Depending on what type of baseball fan you are, spring training can be seen as a month of meaningless practice to be completely ignored, or as an important study of the state of your favorite team. If you’re reading Bless You Boys in March, you probably fall into the second group.
One of the most important aspects of spring training is determining which 25 players will make the roster to start the regular season, and what roles they’ll fill. Will Promising Youngster grab an everyday role and push Middling Veteran to the bench? Can Popular Prospect prove he’s ready for big-league action? The spring position battles on the fringes of the roster can have a direct effect on the regular season standings.
This spring the Tigers don’t have many position battles, a testament to the depth that general manager Al Avila built over the offseason. For the most part the roster is set, with only a few areas with room for some shuffling. We’ll get into those areas in a moment, but first we need make some assumptions about the roster.
First, we’re assuming the Tigers will carry 13 position players (or 12 plus Victor Martinez, if you prefer), five starting pitchers, and seven relievers. Second, we’ll assume that Cameron Maybin will be on the disabled list on Opening Day. Don’t worry, we don’t have any inside information, it’s just safer (and more fun) for this exercise to plan on him not being ready.
A traditional American League bench -- and there’s no reason to believe the Tigers will do something untraditional here -- consists of a backup catcher, a utility infielder, a fourth outfielder, and the other guy. Two of these roles appear to be set, as Andrew Romine fills the infield role and Jarrod Saltalamacchia serves as the backup catcher.
The fourth outfielder was intended to be a combination of Maybin and Anthony Gose, but with the assumption that Maybin won’t be ready, someone else will need to fill that roster spot. Tyler Collins and Steven Moya are the most polished outfielders available, but neither can help Gose in center field or against left-handed pitching, which makes Wynton Bernard a third possibility.
But since The Tigers could likely survive with only three outfielders for a week or two, they may go a different route with that spot. They might prefer two "other guys" in the short term. The leading candidate to be the other guy is Mike Aviles, mostly due to his guaranteed $2 million contract. Bryan Holaday could be carried along in order to avoid losing him on waivers for a little longer, or they could go with Dixon Machado because apparently you can never have enough utility infielders.
Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann, and Anibal Sanchez are locked in to the top of the rotation. The remaining two spots are penciled in with the names of Daniel Norris and Mike Pelfrey.
It would be surprising if any pitcher supplants Norris or Pelfrey, but it’s not impossible. Shane Greene, Matt Boyd, or Michael Fulmer could potentially pull off the upset. Greene did make the rotation last year, after all, and Fulmer decimated the Eastern League. There’s a chance one of these three forces himself into the rotation, and the Tigers make room for him by either moving Pelfrey to the bullpen or optioning Norris.
Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, and Justin Wilson are locks for the bullpen. Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy are there as well, though recent developments may be loosening their grips on roster spots. For now, it’s probably safe to assume they’ll be on the roster.
So that leaves two spots for other pitchers, and there are a lot of moving parts in this area. Al Avila has stated that starting pitchers that don’t make the rotation will be considered for bullpen roles, so we can double-dip here with Fulmer, Greene, and Boyd, along with Buck Farmer and Kyle Ryan.
Bruce Rondon and his amazing stuff has to be considered a favorite, and veteran Bobby Parnell has plenty of upside if he’s truly, finally healthy. Angel Nesbitt, Drew VerHagen, and Joe Jimenez are in the conversation as well.
We can speculate with some confidence which players will round out the bench and rotation, but the final two bullpen roles are truly up for grabs. It makes for an interesting storyline this spring, and following along is plenty of fun.