Spring training is one of the most wonderful times of the year, but it can also be a little boring. Not only is there nothing really happening for the first two weeks of camp, the games can often be lifeless, especially after the early innings. Add in that they're not televised and during the day -- sorry, people with jobs -- and you get a rather agonizing wait for the start of the regular season.
Spring training is important, though. It gives players not named Pablo Sandoval time to get into baseball shape, and coaches time to evaluate their talent in order to form the best roster possible for Opening Day. The Detroit Tigers have a rather boring set of position battles taking place this spring, but there are a few things of note taking place in Lakeland.
One battle I neglected to mention earlier was that for the Tigers' fifth starter spot, and it might be different than you think.
If Shane Greene outpitches Mike Pelfrey in spring training, will he capture the fifth spot in the rotation?
While Pelfrey may end the season as the Tigers' fifth starter in a statistical sense, he should be viewed as the fourth starter. He will be expected to take the ball 30-plus times this year, solidifying the back end of the rotation with at least 180 innings pitched. It will likely take an injury for Pelfrey to be forced from the rotation to start the season.
The starter that many have taken for granted this winter is Daniel Norris. While he appears to be a clear frontrunner to win the fifth spot in the rotation, the Tigers should give Greene, Matt Boyd, and even Michael Fulmer a long look for that job. Norris is a top prospect with front-line starter potential, but he is still only 22 years old and two years removed from starting the season in Single-A ball. He has struggled with his command throughout his career, including last season while pitching in the Toronto Blue Jays organization.
Meanwhile, Greene and Boyd are making early impressions on the coaching staff. Boyd spent the offseason working on his slider, which manager Brad Ausmus noticed over the weekend. Ausmus was also quick to point out that Greene is still around after most of Tiger-dom forgot he was on the roster at points this winter. Greene offers more upside than Boyd, but both pale in comparison to Norris. As long as the prized lefthander shows the same form he had down the stretch in 2015, he should easily make the rotation.
Who is the best upcoming bullpen arm?
I often like to gloss over the obvious answer in mailbag questions, if only because these topics have usually been picked over by the time I get around to writing.
However, not this time. Joe Jimenez is easily the Tigers' best relief pitcher prospect, and one of their top prospects overall. You voted him our No. 18 prospect in the system prior to the 2015 season, and his stock has only gone up from there. Jimenez dominated hitters in Single-A ball last season, posting a 1.47 ERA and 5.55 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43 innings for the West Michigan Whitecaps. Armed with an electric fastball and improving slider, Jimenez has "closer of the future" potential.
Many fans glanced at Jimenez's stat line last season and wondered why he wasn't promoted to Advanced-A Lakeland (or higher). Scouts were quick to point out that Jimenez was largely getting by thanks to his incredible stuff last season, and still needs to hone his fastball command. There is also something to be said for playing in a winning atmosphere, and Jimenez was able to pitch in some pressure-packed situations during the Whitecaps' championship run.
It's anyone's guess, but we may see the kid gloves come off in 2016. Jimenez is a year older -- though still only 21 -- and the front office has already hinted that their next closer may come from within the system. There are other relievers with great stuff in the organization, but Jimenez may be the best bet to claim that title.
Which Tigers player will have a breakout year in 2016?
This may be a popular pick, but I've been on the Nick Castellanos hype train longer than most. He is entering his age-24 season, and showed signs of a true breakout in 2015. After a three-game benching during a series against the New York Yankees, Castellanos hit .283/.329/.487 with 11 home runs over his final 87 games. He still struck out 89 times over that stretch (a 26.4 percent rate) but the .816 OPS far outweighs any strikeout issues.
Not only did he hit for more power, he also demonstrated a massive improvement in plate discipline. FanGraphs' Eno Sarris identified players that posted the largest difference in O-swing percentage after the All-Star break in 2015, and Castellanos was near the top of the list. While this may be a small sample size, both Sarris and prospect analyst Dan Farnsworth pointed out recognizable changes in his swing that may mean a breakout is on the way.
The defense is another story, though.
The Tigers now have the "Tigers Way" of doing things. What should be the "Tigers Way" of baserunning?
We joked about this question on this week's podcast, but it does merit more consideration. According to FanGraphs' baserunning runs statistic (BsR), the Tigers ranked dead last in baseball at -27.3 runs, or 27.3 runs below average. Only one other team (the Mariners) was below -16 BsR. The Rangers led MLB at +19.1 BsR, a whopping 46.4 runs better than the Tigers. That's nearly five wins attributed simply to baserunning.
Fortunately, there may be some room for improvement.
Of the five Tigers players who were at least five baserunning runs below average, three are young players who may stand to improve from an increased focus on baserunning fundamentals in spring training. Castellanos and Iglesias are both entering their third* full year in the majors, while McCann is just starting his sophomore season. There may be room for growth here, especially for Iglesias, who has decent speed.
That's not all, though. Ian Kinsler was worth just 0.6 BsR in 2015, down from the 5.9 BsR he was worth in 2014. He has provided 44.9 BsR throughout his career, and even if he is declining, should provide more value in 2016. The same goes for Anthony Gose, who has produced 7.6 BsR in his young career. Cameron Maybin and Justin Upton have been positives on the basepaths, which will hopefully offset the loss of Yoenis Cespedes (2.3 BsR) and Rajai Davis (1.8 BsR). Plodders like Alex Avila (-1.3 BsR) and Marc Krauss (-1.1 BsR) are also gone.
The Tigers may not be the best baserunning team in the game, or even reach league average, but any improvement from their young players in this area would be a huge boost. Even a jump from 30th to 24th (based on 2015 numbers) is potentially a two-win difference.
*Iglesias is technically in year four, but those stress fractures didn't allow him to do much baserunning (or baseballing) in 2014.