Detroit Tigers: 2011 MLB Spring Training Battles To Watch

Christopher Czar@@detsportsczarContributor IFebruary 10, 2011

NEW YORK - AUGUST 19:  Will Rhymes #28 of the Detroit Tigers throws to first base for an out against the New York Yankees on August 19, 2010 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

As the Detroit Tigers prepare to depart for the 2011 MLB spring training they enter camp with the fewest positional questions since the Reagan administration. 

First base (Miguel Cabrera), shortstop (Jhonny Peralta), third base (Brandon Inge), center field (Austin Jackson), right field (Magglio Ordonez), catcher (Alex Avila) and DH (Victor Martinez) are all etched in stone.  Left field isn't quite so concrete but all indications are that Ryan Raburn will finally get his first full-time opportunity to start a season.

Don Kelly is a very valuable utility guy who can play any outfield position, third and first.  According to Leyland, he'll get work at catcher this spring and will serve as the emergency catcher and he's the guy they're most comfortable putting in center when Jackson can't play.  He's got a spot locked down.  Ramon Santiago has proved to be a good defender at short and second with just enough pop in his bat.  He'll very likely be back unless the Tigers deal him before the start of the season.

The rotation will be Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Phil Coke and Brad Penny unless there's a change of heart with Coke's move from the bullpen.  This doesn't appear likely however. 

Jose Valverde is the closer and Joaquin Benoit will be the setup guy.  Joel Zumaya and Ryan Perry are very likely to be the right-handed specialists unless Zumaya's elbow injury lingers or Perry completely bombs this spring.  If neither were on the Opening Day roster it would be a major surprise. 

Brad Thomas was the surprise of last spring and he'll likely stick around for 2011 as well.  He proved to be valuable in long relief and even as a spot starter.  No one else left from last year's bullpen is a long relief candidate.  He's not completely guaranteed to make the team, however, and former Royals starter John Bale is a guy who might push Brad Thomas for his spot. 

The apparent lack of drama doesn't mean that you should tune out this spring.  There are still a few things left undecided for Leyland and Co.

These are the things to watch for over the next several weeks and my predicted outcome.


Starting Second Base

By far the most vital battle going into spring training.  In all likelihood if Carlos Guillen is healthy, the job is his.  He's coming off the always-tricky microfracture surgery.  Word out of the front office is that Guillen won't be ready.  He'll probably open the season on the DL.  Competing for the spot will be last year's starter out of camp Scott Sizemore, Danny Worth who is coming off of his own injury and second half call-up Will Rhymes. 

Sizemore has been considered a top prospect in the Tigers system so you have to think that he will be given every opportunity to win the job but Will Rhymes is easy to like for with his scrappy play and underdog aura.  Rhymes has a better glove than Sizemore but not as much pop with the bat.  You could have fooled me seeing that last season he outhit Sizemore .301 to .224 with better RBI production.  He also is a contact hitter which appears to fit in better with the team the Tigers are trying to put together.

PREDICTION: Will Rhymes wins the starting job out of camp and becomes a fan favorite.


Fourth Outfielder

Brennan Boesch could have run for mayor last summer and won in a landslide.  He was so good for so long that it appeared that there was no way he could be a fluke...and then the All-Star break happened and a fluke he appeared to be.  Boesch looked lost the entire second half and had his starting outfield spot ripped from under him.

Now Boesch will be in a battle for his pro career with fellow bomber Casper Wells.  Wells was terrific in his second half call-up.  He hit .323 and proved to lack the defensive shortcomings that plagued Boesch.  This is going to be a very interesting battle with the loser getting a coach seat to Toledo.

PREDICTION: Brennan Boesch sticks around and primarily wins the job because he's a left-handed power hitter.


Final Bench Player

This is going to come down to the two guys who don't win the second base position and likely the roster spot is only good until Carlos Guillen comes back. 

PREDICTION: Scott Sizemore hangs on to a roster spot because of the power potential over Danny Worth.


Final Bullpen Pitcher

This is really the only roster spot that is completely open.  Al Alburquerque has a guaranteed contract, Enrique Gonzalez and Fu Te Ni have a history with the team and Robbie Weinhardt is still thought of as a guy who has a future in the organization.

PREDICTION: Who knows what's going to happen here.  Alburquerque has starting experience and is a righty so I'd say he'll have a decent spring and they keep him for long relief and as an emergency starter.


What To Do with These Guys

Ryan Strieby and Cale Iorg are a couple of guys that Tiger fans have heard a lot about for awhile.  Both guys are 25 and the organization needs to determine what to do with them.  Strieby is a very powerful first baseman who won't get a chance to play regularly at that position for at least a decade.  Thank you, Mr. Cabrera.

Iorg was supposed to be the shortstop of the future but his career has been derailed by injuries and lack of production.  The re-signing of Jhonny Peralta basically ends any shot of seeing Iorg soon.  Both guys will be in camp and it will be interesting to follow what happens.

PREDICTION: Both start in Toledo with Strieby eventually being dealt away, possible at the trade deadline as a package deal.


Which of These Starters Gets the First Call-Up?

Andrew Oliver and Jacob Turner are the two obvious choices to get called up if a starter falters or is injured.  Turner is the consensus top prospect in the Tigers system and Oliver isn't far behind.  Another guy to watch for is Charlie Furbush.  He is a left-handed strikeout machine who's quickly rose through the Tigers system and his name keeps coming up from numerous circles.

PREDICTION: I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Furbush is the first starter to get the call.  He has four years experience in the minors and the Tigers got burned calling up Andrew Oliver too early last year.  They won't make the same mistake and rush Turner.


The above are a few of the things to watch for this spring.  The lack of much everyday competition means Tigers fans can for once use spring training as a means to gauge the team's depth and top prospects.  It also means that this team is as close as they've been in a long, long time. 


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