Tigers enter second phase of spring training with roster fights intensifying

Detroit News

Chris McCosky | The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — As much stuff AJ Hinch and his coaching staff already have crammed into this camp — a new defensive system, a new aggressive, pressurizing offensive profile, changing the mentality and identity of the team both on the field and in the clubhouse — it’s hard to believe it’s only two weeks old.

“Yeah, I mean we just now, after eight games, got to where all our pitchers  their first outing,” Hinch said. “So it seems like we’ve been here forever, for you and me both, but we really haven’t. We’ve only been here a very short time.”

Starting pitchers Julio Teheran and Jose Urena made their first starts on Sunday. Michael Fulmer made his on Friday. Outfielder Nomar Mazara just arrived on Friday and made his spring debut Sunday. Outfielder Victor Reyes arrived Sunday and will make his debut later next week. And, barring any physical setbacks, first baseman Renato Nunez and second baseman Jonathan Schoop will be cleared to enter the building early this week.

And then, finally, Hinch can begin work with a full roster and start seeing how all the pieces might fit together.

“The intensity should start to pick up a little,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we see less of one guy and more of another. I have to spread it (playing time) out. But we’ll cut camp down eventually and minimize the group a little.

“Guys are going to start playing deeper into games until gradually you get to the middle part of camp and you start to push the gas peddle down.”

To this point, it’s been mostly observation — the getting-to-know-you phase between Hinch and his staff and the players. There’s been no hard-and-fast judgments or decrees made, though copious notes have been taken. The scrutiny will get a little more pointed going forward.

Some of the roster battles are going to go to the final week. The backup catcher job, for example. Hinch will let Jake Rogers, Grayson Greiner, Dustin Garneau and Eric Haase duke it out until the final cuts are required.

There is a pause there now, with Greiner being KO’d for a week after a 94-mph fastball to the face broke his nose Sunday.

The Nunez factor

The decision whether to take 14 or 13 pitchers won’t be decided until the end, either. And that decision will directly impact whether the Tigers carry an extra utility player. Which puts Harold Castro, Greg Garcia and Isaac Paredes on the bubble.

Some clarity on the position-player side could come, though, once Nunez arrives. The Tigers would love to insert his power bat into the middle of their regular lineup. He’s hit 43 home runs over the last two years with the Orioles, 31 in 2019.

But he was DFA’d by Orioles partly because of his defensive limitations. The Tigers need to figure out quickly whether he is an adequate defender at first base or a potential liability.

If Nunez can lock down first base, sharing it with Miguel Cabrera, then the Tigers infield group falls in line. Jeimer Candelario would be the regular third baseman, with Willi Castro at short and Schoop at second. Niko Goodrum would be the primary utility player.

If Nunez falters, the Tigers would have to consider moving Candelario back to first and giving Paredes regular playing time at third base.

The other question that likely won’t be answered until the very end is the fate of Rule 5 outfielder Akil Baddoo. He’s made strong first impression. He’s shown plate discipline that belies his lack of professional experience (he hasn’t played about A-ball). His speed-power potential is intriguing. He is a natural, true center fielder.

His upside, just from this early spring sample, seems undeniable.

But given the inescapable reality that the Tigers will need to carry an extra arm or two, it’s hard to fathom how they could carry five players who only play in the outfield. Robbie Grossman, JaCoby Jones, Mazara and Reyes, we presume, are set pieces.

That might not be the case, especially if Jones or Reyes falter this spring. If anything, what Baddoo’s presence does, or should do, is light a fire under those two players. Both have minor-league options left.

It’s a futile exercise to try to sort out the pitching this early in camp. For once, though, the bullpen seems more set than the rotation. It’s hard to picture a scenario other than injury where Bryan Garcia, Buck Farmer, Gregory Soto, Joe Jimenez, Jose Cisnero and Daniel Norris aren’t the mainstays of the ‘pen.

The other two spots could fall to starting pitchers who are awaiting their turn in what will likely end up as a six-man rotation. Tyler Alexander is one such toggle possibility. Teheran or Urena, one or the other, could also end up temporarily stashed in the bullpen early in the season.

Throughout the season, non-roster players like Derek Holland, Erasmo Ramirez, Andrew Moore, Wily Peralta (who signed a minor-league deal and has yet to be cleared to enter the country) and Robbie Ross, Jr., could all fill that bulk-innings role.

It is unclear which of those players have opt-outs in the event they don’t make the active roster out of camp. Teheran is also in that same boat.

The early rotation odds

As for the rotation, Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull are the only names written in ink right now. The other four spots are there for the taking. If you want an early handicap of that battle, here you go:

2-1 odds: Fulmer. He would have to falter badly to be left out of the rotation.

3-1 odds: Tarik Skubal. With the new splitter and better command of his other secondary pitches, he might be impossible to keep out of the rotation if he stays on his current trajectory.

4-1 odds: Casey Mize. He, too, has made impressive strides since what we saw of him at the end of last year. It hasn’t necessarily led to early spring results (six walks in four innings is an outlier for him), but the shape and movement on his pitches, his willingness and ability to work at the top of the strike zone have been markedly improved.

Unless the early command issues persist, it would seem counterintuitive to send him to the alternate site to pitch in intrasquad games for a month.

5-1 odds: Urena. The Tigers’ signed Ivan Nova last year for half of what they’re paying Urena ($3.25 million), and they recruited him here to be a stabilizer in the rotation.  He’s still throwing mid-90s sinkers with so much movement he struggles to command it. His progression through this camp will be enlightening because the fallback option is to use him out of the bullpen, and that could end up being a hidden bonus for the Tigers.

5-1 odds: Teheran. Unlike Urena, it’s hard to see the Tigers keeping him (and paying him $3 million) to work out of the bullpen. His stuff doesn’t profile as well in that role. It’s also hard to imagine him accepting a bus ticket to the alternate site in Toledo, unless he’s been given assurances of a rotation spot by May.

6-1 odds: Alexander. You get the sense that however things go at the end of this month — whether he gets bit by the numbers crunch because he has minor-league options left — Alexander is going to play a major role this season. He could end making 10 to 15 starts or log close to 100 innings just working bulk relief innings. Either way, he’s a key piece to this puzzle.

The beauty of spring training, though, is that by the next off-day, those odds could all be changed.


Twitter: @cmccosky

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