There’s still a week left to go, but the Detroit Tigers’ spring camp has generally been a success. Of course, that’s a dubious distinction as these games don’t count. What really matters is that they’ve had precious few injuries so far. Knock on wood. That’s what counts as success at this point in the season.
As far as Grapefruit League play goes, the lineup has absolutely pounded the baseball. The rotation looks to be coming together as planned. These are decent signs, but real games don’t start until March 30 in Tampa Bay, and there are still plenty of roster decisions for the Tigers to make.
The rotation appears to be set in stone at this point. Eduardo Rodriguez, Spencer Turnbull, Matthew Boyd, and Michael Lorenzen all look ready to go. Matt Manning’s last start seemingly closed the door on Joey Wentz starting in the rotation, and so for now that unit is pretty well locked in.
As always, the bullpen remains the most amorphous part of the roster. At least two spots remain up for grabs to varying degrees there. The outfield is basically down to one decision at this point. The infield might be the biggest source of intrigue as the final week of spring camp gets underway. There are just seven days and eight total games left for players to make their case.
The infield competition remains interesting
Barring a truly disastrous spring for Spencer Torkelson, he and Javier Báez were the two early locks for the Tigers infield. Nick Maton was acquired for a reason, and so I’ve more or less inked him in from the beginning as well. Jonathan Schoop is under contract, so they seemed unlikely to move on from him with any haste this year. Depending on how you view the outfield, that has always left two spots available for back up infielders.
Initially, the choices seemed to come down to Ryan Kreidler and Andre Lipcius, along with the possibility that Tyler Nevin, signed on a minor league free agent deal, might compete due to his ability to provide a little Torkelson insurance. His injury put him on the back burner, and frankly he’s not all that compelling an addition either. However, two weeks before spring training, the Tigers added veteran infielder Cesar Hernandez with a deal and an invite to camp, and that decision has made things a good deal more interesting this spring.
We’ll throw it back to early November of last year, when in his early sessions with the media, new President of Baseball Operations Scott Harris noted two specific needs for the offense; left-handed bats in the infield, and a right-handed bat in the outfield. Matt Vierling, acquired with Maton in the Gregory Soto deal, filled the latter spot, with some potential assists from catcher Eric Haase. But where to find left-handed hitting infielders to add to the mix since they clearly weren’t going to trade for Rafael Devers or anything else big?
Maton was one answer. The switch-hitting Hernandez now appears to be another. And while I’m a little biased in terms of playing the kids, letting Hernandez and Schoop duke it out early on now looks a good deal more sensible, particularly as Schoop has really looked rough and is coming off a terrible season.
That still leaves a spot, and while journeyman veterans like Andy Ibåñez or Nevin could give them a little more experienced bat on the bench, guys like that just aren’t difficult to replace, and Nevin probably won’t be ready until mid-April anyway as he’s recovering from a oblique strain. Andre Lipcius had a really nice camp but was optioned to minor league camp, as was Jermaine Palacios on Monday.
Another spot could open up if the Schoop situation resolves, but for now the Tigers seem likely to let that play out into April. So, assuming four outfielders and two catchers, there is one spot left if we give Hernandez the nod. That last spot seems to be coming down to Ryan Kreidler and Zack Short.
Both players can handle shortstop, and they each have a little pop to contribute. Kreidler is two years younger, while Short is now 27 and didn’t show much in his first look at the major leagues in 2022. Neither is a burner, but both are capable of stealing 10-15 bases. The difference is really that Short is a little more disciplined and draws plenty of walks. They both tend to hit lefties and struggle with same-handed pitching, but overall they just strike out too much and don’t do enough damage on contact. The discipline makes Short a little more the Harris-style hitter of the pair, so perhaps he does have a bit of an edge.
