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Detroit Tigers Links: Spring training roster battles are starting to take shape

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Thus far, Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey look the same.

MLB: Spring Training-Baltimore Orioles at Detroit Tigers Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

We all understand that spring training, especially in the first days of March, isn’t particularly meaningful. We’re content to see our guys playing the game again. Yet at the same time, it’s difficult to resist judging players based on what we’re seeing on the field. Raw ability is worth noting. Speed doesn’t disappear when April arrives. Defensive ability is a lot less variable than pitching or hitting this time of year. If a player looks good in the field, he is probably good in the field.

Beyond that, the usual caveats apply. The trick is that we’re dealing with a pretty unusual spring training for the Detroit Tigers.

There are two key positions on the club that remain up in the air, in center field and the back of the rotation. Both involve sets of players with contract or roster situations with a finality to them. The players, well aware of their current standing, are all in different positions in terms of how well they need to play over the next four weeks.

So far, the Tigers have seen two of their most dominant innings thrown by a pair of pitchers on the fringes. Ruben Alaniz and Arcenio Leon raised some eyebrows with lively fastballs and dominated in their first outings of the season. For players like them, with no security at all, this is their playoffs. Meanwhile, Alex Wilson and Shane Greene got knocked around as they work on their pitches, and it’s no concern at all. Players’ status has everything to do with how they should be viewed in their progression towards Opening Day.

While the likes of Justin Verlander, Daniel Norris, Michael Fulmer, and happily, Jordan Zimmermann, work the kinks out to varying degrees with no stress, Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey are compelled to prove something right now. Because both veterans pitched so poorly last year, they have to prove that something has changed this spring. Their first outings showed no sign of that.

For Mike Pelfrey, something has to give considering his limited arsenal last season. He has worked on a cutter over the winter in attempt to pair it with his four-seam fastball. If that worked out, it would improve his odds, giving him another option to pair with his usual sinker/splitter combination. He couldn’t find the strike zone on Wednesday, but he will have four weeks to show that something has clicked.

For Sanchez, the Tigers have to see renewed velocity and command after the veteran righthander changed his offseason conditioning to improve his strength and flexibility. In his first start of the season, more radar guns pinned Sanchez’s fastball down around 90 miles per hour. That isn’t going to get it done without radical changes elsewhere. Something major is going to have to happen for Sanchez to turn things around. BYB’s Kurt Mensching isn’t buying it.

Ranking the divisions for 2017

Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs ranked the leagues and the divisions from first to worst heading into the season. The American League is projected to be the stronger of the two, which lines up with interleague play last season. There’s a breakdown of each of the six divisions, with the AL East leading the way.

We’ll still need to see those papers, Mr. Abreu

The strange and often scary sagas of Cuban players trying to escape to the major leagues have a new entrant. Chicago White Sox slugger Jose Abreu testified Wednesday about the time he ate his fake passport on his flight to the United States in 2013. The defendants are the agent and trainer whom Abreu payed to help him get to America. They are accused of running a human smuggling ring of baseball players. Abreu testified that he washed down the pseudo-passport with a beer, which seems like the right call.

50 best from 50 states

FanSided compiled a list of the best player from each of the 50 states. If you have all day, feel free to click through all 50 pages. I’ll just tell you that Ty Cobb, of course, reigns above all Georgians. Ian Kinsler takes Arizona. Justin Verlander checks in as Virginia’s best. The best player born in Michigan? John Smoltz.

Oh, and South Dakota? That would be George "Sparky" Anderson, the scrappy second baseman who played briefly for the Philadelphia Phillies. Sparky the player may not be the best, but it's South Dakota. He is the only notable player from that fine state.

MLB considering stickier balls

Due to Major League Baseball’s concern with the use of rosin, sunscreen, or pine tar by pitchers, the league has commissioned a new baseball. Rawlings has produced a ball that has natural tack on the leather, eliminating the need for any foreign substance. Rawlings is apparently close to delivering the finished product, but some tweaking is still needed to alleviate players’ concerns.

There are still a lot of questions about these new balls that Rawlings has to fully answer. For starters, pitchers aren’t going to be happy if these balls feel differently in their hand. How well do these balls hold up to the beating they’ll take on the field? Can you still get a firm grip on the balls when they’re wet?

Another issue that needs to be resolved is the color of the new balls. The current balls are rubbed up with Lena Blackburne’s Original Baseball Rubbing Mud, harvested in a secret location in New Jersey. Rubbing up the balls makes them more tacky and takes the white sheen off of them. The new balls are apparently white as eggs, which hitters won’t appreciate.

This close to glory

Tyler Kepner of the New York Times had a cool profile of a World Series legend that almost was. When Rajai Davis smoked a 2-2 Aroldis Chapman fastball into the seats to tie the seventh and deciding game of the 2016 World Series, he was, for a short while, on the brink of writing himself into the history books. It didn’t work out that way, but for Davis, the moment hasn’t lost its glow.

Around the league

FanGraphs looks to improve the WBC, which starts Monday. Dominic Ficociello has impressed the Tigers with his bat and versatility. Baseball Prospectus looks at baseball’s marketing issues while watching old games from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. David Wright is hurt again, but Andre Eithier isn’t. Grant Brisbee is already over March baseball.

The Fulminator is back