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3 Tigers position battles to be decided during spring training

There aren't many to be found this year.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Pitchers and catchers will report to spring training this week, which will set the baseball world ablaze with excitement, grainy pictures of players stretching, and lots of media hype surrounding players with zero chance of making the team. Remember all the attention Steven Moya received last year? That didn't turn out so well.

The Tigers are in a particularly boring spot because most of the 25-man roster is already decided. Sure, we will complain about the batting order every chance we get, but there probably won't be many surprises once the club makes its way to Miami for Opening Day on April 5. Miguel Cabrera will be there. So will Justin Verlander. Ditto Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez, and so on.

There are a few spots up for grabs, though. Some of them have clear frontrunners -- hey there, Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- while others are a 'get your popcorn ready free-for-all' waiting to happen. None of these spots figure to play a major role in the team's chances at contention in 2016, but they are important nonetheless. Here's what to watch for.


The Tigers have said all the right things this winter. If you believe them, Bryan Holaday will show up to spring training with a fair chance of winning a job as James McCann's backup catcher.

However, If the Tigers were comfortable with the idea of Holaday serving in that role, Jarrod Saltalamacchia wouldn't even be in camp. Saltalamacchia is a left-handed hitter who complements McCann perfectly, and while he isn't a great defender, his bat should more than offset the difference between his and Holaday's defensive abilities. Holaday knows the pitching staff better, but Saltalamacchia is a proven veteran who should erase that gap quickly.

The only question is which Saltalamacchia shows up in Lakeland. Will the Tigers get some semblance of the catcher who posted a .762 OPS in four seasons with the Boston Red Sox, or the guy who struggled to a .661 OPS more recently with the Miami Marlins? Salty's resurgence in Arizona in 2015 hints towards the former, especially if his plate appearances against lefties are limited.

25th man

It is both a blessing and a curse that the bulk of our spring training fun revolves around the last guy to make the major league roster, but as someone who grew up watching the Tigers in the 1990s and early aughts, I'll take it. Mike Aviles is the Tigers' $2 million man who should take the team's final bench spot, but sometimes things happen. The Tigers were quick to cut bait with Steve Lombardozzi in 2014, and even quicker to get rid of Alex Gonzalez once that didn't work out, though admittedly both cuts occurred under dire circumstances.

Aviles has been a poor hitter for the last four seasons, stumbling his way to a 74 OPS+ during that time. I would be surprised if the Tigers dumped him before the season even started, but we may see a move to someone like Dixon Machado or Tyler Collins if Aviles doesn't shape up early on in 2016. There won't be many pinch-hitting opportunities in this lineup, so Aviles may be used as a defensive replacement more often than not, but his glove pales in comparison to both Machado and current utility infielder Andrew Romine. Collins and Machado are probably better served getting another year's worth of at-bats at Triple-A Toledo anyway.

The bullpen

Here we are, the real position battles. The Tigers have five relievers on their 40-man roster who should be locks to make the team, leaving two spots up for grabs. I threw out a wild guess in last week's mailbag, but everyone on the 40-man -- save for prospect Jairo Labourt, probably -- has a legitimate shot at cracking the Opening Day roster. Nearly all of the pitchers on last year's 40-man roster saw major league action at some point, so odds are these two decisions will be short-lived.

That doesn't make for a fun discussion, though. Bruce Rondon and Drew VerHagen seem like the frontrunners at first glance, but general manager Al Avila was not shy about suggesting that Shane Greene and Michael Fulmer could see bullpen duty in 2016. Rondon's battle with the Chikungunya virus has gone largely unmentioned, but the side effects could very well limit him in 2016. Fringy starters like Buck Farmer and Kyle Ryan could also be in the mix, though they and Matt Boyd will also be needed for rotation depth.

There are a few dark horses as well. Angel Nesbitt came out of nowhere to make the team in 2015, but struggled with his command throughout the season. The club showed faith in Montreal Robertson, adding him to the 40-man roster and sending him to the Arizona Fall League. Jeff Ferrell and Jose Valdez pitched a few innings in 2015 as well. Given the command issues so many of these pitchers have struggled with throughout their careers, riding with the hot hand(s) on Opening Day may be the Tigers' best option.