Harris did keep Short and Kreidler on the 40-man in his first offseason running the team so he believes they have some value. It’s hard to predict who he and Hinch will choose for the 26-man roster. They might think Kreidler has more potential for adjustments, while Short is set in a backup infielder profile. In that case he might prefer to have Kreidler working everyday in Toledo, while Short fills the last man on the bench role for the Tigers. It’s hard not to note that Short has played quite a bit this spring, but it’s possible he’s just getting a courtesy showcase before being released. Bringing him north now seems rather odd considering that he couldn’t crack the Tigers’ roster much last season despite a host of injuries and poor performances.
Baddoo or Carpenter, or both?
Austin Meadows and Riley Greene will be playing everyday in the Tigers outfield. Matt Vierling, who doesn’t have notably strong splits to begin with, gives them a solid right-handed bat out there in the third spot, and another outfielder with speed who can play center field. Still, Vierling isn’t necessarily going to play everyday. Either way that leaves a fourth outfielder spot available, and with Miguel Cabrera likely to play only part-time, the opportunity that someone can get some time in the designated hitter slot as well.
Akil Baddoo hasn’t had a big spring, but he’s putting the ball in play a fair amount and has shown off the mix of power and speed he’s capable of contributing. With two home runs and three stolen bases, the 24-year-old has shown why he might be an attractive option to have on the bench for late innings scenarios. His defense is still just okay, so he doesn’t win many points over his competition there, but when Baddoo is on base he just manages to wreak havoc out there. Used judiciously, he adds some outsized tools to the Tigers’ late game tactical options.
Kerry Carpenter is actually a year older than Baddoo, but he’s only just reached the major league level. The intrigue with Carpenter is the outstanding trajectory of his bat over the past year. He stills chases and strikes out too much, and he rarely walks, but Carpenter has continued on this spring doing a surprising amount of damage at the plate. The man hit 36 home runs from Double-A to the major leagues and cracked six in the show over just 31 games. He still feels like a pure fastball hitter, but so far, even major league pitchers have not been able to avoid getting burned with some regularity.
The Tigers have also mixed Eric Haase into the outfield here and there over the last year, and again this spring, but that still feels like dabbling more than something they would pursue. Journeyman catcher Andrew Knapp has had a nice spring and the Tigers would probably like to stash him at Toledo, but three catcher scenarios on the active roster seem pretty far-fetched. Minor league center fielder Jonathan Davis has been getting a surprising amount of playing time, but that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere either. Parker Meadows has been the Tigers biggest hitting outfielder this spring but needs a little more seasoning at the Triple-A level.
Carpenter doesn’t really fit the Harris/Hinch mantra of controlling the strike zone. On the other hand, he’s done nothing but mash for the past 365 days. The Tigers would probably be more inclined to take him on Opening Day if his defense didn’t require further work. I’m going to guess that they’d like Carpenter to play the outfield every day in Toledo for another month or two, work on his reads and routes, and try to develop a bit more of a selective approach at the plate.
Baddoo isn’t a particularly good defender either, but he’s at least as good as Carpenter and makes good sense as a bench option. The Tigers would no doubt like to see Baddoo get on base a good amount and see what he can do under the rules on the basepaths. Entering the final week he seems to have the upper hand, but this is still up in the air. Either way, the winner here is going to have to perform as the decision could really be argued for both players.
Potentially the Tigers could take both players north if Vierling’s knee is going to need more time. They might be more willing to play Haase in the outfield against lefties in that eventuality. In that case you might bring both Baddoo and Carpenter north as well, and perhaps carrying a third catcher for a little while becomes more likely.
The bullpen still has a few question marks
Once you get past Alex Lange and Jose Cisnero, the Tigers bullpen is still coming together. Rule 5 pick Mason Englert has performed pretty well and is at least close to a lock, with the fact that he can’t be optioned helping to beef up his case. Chasen Shreve and Trey Wingenter appear in the driver’s seat and should make the team. Beyond that it’s hard to tell what the Tigers will do here. Final spring appearances may still change the dynamics.
