Will Andy Dirks make the cut or get squeezed out?
Several final and difficult decisions await Detroit manager Jim Leyland and the rest of the Tigers' organization as they begin prepping for their trip home to Comerica Park for the regular season home opener.
With a half-dozen Grapefruit League games to go, Leyland and Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski still need to whittle down the last few roster spots, none of which will be easy and which all will garner plenty of media attention.
In the end it will come down to selecting two or three pitchers, and what is becoming a more intriguing scenario is which utility player is going to get the final nod. Of course, the argument can also be made that there is still more than one utility position up for grabs.
The fifth starter position is still receiving the greatest amount of media hype, particularly after front-runner Jacob Turner was shelved with tendinitis and then shipped to Triple-A Toledo where he will at least begin the 2012 season. Whether he remains there for the summer's entire stretch seems less likely.
Leyland has to pull the trigger on his No. 5 and will most likely do so before next Monday morning. With a bevy of left-handed pitchers to choose from in Duane Below, Drew Smyly and Andy Oliver, his decision will at the very least fill a much-needed strategic position in the righty-laden starting staff.
Will the Tigers opt to go with younger and more promising stars with the likes of Andy Dirks who can both play outfield and serve as a designated hitter option? Or will it be the multi-position infielder Danny Worth who has shown more poise and greater power this spring than in previous camps?
Here's a final prediction on the breakdown of how the Tigers final 25-man roster will shake out.
Leyland's decisions at the back end of the bullpen are less difficult than the final call he'll have to make in choosing his No. 5 in the starting rotation.
Three hurlers are still in the mix and all will have at least one more opportunity to prove their case for that coveted final spot—Oliver, Smyly and Below. The boon for Leyland is he doesn't have to make the choice to enter the regular season without a lefty in his rotation, all three are southpaws.
10 days ago it looked like Andy Oliver was steadily rising toward selection but two straight rocky performances and a lack of command has nose-dived his quick ascent following Turner's soreness. Smyly and Below have both shown greater control in their most recent outings and it now looks like Below will get at least one more start and an opportunity to stake claim on the final rotation spot.
Smyly's spring numbers have been perhaps the most impressive however, in three starts he's held hitters to a .154 average at the plate and an impressive 1.13 ERA. On Wednesday he'll face the defending World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals. A solid outing should lock him in at No. 5.
The Tigers have a couple of options in the pen and could go with Luis Marte or Brayan Villarreal; both have been impressive this spring and either could pack for the trip to Detroit. Collin Balester has also been good enough to earn consideration for a spot. The rest of the bullpen is pretty well set with the offseason pickup of Octavio Dotel as the seventh-inning specialist.
Detroit will go with 12 pitchers on their 25-man roster to begin the season.
Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly
Octavio Dotel, Daniel Schlereth, Joaquin Benoit, Jose Valverde, Phil Coke, Collin Balester, Luis Marte
At least Leyland has a couple of no-brainers and his two rakers are the easiest roster spots to fill.
After an outstanding 2011 season the only thing the Tigers needed to do for Alex Avila was get him some help via not catching over 130-plus games. His offensive tapering at the end of the season was due in large part to fatigue and injury.
Detroit picked up their former starting catcher Gerald Laird in the offseason after he parted ways with the Cardinals and is now back in Detroit. At the very least he's familiar with the club and will be a solid backup for Avila.
Alex Avila and Gerald Laird
Leyland won't find it much more difficult to fill his infield roster either as he plans final cuts to the magic number 25. Ryan Raburn made certain to solidify his role as the starting second baseman this spring, and may wind up as the Tigers' strongest player coming home from Lakeland.
Raburn's 13 hits and .325 average in 40 at-bats has put him in contention for the Grapefruit League's MVP. Not to mention he's knocked in 18 runs and has nine total extra-base hits—including 6 home runs. Whatever fire needed to be lit under Raburn to beat Brandon Inge out for the starting spot was clearly high octane and more than enough.
A paltry .174 with only 8 total hits in 43 at-bats will most likely have the elder statesman of the Tigers' stable prepared to hang up his cleats. Inge has been so many things for Tigers fans over the past decade, a mentor during the lowest of lows and highest of highs, but he no longer has the fuel in his tank to make the trip back to Detroit. His time has come.
Even without Inge in the mix, Raburn's preseason fire needs to translate to everyday performance starting next week. The Tigers have plenty of strong utility options to mix in when necessary, but after several season without a consistent middle infielder on the right side it would buoy the Tigers ability to reach the potential that most in baseball won't stop talking about.
Detroit will carry four infielders and a handful of solid utility players to spot their starters when necessary.
Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Jhonny Peralta, Ryan Raburn
The only hiccup for the Tigers right now is the decision on how many pitchers they will carry. If it's 12, then Andy Dirks should get to suit up in the Old English D on opening day in Detroit.
If Leyland opts to go with 13 to start the season and then adjust as necessary, Dirks could be the odd man out. I don't see that happening, and for that reason Dirks should be in Detroit—he's done everything possible to earn the opportunity to have an impact on the Tigers' 2012 season.
He will get that opportunity. Dirks will start with the big boys in Detroit.
The more intriguing scenario that could play out is the final landing spot for Austin Jackson at the end of the 2012 season. Jackson must perform or risk being packaged as part of a midseason trade for another arm in the rotation should options at No. 5 falter along the way.
Delmon Young should be good to go as well following a few days off due to soreness in his leg, but a better defending Dirks may push Young into the designated hitter role whether he likes it or not. Young can ill afford to argue to strongly as his contract year status will force him to put up or shut up. He too could wind up a late-season offering should the Tigers need to wheel and deal.
By game 162 Detroit's outfield makeup could be dramatically different, or it could be just as it will be for game No. 1. To start they will carry four to handle the duties of greenery coverage.
Brennan Boesch, Delmon Young, Austin Jackson, Andy Dirks
Don Kelly and Ramon Santiago are a given as Detroit's utility players, as they have been for the past two seasons. While not everyday players, Kelly and Santiago provide consistency and an ability to step into different situations with relative ease.
If you need an example, look no further than both of their performances during last season's ALDS and ALCS series. Kelly was superb at third base and provided plenty of power at the plate as well. Santiago filled the vacated second base position after a myriad of factors forced Leyland to let Santiago shine.
In the ALCS, Santiago hit .340, including nine hits in 24 plate appearances. When called upon, he almost always gets the job done. Kelly was nearly as dangerous, hitting .364 with a home run against the New York Yankees in the ALDS.
Throw in Danny Worth who has earned the right to pack his bags over Inge and should be the Tigers final choice to fill their 25-man roster. Worth is hitting .313 in 18 games with six RBI and six extra-base hits. He's bigger and stronger coming into 2012 and it has shown both defensively and offensively. Worth also provides a ton of versatility as he can play anywhere in the infield should Leyland need to call his number.
The Tigers will carry three utility players, not including Dirks who was placed with the outfielder but ultimately may carry a bit of the utility role as well.
Don Kelly, Ramon Santiago, Danny Worth
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. He also covers key sport interest stories for all of Detroit's major sports teams.