The Detroit Tigers are 8-7 in Grapefruit League play as of this writing and are having a rather good spring overall, statistically speaking. A few injuries and a few WBC excused absences are the only flies in the ointment at this point. We’re getting to the point where Spring Training starts to get interesting, or as interesting as it can get for a team that came in with the starting lineup settled and the pitching staff largely so. So what’s left to decide?
Closer: I think it was decided as far back as last November that the Tigers would not be looking to the outside for a closer. Current rumors to the contrary are bizarre (which doesn’t rule out the possibility that they’re true.) But as I see it, whatever Bruce Rondon does or does not do over the next few weeks, the most that ST may decide is the prospective closer. (If you saw Al Alburquerque’s inning against the Astros March 4, you might have seen that prospective closer already.) The issue will not be settled until April. Or May. Or June. The good news is that the Tigers have bullpen talent to spare and multiple candidates. I think the “closer question” is really an overhyped non-issue at this time. It must top the list of Jim Leyland’s least favorite day in and day out subjects to address. If the bullpen lives up to expectations, a closer or a series of them will emerge. If the bullpen tanks, then it tanks, though “lack of a closer” might persist as a popular (and false) diagnosis.
Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly: Both doing quite well. Guess what? I think they’re both on the team Opening Day. It should take an offer the Tigers absolutely can’t refuse to pry either of them away in trade. Elvis Andrus is the only such offer I can think of. Are the Rangers that desperate? Flip a coin three times, and if it comes up heads each time, the answer is yes.
The bench: Brayan Pena is a given. It would appear that the three spots left must be for Infield Guy, Outfield Guy, and Versatility Guy. Jeff Kobernus (Rule 5 status) is obviously being given every opportunity to be Versatility Guy and seems to be taking advantage of it. Kobernus has the inside track, but depth in utility is not a bad thing, and I’ve gotten some positive impressions from Kevin Russo, Don Kelly, and Matt Tuiasosopo, Toledo-bound as they may be. I would have said that Outfield Guy was Quintin Berry’s job to lose, but his knee problems are complicating things. This might open the door for Brennan Boesch, whom I might otherwise say just doesn’t fit. But I still think Boesch gets traded, and if things gang a-gley for Berry, Avisail Garcia is Outfield Guy, and the steady ABs at Toledo thing is out the window. Infield Guy is between Ramon Santiago and Danny Worth. I feel that Worth is earning that bench spot, and Santiago’s injury has done nothing to help his own cause, but we all know Leyland’s leanings regarding proven (and in some cases unproven) veterans, so there’s a good chance we’re in for at least half a season of a declining Santiago.
The bullpen: Smyly/Porcello, Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke, Alburquerque. Two spots left, no? The front-runners to fill them appear to be Rondon, Brayan Villareal, Darin Downs, and Duane Below. Below is getting hit hard, and I think Rondon ought to start the season in Toledo, so there you have my slim-chance-of-accuracy guesses. I’ve heard the idea floated of turning Luke Putkonen and Below back into starters, and it sounds like a good one when you consider that the Tigers’ organizational starting pitching depth appears to consist of Casey Crosby and… um, well… Casey Crosby.
Nick Castellanos’s stance and swing remind me of Delmon Young. Not a criticism, just an observation. He’s putting up good numbers, and clearly the Tigers want his bat above all else, but my does he look ungainly in LF. I haven’t seen him play 3B – chime in if you have – but I have to wonder whether the Tigers are really doing him or themselves a favor by pushing Castellanos to the outfield. It occurs to me that an apprenticeship at the corner infield positions at some point from 2013-2015 might have been another possibility to consider. It’s not a certainty that Miguel Cabrera or Prince Fielder will be asked to slide over to DH in 2015 or 2016 (would they even be willing?), but it is possible. And there’s your open door for Castellanos the non-outfielder.
I’m looking forward to the return of the WBC-playing Tigers. So obviously I’m glad Venezuela has been eliminated, though it looks like the Dominican Republic might be at it for a while yet. Watched WBC highlights for the first time – pretty neat, pretty intense. How ’bout that Canada-Mexico game? If the MLB All-Star Game was played with such intensity, it might be worth paying attention to. That WS home field advantage thing isn’t really a motivator. Maybe if the losing team’s players had to sit out the rest of the season…. Ha ha. Blood sport!
If anyone’s due for a bounceback season, it’s newly slim and trim Jhonny Peralta. However, the stats so far suggest nothing of the kind. But it’s early. Right?
Homework assignment: Those injuries! They’re happening already. Consider some of the more devastating scenarios that would involve two players being on the DL simultaneously for weeks or months and how you see the Tigers dealing with it. Worst cases? Justin Verlander and Doug Fister? Cabrera and Fielder? How about the most likely cases? Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks? Alex Avila and Victor Martinez? Fister and Max Scherzer? Alburquerque and Villareal? I’m not suggesting you create a spreadsheet to cover all the possibilities like someone weirdly obsessed with Tigers baseball, but doing so might give you a more practical understanding of the Tigers’ organizational depth.