Detroit Tigers: Top 5 Takeaways from Spring Training
The Detroit Tigers have now completed more than half of their 2015 spring training schedule. It has been a largely unsuccessful March for Detroit if you only consider its record (7-14). However, wins and losses mean precious little during this stage of the year.
What matters most is players getting in their reps and optimizing their preparation for a minimum six-month-long season.
With the exception of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, most of Detroit’s regular players have spent ample time on the diamond. The aforementioned sluggers began their seasons on March 22 after injuries kept them sidelined for most of spring training. Their return is a crucial development for the club.
Spring has also provided an opportunity for youngsters to make an impression and audition for a roster spot. James McCann, Anthony Gose and Hernan Perez have seemingly booked their tickets to Motown based on their performances to date.
Others, such as Daniel Fields and Jose Valdez, have laid down markers through their strong performances. In contrast, some prospects (e.g., Steven Moya) have failed to impress in the early going.
The ensuing top five spring takeaways are ranked according to their importance to the team as it looks ahead to Opening Day on April 6.
5. Steven Moya Will Open the Season at Toledo
It’s been a disappointing spring for the 23-year-old outfielder. With a meager batting average of .125 (4-for-32), Moya has failed to get his stick going early on this year.
Many Tigers fans were hoping that the youngster would step up and be an everyday player for the team in 2015.
But in all probability, Moya would have been sent to Triple-A even with a scintillating spring. Detroit’s fourth-ranked prospect, according to MLB.com, is one the team’s most exciting youngsters—35 homers and 105 RBI last year in the Eastern League demonstrate his enormous talent.
However, the 6’7” lefty slugger has still not yet fully matured as a hitter. Moya also lead the league in strikeouts (161) in 2014 and has already fanned 12 times this March—38 percent of his at-bats. Clearly, he is still learning patience as well as the intricacies of the strike zone.
A stint at Triple-A will do him no harm. Detroit has good outfield stocks this year, giving Moya plenty of time to develop. With another productive season in the minors under his belt, he may just emerge at the right time in 2016 with Rajai Davis and Yoenis Cespedes coming off contract at season’s end.
4. The Second Lefty Reliever Spot Is Still Up for Grabs
The Tigers look like a pretty stable unit into heading into the 2015 regular season. There are only a couple of roster spots still available, including a second southpaw in the pen.
It appears to be a three-horse race. Ian Krol and Blaine Hardy were the favorites heading into the spring, and now Kyle Ryan has joined them as a contender.
The opportunity was there for the former two to impress manager Brad Ausmus this month and nail down the job. But neither Krol (6 IP, 4.50 ERA, 1.83 WHIP) nor Hardy (7.2 IP, 4.70 EA, 1.57 WHIP) have been convincing. On the other hand, Ryan has been impressive (8.2 IP, 3.12 ERA, 0.81 WHIP).
Ryan was mostly a starter last year, pitching at two levels of the minors and with Detroit. He projects to be a starter or long reliever in his career, and those roles are already filled this season in the Motor City.
Hence Krol and Hardy are still the front-runners and have another 12 games to make their case. That will just be the beginning; the Tigers’ bullpen remains a major weakness, and they need a strong lefty to step up this year.
3. James McCann May Soon Be the Everyday Catcher
Detroit’s second-round pick in 2011 is quickly emerging as Alex Avila’s successor.
Known as more of a defensive catcher, McCann has also shown that he’s a handy contributor on offense. Last year at Triple-A Toledo, he flirted with a .300 batting average for much of the season. He ended with a .295/.343/.427 slash line in 417 at-bats.
He seems to have picked up from where he left off this spring—12-for-28 (.429) in 13 games.
In contrast, Avila continues to be a source of frustration for many Detroit fans. After securing full-time catcher duties with a breakout campaign in 2011, the 28-year-old has seen his OPS shrink each season since. He also struck out a whopping 151 times in 2014.
Avila remains sound defensively, and his lefty bat in a righty-dominated lineup gives him an advantage. However, Detroit needs a little more punch from the bottom third of its batting order, which McCann could provide.
Ignoring the talents of McCann will get harder if he continues his rapid rise. The time for a new era behind the plate could be nigh.
2. Bruce Rondon Is Back as a Force in 2015
Rondon was tabbed as the Tigers’ closer of the future when he emerged in 2013, and he still may be. Hitting the gun regularly at over 100 mph, the 6’3”, 275-pound reliever struck out over a batter per inning and had a respectable 3.45 ERA in his rookie campaign.
Tommy John surgery put a halt to his 2014 season, but 12 months out of the game doesn’t seem to have affected his velocity. Rondon hit triple digits on two of his first three pitches in his return outing on March 12.
Detroit’s pitching coach, Jeff Jones, was impressed: "I thought he threw the ball great. His velocity was good, he threw a couple of good change-ups. His slider was just OK. … I was very happy with him," he said to Chris McCosky of The Detroit News.
Detroit needs to find a dominant arm or two in late-inning relief. It has struggled in this department the past four postseasons, having only once recorded an ERA under 4.00 (3.90 in 2012). It is perhaps the main reason why the Tigers have not yet managed to bring home a World Series title.
A healthy Rondon will be a huge boon for this underperforming unit. It still won’t be in Kansas City’s class, but an improved bullpen will make Detroit an even tougher proposition.
1. Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez Should Be Ready for Opening Day
Take the two best hitters out of any lineup, and things generally look pretty grim. Detroit still potentially faces this scenario with Cabrera and Martinez only just returning to the field after offseason surgeries.
Just how much does this pair mean to the Tigers?
Last year, they combined for 379 hits, 57 home runs and 212 RBI as well as their intangible leadership. Simply, they cannot be replaced, and getting them on the field is the most important thing for this ballclub.
After missing the first 21 games of spring training, the Venezuelan duo made their season debuts on March 22. They should now be able get in plenty of reps throughout the remainder of the preseason.
Cabrera seemed bullish about their prospects of lining up on April 6. Speaking to Jason Beck of MLB.com, he said: "I'm positive we're going to be there."
Both he and Martinez may be a little undercooked, but their presence alone will be a huge lift for the Tigers.
All stats in this article are courtesy of MLB.com.
Follow me on Twitter: @jdunc1979