The 2017 Detroit Tigers have not impressed to this point, halfway through spring training. Their record is terrible. The offense isn’t scoring runs. The pitching staff has been hit around too much. And the center field situation hasn’t resolved into any real degree of clarity at this point. To fans tuning into an afternoon game here or there, or otherwise just checking the box scores, the situation may look bleak. But the truth, is that these things are mostly distraction. In reality, spring camp has actually gone quite well for the Tigers.
There are reasons for the offense to struggle, the main one being that much of the heart of the Tigers’ lineup is playing in the World Baseball Classic. Before they left, the Tigers only fielded something resembling their true starting lineup a handful of times. Samples of a few weeks of production aren’t meaningful during the regular season. Even the best hitters struggle over small stretches. The spring — when major leaguers face a variable selection of pitchers, most of whom are still ahead of the game in their spring preparations — doesn’t mean a thing in terms of a player’s regular season production.
Health is job one for every team in the league. The most, and generally the only, impactful thing that happens in spring training are the injuries. So far, the Tigers have escaped largely unscathed. And for players that came into spring camp with lingering question marks about their health, the news has also been good.
The most important storyline of the spring is the health of Jordan Zimmermann. Without him, the Tigers are leaning heavily on their talented young starters to back Verlander, with little to no depth behind them. Thus far, Zimmermann has thrown 92-94 mph with his fastball, which is a marked improvement over his injury plagued velocity readings in 2016. He’s also reported no lingering discomfort from the neck issues that ruined his first season with the Tigers. Of all the takeaways from the first few weeks of spring training, Zimmermann’s apparent health is far and away the most important. We’ll start worrying about his results when he’s got more innings under his belt.
The starting pitchers have shown advanced velocity for this point in the season. Shane Greene and Justin Wilson haven’t been great, but they have been healthy and throwing hard. There have been the usual mild sprains and strains of course. But otherwise, there’s nothing to see here, and everything else pales in comparison to coming out of spring training healthy.
There are two main areas of concern here. One is the contest to see who wins the fifth spot in the Tigers’ rotation. The other revolves around center field and the bench. Performances in these areas do actually matter do a degree. Not because you can tell much from a limited amount of playing time, but because the players involved have something to prove, rather than simply working out the kinks for the season.
The rotation battle is going about as well as anyone could hope. Mike Pelfrey has put together the odd solid outing, but otherwise has looked like the same liability he was in 2016. And Anibal Sanchez is still getting shelled, both of which may be for the best in terms of making the Tigers’ decision for them. Meanwhile, Matt Boyd continues to show the little uptick in velocity he found late last season, and looks every bit the easy front runner for the fifth rotation spot.
Things are more complex in terms of the Tigers’ bench. Tyler Collins is recovered from a minor lat strain and can start getting reps in his presumed position. He’ll have a few weeks to keep himself in the starting role in center field. Steven Moya and Anthony Gose haven’t shown any noticeable improvement over last season. Mikie Mahtook looks vaguely like a center fielder, but thus far has struggled at the plate a bit. And JaCoby Jones has swung the bat for average and some power so far, and continues to impress with his range in center field. He may start the season in Toledo, but Jones needed only small steps in his strikeout and walk rate to become the best option in center field.
In the infield, Dixon Machado has flashed outstanding defense as expected. More importantly, he’s also hit for the kind of average that may make him a viable replacement for Jose Iglesias down the road. If it wasn’t already clear, he’s made a good case as to why the Tigers would be wise to hang onto him.
In terms of the bullpen, Justin Wilson and Shane Greene both appear pretty healthy. Sure they haven’t been very impressive yet, but at this point it’s nothing to worry about. Bruce Rondon likewise hasn’t shown his best command, but his stuff has looked good both in spring camp and for Team Venezuela in the WBC. The one piece of quality depth the Tigers have on the farm, is reliever Joe Jimenez. So far he’s been quite impressive this spring, which is encouraging in case one of the Tigers’ primary relievers can’t get the job done.
But relievers are hard to evaluate even over the course of full seasons. Evaluating them in the first part of spring training is madness. As long as the velocity and stuff is recognizable, there’s little to do but see how their seasons unfold.
Spring training is a trap, season after season. People read too much into it without fully accounting for the tiny samples and widely varying progressions of the players. Yes, when you’re watching or listening to a game, and the Tigers are getting beat, it isn’t fun. But these games are still practice games, and it’s best not to get caught up in them.
Individual performances may shed a little useful light on a player, but even those signals are mostly noise. Yes we’d all like to see one of the amorphous cloud of center fielders distinguish themselves. Wilson and Greene dominating would be nice to see. But there’s plenty of time. The Tigers are healthy. Sanchez and Pelfrey are still struggling. Really, things couldn’t be going much better. The issues with the Tigers’ roster pre-date anything going on in spring camp. If it’s meaningful baseball you’re after, you should be tuned to the World Baseball Classic instead.