The Detroit Tigers players who are participating in the World Baseball Classic are leaving spring training this weekend to join up with their respective countries for the tournament. While it is never ideal for teams to have their players miss part of spring training, the Tigers organization should look at this as only a positive.
The WBC will actually help the Tigers prepare for the 2013 season by giving other players extended opportunities to play, which wouldn't have happened otherwise.
There are four key Tigers who will participate in the WBC and will continue to prepare for the start of the season during the tournament. These players are Miguel Cabrera, Omar Infante, Anibal Sanchez and Octavio Dotel. Players who are on the bubble can actually take advantage of the absence of these four veterans, as it gives them a chance to showcase their skills.
In Cabrera and Infante's case they will get enough at-bats to properly prepare for the season. They will also get to face more competitive pitching than they may have in a spring training game, where pitchers' main concerns are preparing for the start of the regular season. It's not uncommon for pitchers to try to throw new pitches or experiment with new throwing motions. This type of stuff will be less likely in the WBC.
The Tigers know Dotel is a 39-year-old veteran who knows how to take care of his body and especially his arm. Dotel has limited injury concerns and his absence with the Tigers will give other relievers a chance.
Sanchez's absence may not be fully welcomed by the Tigers, but he is healthy and the Tigers aren't allowed to stop a player from playing unless that player is injured.
Without Cabrera and Infante in camp, the Tiger who will benefit from the extra playing time is Rule 5 pick Jeff Kobernus. Being a Rule 5 pick means that if Kobernus doesn't make the Tigers out of spring training and remain on the team throughout the season, then he needs to be returned to the Washington Nationals.
Kobernus' best asset is his speed. In four minor league seasons, the 24-year-old has 120 stolen bases, including 42 in Double-A last year. While Kobernus' career minor league average for batting is .279 and his on-base percentage is .316, he would make the Tigers for his defensive versatility and his speed on the basepaths.
Kobernus was primarily a second baseman in the minors, but the Tigers are also giving him a look in the outfield, where they need an outfielder who can play all three positions. John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press says of Kobernus:
The best way for him to help the Tigers is to play in the outfield as well at second base, his position throughout his minor league career. By playing every day, he can get significant time in both spots.
Ideally, he’d be the right-handed hitter who can spell Andy Dirks in leftfield as well as being a backup middle infielder and pinch-runner. He has stolen 95 bases over the last two seasons in the minors.
Which player is most likely to benefit from the WBC?
Kobernus will get every opportunity to make the Tigers, and his chances are increased due to Cabrera and Infante's absence during the WBC. Tigers manager Jim Leyland said to Lowe about Kobernus, “I want to give him the best shot I can to see if he can make the team.”
Other hitters will also get a chance to impress the Tigers brass, like prospect Nick Castellanos, who is hitting .667 in spring training. While it's unlikely Castellanos will make the Tigers out of spring training, the extra at-bats he's getting will be useful for the coaching staff to learn more about him.
Having pitchers Dotel and Sanchez away playing in the WBC will also allow the team to more closely monitor the competition for the No. 5 spot in the rotation between Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly.
While Porcello was the subject of trade rumors this offseason, he remains with the Tigers and is working on his breaking balls, which he needs to improve on. Regardless of spring training results, Leyland recognizes this. Leyland told Lowe:
"He’s just building up — throwing,” Leyland said about why Porcello would throw that fastball to Francisco in spring training and not in the regular season. “He is getting ready like everybody else. He is throwing the ball very well.
“His breaking ball is better.”
Smyly has also pitched well this spring training. So with Sanchez not in camp with the Tigers, expect this competition to be a key topic in the weeks ahead.
The Tigers will also benefit from Dotel's absence by watching another Rule 5 pitcher, Kyle Lobstein. Lobstein is a lefty and could be a valuable member of the bullpen if he makes the team, even though it is unlikely. Either way, the Tigers will be able to monitor his progress without Dotel in camp.
The WBC will allow the Tigers to evaluate their players who might not make the team out of spring training but may be needed later in the season.
The Tigers are a veteran team, but injuries happen. The Tigers will have a firsthand account of their prospects or minor leaguers and even better knowledge of the players this season due to the WBC.
At the end of the season, the Tigers may look back fondly on the WBC.
*All statistics are as of March 2
**All statistics are from baseball-reference.com