Detroit Tigers Spring Training Report: Breaking Down Biggest Roster Battles
It is no secret that baseball's 2012 forecast shows the Tigers as loaded and ready to stomp on the weaker opponents of their American League Central rivals, if not the rest of baseball too. Detroit has a roster full of potential to break records and destroy the egos of baseball's greatest.
Making MLB rosters this time of the year is heated and full of high-stakes competition. Every at-bat really does mean something this time of the year. Some players know their chances may only come a handful of times and they really have no other choice than to press for peak performance.
In every camp across the Arizona's Cactus League and Flordia's Grapefruit League, non-roster invitees and minor league hopefuls are leaving all they have out on the field in an effort to make MLB's coveted 25 man Opening Day roster.
Hundreds will find out in the next few weeks that their dreams have been put on hold, at least for now. MLB teams will begin the widdling process as the start of the regular season winds closer and managers are forced to decide who to take home.
Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland is in better position than many of his peers across baseball; he only has a few roster spots to fill. A few literally means three in this case. It would seem apparent that 22 players can breathe easy, as its highly unlikely they won't be there in the end.
However, it doesn't make Leyland's job any easier, and internal rivalries will heat up as the deadline for final rosters nears. Here's a look at the biggest battles happening for the Tigers in Lakeland right now.
First, though, I have to set the table.
Bleacher Report Featured Columnist J. Cook is a member of B/R's 2012 MLB Spring Training Coverage Team and contributes to B/R's MLB content and Detroit Tigers page.
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There are several MLB teams that will be looking to fill several open roster spots this offseason, and while the Tigers have a typical number of non-roster invitees and minor league prospects playing in Lakeland with the big boys right now, most are aware that openings in Detroit's lineup are slim pickins'.
The plane that is set to take the Tigers home to Motown in a few weeks doesn't have much available seating left. Detroit manager Jim Leyland knows that his last few choices will be difficult, but it has to be comforting for him to also know what he's already got packed in his suitcase.
Here's a quick look at those certain to make the trip to Detroit for the home opener on April 5 against 2011's biggest late-season disappointment, the Boston Red Sox.
Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer, Daniel Schlereth, Jose Valverde, Justin Verlander
Roster Spots Available: Two (One starter, one reliever)
Alex Avila, Gerald Laird
Roster Spots Available: Zero
Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Jhonny Peralta, *Ramon Santiago
Roster Spots Available: Zero
Brennan Boesch, Andy Dirks, Austin Jackson, Delmon Young
Roster Spots Available: One
Brandon Inge, Don Kelly, Ryan Raburn
*While Santiago is a utility player, he doesn't fit the same bill as Inge, Kelly or Raburn. It's unlikely to see him in the outfield, but not completely impossible either. That's why he's listed as an infielder and not a utility player. Got that, right?
Here's the skinny on what Leyland still has to decide. Will he carry an additional pitcher or go with an additional outfielder? He has options either way, and it could involve several in-season flips of personnel with Triple-A Toledo before everything gets ironed out.
The almost certain endorsement that Inge is going to make the roster whether it be as the staring second baseman or not seems almost a foregone conclusion at this point.
That said, the only thing that has held Raburn back from guaranteed day-to-day playing time is a consistent stick in the lineup. He's answered his critics this spring in Lakeland, hitting .500 with 10 hits in five games, including a double, triple and three home runs. His 1.7 slugging percentage is off the charts, and his 2.2 OPS is almost unbelievable.
Reality check here is that we are talking about spring baseball in central Florida, where the suns are much warmer than the cold chills the Tigers will be welcomed home to in Michigan's cold spring weather.
Raburn will take it just the same. Eleven RBI this spring already guarantees he's got a spot too, whether a starter or not.
After spending the last part of 2011 with the big league team and having had an amazing winter ball season in the Dominican Republic, it seems certain that Dirks has locked up a trip to Detroit as well. His .308 average this spring also bodes well in securing his ticket back to Comerica Park.
Its also important to note that the Tigers have the option of taking three more pitchers instead of the proposed two, and with the load listed above, it wouldn't be a scenario unlikely to happen either.
This is what I see.
The Tigers still need to carry another outfielder for late-inning defensive substitutions, as it looks likely that Delmon Young will get the nod in left field. Not the fleetest of foot, Young may be a liability late in games, where the Tigers are up allowing Leyland to put a better defender in his place.
Detroit also hurts desperately for team speed and have little outside what starting centerfielder Austin Jackson provides. The Tigers can make inroads toward improved team speed with a couple of hot options they have to possibly fill the available outfield roster opening.
Eric Patterson, who played with the San Diego Padres last season, and rookie Quintin Berry have both made noise this spring and are drawing attention as the front-runners of what may be the only position roster spot still available on Jim Leyland's final list of 25.
Patterson is hitting in eight at-bats, including three extra base hits (two HRs) and four RBI. Berry has done nearly as well, hitting .500 (.825 SLG) with a double and triple in eight trips to the plate.
