The Detroit Tigers 2013 season is right around the corner.
The defending American League champions have very few roster battles to be decided this spring training. The few that are there, however, will make the difference between a championship season and another year of frustration.
Front and center is the battle for the fifth starter and closer.
The very public audition of Bruce Rondon for closer and the battle between Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly has hidden the lesser battles which are, who plays left field and will the Tigers will keep Rule 5 pick Jeff Kobernus?
With the World Baseball Classic over, manager Jim Leyland finally has all of his bullpen components back together. The time to make decisions is now.
Gazing into the cracked crystal ball, here is how these decisions will play out.
Statistics via Baseball Reference and current through Tuesday March 19.
Andy Dirks with Torii Hunter
It was not question of whether Andy Dirks would be the Opening Day left fielder, but how many at-bats he would get.
The plan was he would get around 400 this season. As he continues to play all out every time he plays, that number should go closer to 500.
Two things to keep in mind with Dirks. First, he still needs to be consistent at the plate facing left-handed pitchers.
Second, he needs to stay healthy.
Dirks will literally run through walls in the field. He is a hard-nosed player that only knows one way to play—all out.
Injuries to Quintin Berry and Avisail Garcia ensure Dirks will get the bulk of the playing time to start the season. If he continues to be productive once the season gets underway, then the temptation to rest him will become smaller.
If he is healthy, he starts 130 games.
Selected off the Washington Nationals minor league roster this offseason, Kobernus has shown the Tigers what he is capable of when he is major-league ready.
However, he still is not there yet.
Because he is a Rule 5 player, if the Tigers decide to keep him, he must remain in Detroit the entire season.
Part of that road became easier when the Tigers released Brennan Boesch. Add the nagging injuries to Berry and Garcia and a case can be made where Kobernus can get some playing time off the bench.
Whether he can maintain that status remains to be seen.
In the minors, he has not yet advanced beyond Double-A. He also has hit .220 the spring.
If the Tigers can send the right player to Washington then Detroit can send him down. If the Nationals want him back though, he is theirs.
They work the trade and he stays in the system but not in Detroit.
Rick Porcello has not only shaken off all the trade rumors that dogged him this offseason, but has taken on the challenge of this audition and flourished.
In five starts, Porcello has struck out 18 in 18 innings. He has an ERA of 2.50 and a record of 3-1.
Drew Smyly has also pitched well this spring.
In his five starts, he is 3-0 with an ERA of 3.86. In 16.1 innings he has struck out 12 and walked three.
If there is a statistic to look at—that separates these two pitchers—it is batting average for balls put in play. BAPIP takes strikeouts away from the pitcher and then shows what hitters hit when they made contact.
Porcello’s is .255 while Smyly has a .292.
While there is nothing wrong with Smyly’s number, Porcello has pitched lights out.
Given all the distractions this winter, Porcello has more than earned the spot and Smyly can either work long relief or be demoted to Toledo and get his work in as a starter down there.
Statistics are not going to do this story justice.
A couple weeks ago, it looked like the Bruce Rondon era with the Tigers was at best, delayed.
After a couple of rocky outings, the Tigers took Rondon out of the reliever rotation and worked on his mechanics.
Also, both Jim Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski made public statements saying that the closer role was still uncertain and a trade might be made.
The side work done with Rondon showed immediate improvement.
While the overall numbers are nothing to write home about, at worst he starts the season as part of the closer–by–committee.
Brayan Villarreal, Al Albuquerque and Octavio Dotel have all had great outings.
The Tigers should be more comfortable with their options in-house if they decide to send Rondon down. If he continues to show improvement the final week of camp, count on him to start the season as the closer.
The job is still his to lose.