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Injuries re-shape the Tigers Opening Day roster

We have fun debating these things each spring, but so often fate intervenes. At least Spencer Torkelson is now locked in to debut on Opening Day.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

We spend a lot of time in the offseason talking about composing the best possible roster. When spring camp arrives, debates over which players will win which roles is a prominent topic. And then, as they seem to every year, most of the roster decisions end up getting made by circumstance, as injuries shape the lineup into its final form.

The Detroit Tigers have had a rough go of it over the past week. Reliever Kyle Funkhouser didn’t return to action from his lat injury, erasing any lingering hope that he might be able to get ready in time for Opening Day. Then free agent reliever Andrew Chafin went on the shelf with a groin injury, continuing to fill the role of Daniel Norris. Next, outfielder Derek Hill pulled up short in Wednesday’s game and was eventually diagnosed with a mild hamstring strain. And finally, the absolute dagger dropped as their top prospect, outfielder Riley Greene fractured his foot in Friday’s contest with the New York Yankees, and will presumably out for a month at a minimum.

Funkhouser’s status remains unclear, but at least from first reports, Hill and Chafin seem unlikely to require substantial time off. Hill is rehabbing and it’s not a certainty yet that he’ll miss the Opening Day active roster. Obviously the Tigers would be wise not to let him rush things. However, Greene’s injury really throws a bit of a damper on the building excitement over the Tigers top two prospects.

At least Spencer Torkelson is now the Tigers Opening Day first baseman. That decision isn’t a surprise but it does feel good to see it announced.


With Funkhouser and Chafin both out, the Tigers recalled minor league signing Jacob Barnes from minor league camp. They appear set to carry 10 relievers on Opening Day, but of course quantity does not equal quality. Tigers manager A.J. Hinch told reporters that Chafin’s injury was thought to be mild and he might return by the end of April, but of course there are no guarantees with soft tissue injuries like a groin strain. Chafin was doing his throwing on the field on Saturday morning, according to MLive’s Evan Woodbery.

With Tyler Alexander set to open the year in the starting rotation for at least one turn through, the options grow a bit thin. Michael Fulmer, Gregory Soto, Jose Cisnero, and Alex Lange look to be their primary high leverage options. Beyond that it’s looking like Joe Jimeñez, Barnes, Rony Garcia, Will Vest, Jason Foley, and possibly Chase Anderson will all start the year in the bullpen. Drew Hutchison is another possibility, but probably an unlikely one, while minor league signing Wily Peralta is still trying to get his work visa sorted and will be a while before getting up to speed. Free agent addition Michael Pineda is due to make his first appearance for the Tigers in Saturday’s contest against the Baltimore Orioles. Once he’s built up, Alexander can be moved back to the bullpen to fortify that unit at least until Chafin and Funkhouser are ready to go.


With Hill injured, Victor Reyes was already informed that he’d be on the Opening Day roster. However, Riley Greene was locked in as the club’s center fielder, and the Tigers now have a decision to make. The obvious move would be to call up Daz Cameron from minor league camp, but the Tigers appear set to use the opportunity to play both Eric Haase and Willi Castro as backup outfielders.

Haase is best used against left-handers almost exclusively, while Castro is still just learning his way around the corner outfield positions. He does have the speed to be good out there, but his defense in the infield gives one pause at how quickly he can acclimate to a new position. Either way, the Castro vs. Castro roster battle we wrote about on Friday is now a moot point. Harold Castro will be the primary backup infielder, while Willi Castro, who has swung the bat fairly well this spring, will likely be the final position player on the roster, giving Hinch a flexible pinch-hitting option with the speed to pinch run and steal a bag or two as well. So it goes in spring training. Roster decisions that decide themselves, as is so often the case.


Obviously things could be a lot worse. The New York Mets have already lost Jacob deGrom for at least a few months with a scary scapula issue. Max Scherzer is also now day-to-day with a hamstring issue of his own. So far, and we’re knocking on wood and chucking salt over our left shoulder, the Tigers haven’t had any catastrophic injuries that seem bound to alter the roster for the long-term. Considering the fears raised by the shorter spring camp, so far the Tigers are still relatively unscathed.

With Greene’s injury not expected to keep him out long-term, the initial prognosis is 6-to-8 weeks, meaning he won’t be ready until June. Still, the Tigers probably aren’t going to be looking for any additional help. Some have pointed out that free agent Michael Conforto is still available, but the Tigers show no signs of making a move like that. We also note that former Tigers outfielder Justin Upton was released by the Los Angeles Angels today. Unlikely there’s much point to that but the Tigers could take a look. But for now, the plan is that Victor Reyes will get another long look, and Haase and Willi Castro will be the backups.

Where the club really could use some help, is in the bullpen. Even if Funkhouser and Chafin are ready to go by month’s end, the team could still use another quality relief option. With Tyler Alexander looking like the teams’ fourth or fifth best starter right now, developing the option to use him in the rotation and allow Matt Manning some time to dial in his command at Triple-A would be advisable. That would require a trade at this point, and the Tigers would be wise to leave no stone unturned here. Just a solid reliever with an option would fit the bill, and would be unlikely to cost the Tigers much in trade should they choose to explore the possibility.

Still, for right now, the Tigers seem content to stand pat and see how things play out. Perhaps things will go better than expected on the injury timetable for Funkhouser or Chafin, but baseball rarely seems to work like that. Another injury to one of the primary relief options and a bullpen that looked like a deep, solid unit a few weeks ago will suddenly become a tattered patchwork, requiring a lot of smart management from pitching coach Chris Fetter and Hinch himself. There are opportunities for someone to seize a role, and the Tigers will really need a few of those depth arms to step up if they expect to get off to a good start while still keeping their starters’ workload limited in the early going.

As for Riley Greene, sometimes you just can’t have all the nice things, apparently. Spencer Torkelson will be on the Opening Day roster, but we’re going to have to wait a while for their top prospect to get healthy and tuned up to make his major league debut.