Avisail Garcia and Clete Thomas will also wage battle with Patterson and Berry should a spot be available, but currently, neither Garcia or Thomas are performing near the level of Patterson and Berry. Garcia is hitting a respectable .286, but Thomas has had a heavy 18 at-bats and only has a .176 average to show for his opportunities to make the cut.
It seems the speed that Patterson would provide, along with what he's flashing in the Florida sun, will give him one of the final seats on the plane due north come April.
No. 5 Rotation Starter
A couple of weeks ago, all eyes were focused on Jacob Turner to be the pitcher to emerge from the flock of potential suitors in the race to earn Detroit's final starting pitcher roster spot.
Now, heads are turning away from Turner and at others that are stepping up and earning attention previously reserved for the Tigers' top prospect. Don't worry; there are still plenty of eyes looking on Turner, and at some point, he is going to be an important part of the Detroit rotation for years to come.
For now, though, it looks like it might not be this April. Other staffers are making a push beyond just nipping at Turner's heels, and currently, it appears that Andy Oliver might be knocking down the most stares.
So far this spring, Oliver has given up no runs in three innings of work while striking out three. He's walked three as well, but spring pitching is always going to present control issues for young pitchers still looking to perfect their stuff. Also of important note is that Oliver gave up no hits during his three innings of work as well.
Unlike Oliver, Turner has walked four and given up two hits, but luckily worked out of two difficult early jams before exiting after just one-and-one-third innings in his first spring start. Oliver's walks were more difficult to manage than the free passes that Turner gave, nearly costing him a much worse fate.
David Pauley and Duane Below may also challenge for the final starting spot left in the Tigers rotation. Pauley has not been sharp this spring thus far, getting battered around for a 16.87 ERA coupled with control issues, having issued four walks in just two-and-two-thirds innings.
Three weeks out, it seems Oliver's to lose at this point. The Tigers could benefit from a lefty no doubt.
Last Spot in the Pen
At some point in the near future, Al Alburquerque is going to get the go-ahead to start throwing in earnest in preparation to move into a position on the Tigers roster.
After a great late-season performance that drifted suddenly during the playoffs, Alburquerque has already shown Leyland he has the mettle to be counted on out of the Tigers pen. If not now, then later, but Alburquerque will be on the 25-man roster.
Leyland is in a perfect position to break in two young guys while gaining valuable experience that could pay greater dividends at the back half of the season if he carries an additional heater in the pen. Not a bad plan while parlaying Alburquerque's return.
His options are many, including Chris Bootcheck, who joined the Tigers from Tampa Bay in the offseason. Bootcheck has caught attention in four games of work, holding opponents to a .214 average while walking only one batter.
Brian Villarreal, who spent time in Detroit last season, has also shown promise early this spring. In three innings of work, Villarreal has rendered zero runs and only one hit with no walks. His big-league experience might get him a nod from Leyland and an opportunity to keep a spot on the roster with a strong April.
Rookie Luis Marte has shown promise in his two-and-two-thirds innings this spring. Holding hitters to a .111 average and rendering only one hit while striking out three and walking none.
Casey Crosby and Adam Wilk have not performed up to expectations in early spring action and may not have much time to make a push to earn a trip further north than Toledo. Wilk's left arm is likely to be needed at some point this season, but it probably won't be from the start.
Whether Leyland keeps just one more or two is as good of a guess as to who that player or players might be, but I'd guess Bootcheck and Villarreal until Alburquerque is well.
Player to Be Named Later
Leyland loves to monkey and this might be his best opportunity to monkey, right now in the early season. Notorious for tinkering with this everyday lineup, as well as not hesitating to move a player up or send a struggling player down through minor league transactions, Leyland will work every angle until he finds the combination he likes.
Throughout the season, several candidates for this available roster position will probably get an opportunity to toe the rubber in relief for the Tigers big league club. For now, though, only one of them will get the chance. Well, maybe not one; maybe two.
That, or maybe the player will fit more readily into Leyland's lineup defensively because of a struggling bat or an unfortunate injury. The reasons are many, and they are likely to occur, but with the next tier options Leyland has at his immediate disposal, he's better off than most organizations.
The Tigers may not have a lot of depth down on the farm, but they have depth where they need it for now, and that is what matters most.
This will be a defining decision for Leyland (at least for a day) when he pens down the final list of 25 players that will start the season on his bench. Does he go with one or two more for the bullpen? It's doubtful too many would argue that an additional pitcher isn't the best choice, considering the utility options Leyland already has with players sure to be on the roster.
Raburn and Kelly have both patrolled infield and outfield positions for the Tigers, and Leyland seems comfortable at this point to utilize both of them as necessary in either defensive scheme needed.
Inge and even Santiago, if necessary, can play the outfield in a pinch, again illustrating the more strategic move of carrying an additional pitcher.
Two weeks from now, the picture will get much clearer and the packing for future destinations much more certain. Until then, Leyland and his staff will have some close watching and concise calculating to do before pulling making any final calls.
Of course, Jimmy might already know what we don't.
All preseason statistical data for the Detroit Tigers provided by detroittigers.com