, and the scouting reports of his fielding ability were glowing.
Entering the 2015 season, the Tigers traded Suarez, released Danny Worth, designated Don Kelly, and reinstalled Iglesias as the starting shortstop. They will have at least one, maybe two backup infielders. The other infielders at spring training this season were slick fielding Dixon Machado, who is on the roster but needs to start every day in the minors, and veteran Josh Wilson, a non-roster invitee waiting for news of his reassignment to minor league camp.
Teams like to have backup coverage at every position when they select the four players who will either be platooning or riding the bench. Davis and Anthony Gose will share duties in center field, leaving one of the two in reserve. Gose figures to start most games -- against right-handed pitchers -- and that leaves Davis as a fine hitter against lefthanders and a solid pinch runner.
Manager Brad Ausmus has said that Victor Martinez will not be playing first base at all this season. That means that the team will also need a backup at first base. All the more reason to keep Collins, in my view, but Perez has been getting the work this spring at the premier sack. Romine can cover the three infield positions and Perez can be put at any of the three, but to call him a utility infielder is wishful thinking.
Here is what Ausmus had to say about Collins making the team (via MLive):
"If you look at our team, we have Yoenis Cespedes, J.D. Martinez, Rajai Davis and Anthony Gose -- we have four outfielders," he said. "Where's (Collins) playing?
"Maybe he can pinch hit here and there. Maybe one of those corner outfielders really needs a day off and we're facing a tough righty -- maybe a guy like Collins fits into that mold. But barring injury, between those four outfielders, the vast majority of playing time is already consumed. It'd be nice to have his bat on the bench," Ausmus said. "But then the question is: How long do you want him sitting on the bench?"
Ausmus is apparently more comfortable with the idea of letting Davis play a corner outfield spot -- or face a right-handed pitcher -- than some of us are. But then, he was more comfortable using Don Kelly as a pinch hitter rather than Collins last September. Therefore, the Tigers might send Collins to the minors to start the season, keeping both Perez and Romine on the Opening Day roster. As 2014 ended, 2015 begins.