The Detroit Tigers were not the biggest spender during the offseason, but there will be a few new faces joining the team in Lakeland this spring. With just over a month to go until the games count for real, there are still a handful of spots on the Opening Day roster up for grabs, some to be filled by these new additions.
Before all of the spring training battles heat up, we took a shot at naming the 25 players we expect to make the roster.
Last season, manager Ron Gardenhire started the year with 13 position players — two catchers, five infielders, five outfielders, and a designated hitter — five starting pitchers, and seven relievers. While this is a reasonable baseline and a fairly standard roster composition, the split might be slightly different this season, given the lack of a permanent DH.
Accordingly, we are projecting 12 position players and 13 pitchers for the 2019 Opening Day roster. Expect a few of the names to change as spring training progresses, but the bulk of the selections should come as no surprise.
Grayson Greiner should get every opportunity as the starter this season, for better or for worse. He was unspectacular last season, but the Tigers will need to see what he can do in more than 30 games of playing time. No catcher will play every single game, but Greiner will get the bulk of the starts.
John Hicks has been more that serviceable as a roster player, posting a combined 98 wRC+ over the past two years. It is possible that Gardenhire uses him mostly at DH, making room for another catcher, but unless the team makes another addition, that is likely not how the season starts out.
The starting four infield positions seem pretty set. Miguel Cabrera appears healthy enough to occupy first base right now. He is likely to get an increased look at DH this season, even though he has tended to prefer playing both ways.
Niko Goodrum played all over the field in 2018, but with no clear second base option, it would make sense to give him an extended look there. The utility man was second among Tigers regulars last year with a 103 wRC+ in 492 games played.
New signing Jordy Mercer has been fairly consistent, posting wRC+ values of 88, 89, and 85 over the past three seasons in Pittsburgh. He grades out as a below-average shortstop, but there are not many alternatives in Detroit.
Jeimer Candelario is one of the most exciting players on the team and will look to build off of a solid first full season which ended with 2.5 fWAR in 144 games played. He has a hold on the third base spot.
If Goodrum camps out at second base, that leaves his old utility role open. The logical choice at the moment would be Ronny Rodriguez who, like Goodrum, played at five different positions last year. His offense was terrible — he hit just .220/.256/.335 — but you would be hard-pressed to find a utility infielder who hits like an everyday player.
Nicholas Castellanos was the best player on the team last season. Until he gets traded, he will be hanging out in right field. He was worth a career-best 3.0 fWAR last season.
The rest of the outfielders are less certain, although there seem to be three clear options. Christin Stewart only recorded 60 at-bats last season, but his 120 wRC+ pave a solid path into 2019. The Tigers will try to hide his defense in left field.
The center field spot should be given to JaCoby Jones, who went from bad to okay offensively last year. His defense, however, was superb, as his +21 Defensive Runs saved (DRS) led all outfielders in 2018. In a ballpark like the spacious Comerica Park, Jones is a huge asset.
Mikie Mahtook was the previous owner of the job in center, but his defense is much worse when compared to Jones. Still, Mahtook could earn some at-bats if he can hit like he did in 2017, when he recorded a 108 wRC+. He can also play all three positions, so he should get some playing time.
*Final spot (1)
There are plenty of candidates for the final position player spot, and this is one of the bigger battles in spring training. It stands to reason that the choice will be someone who can at least play in the outfield a little, given the four locks compared to last season’s five.
Brandon Dixon was extremely versatile in Cincinnati, though his offense was lacking. If he can have a good spring training, he would make sense as the final man off the bench. Former Rule 5 pick Victor Reyes will also be in the mix, while Kaleb Cowart and Dustin Peterson are also on the 40-man roster.
Starting rotation (5)
The starters are pretty straightforward. Michael Fulmer will look to bounce back and lead the staff in 2019. He will be joined by Jordan Zimmermann and new signings Tyson Ross and Matt Moore, all who have limited ceilings but are capable of providing a good number of innings. Given his 170 innings in 2018, it would be a shock if Matthew Boyd did not begin the season as a starter as well.
These are the clearest five pitchers, but the last spot could be filled by a few other options. Boyd has been consistent but not great, and his ceiling is likely only as a back-end starter. Likewise, if either Ross or Moore falters in spring training, perhaps one of the new signings could be moved to a relief gig.
Surprisingly, it seems like most of the relievers are set for Opening Day. Shane Greene and Joe Jimenez will tackle late-game duties, and a trade of Greene at any point could bump Jimenez to closer during the season.
Blaine Hardy, Buck Farmer, Drew VerHagen, and Daniel Stumpf have all been part of the Tigers bullpen before, and while there is bound to be some turnover during the season, these four should be safe to start the year.
Reed Garrett was a Rule 5 pick, so he probably will earn a major league spot on that alone. It makes sense for the Tigers to see what they have in him given the constraints on Rule 5 selections, and they clearly liked him enough to make the selection last winter.
^Final spot (1)
Maybe the most interesting name is Daniel Norris, who still could be considered for a starting spot, but has dealt with a variety of health issues. Permanently pushing Norris to the bullpen seems premature, but it may be the only place for him in Detroit to begin the season. Theoretically, he could also start in Triple-A Toledo and wait to be bumped into the rotation, leaving room in the majors for a true reliever.