The Tigers would probably like Jason Foley and Tyler Alexander to make the team, but neither has performed well to date. Will Vest came to camp also looking like a likely member of the pen, but has instead been relegated to trying to work on his mechanics on the backfields and has only spun three innings.
Matt Wisler has the most major league success by far, and it was hoped the Tigers would catch him healthy after a down 2022 season. So far that hasn’t panned out and Wisler’s deal no doubt has an opt out date sometime early in the season. The club doesn’t have forever to get him going, though they may be able to work something out to keep him.
Of the group of minor leaguers assembled to compete for jobs, right-hander Miguel Diaz has been the best performer. Diaz has 12 punchouts in just 6 1⁄3 innings of work with only three hits allowed. However, Diaz, along with Kervin Castro and Edwin Uceta, who’ve each had some really good outings and some bad ones, were all optioned to minor league camp on Monday, adding some clarity to the picture.
(1/2) The Tigers have announced the following roster moves:— Tigers PR (@DetroitTigersPR) March 20, 2023
*Optioned pitchers Alex Faedo and Edwin Uceta to Triple A Toledo.
(2/2) The Tigers have announced the following roster moves:— Tigers PR (@DetroitTigersPR) March 20, 2023
*Reassigned pitchers Kervin Castro, Miguel Díaz and Miguel Del Pozo and position player Brendon Davis and Jermaine Palacios to Minor League camp.
*The Tigers have 41 players remaining in Major League camp.
Right-hander Edwin Uceta has racked up plenty of strikeouts, but he’s also been hit hard a couple of times this spring. His changeup is a good equalizer against lefties and helps his overall profile. Kervin Castro is another one who has been either on or off, putting together a bunch of excellent appearances, but also one disastrous one in which he issued four walks.
One other name still in play is hard-throwing Aneurys Zabala. The big right-hander has been impressive with triple digit heat, but has only made two appearances so far, looking like a longer term project along with Trevor Rosenthal and recent waiver claim Freddy Pacheco. Lefties Tyler Holton and Jace Fry haven’t really impressed much, but remain in camp with an outside shot.
The final batch of relief options come from the starting pitcher pool.
Alex Faedo is working on a lot of things in his delivery, and hasn’t pitched particularly well. It’s not surprising that he was optioned to Toledo on Monday. Beau Brieske has thrown the fastball harder than usual this spring and it’s been effective, but while Brieske’s changeup is good, we still haven’t really seen much improvement in his slider. There’s always the possibility that the Tigers would prefer to keep him stretched out along with Joey Wentz at Toledo as rotation insurance, at least early in the season. That leaves Garrett Hill as perhaps the one with an inside track to a middle relief role, and possibly more. He’s pitched well other than one very bad outing that is much more easily forgiven in March.
My guess at the seven of the final eight relievers right now goes like that, with Wisler possibly coming along as one they don’t want to give up on just yet. Vest and Zabala may also have an outside shot with a strong finish, along with Tyler Alexander. Neither Jace Fry, Tyler Holton, nor Miguel Del Pozo has done anything to earn a spot. Brieske or Wentz would likely be the best options at the moment, but it’s just hard to know how the Tigers view their chances of remaining in starting roles. They could both be Toledo bound to stay stretched out while the Tigers work through some of their other arms.
Projection matters more than results
In the end, this comes down to projection by the coaching staff and the front office. Subjective decisions on who to take north will be made, and they won’t necessarily follow from spring training results.
Either way, the Tigers bullpen is going to be a work in progress for a while. They have a lot of projects to work on, and while the coaching staff inspires some confidence that they can again put together a solid bullpen, it’s going to take time to sort out. The infield and outfield jobs are a little more cut and dried at this point. At least one choice in the Opening Day bullpen might yet surprise us.
Monday’s roster cuts have certainly thinned the herd, and there probably won’t be too many innings available to the relievers as the starters stretch out in advance of Opening Day. There are still decisions to make, but the chances to change the coaching staff’s minds are running very short with just a week to go in Grapefruit League play.