Lakeland, Fla. — Back in mid-February, before spring training got rolling, AJ Hinch looked over his roster and frankly didn’t see a lot of tough decisions ahead.
“I could name the team right now,” he said. “Something would have to really surprise us.”
Rule 5 outfielder Akil Baddoo has been a marvel — slashing .391/.548/.870 this spring. Lefty relievers Derek Holland and Ian Krol have been revelations. Veteran non-roster starter Julio Teheran looks rejuvenated and not to be denied. The foundering of veterans Michael Fulmer and Joe Jimenez has been a surprise of a different kind.
Technically, Hinch has 12 days left to sort this all out. The Tigers break camp March 30. But in reality, three off days and the inevitable weather issues through the first three weeks of the regular season buys him more time.
For example, by mid-April the Tigers almost will assuredly be using a six-man starting rotation. So that could save them one roster space on the initial 26-man roster. Or, it could push one or two starters to the bullpen for a couple of weeks.
It could also buy them time to extend their evaluation of Baddoo. Carrying five outfielders, none of whom play infield, is a heavy burden on a manager, especially if he carries eight relievers. His bench would consist of two outfielders, a catcher and one utility player.
It would mean Hinch would have one spot available between Niko Goodrum, Harold Castro, Isaac Paredes, Renato Nunez and Greg Garcia.
If they decided to carry 13 pitchers, that could impact Fulmer, Jimenez, Holland, Tyler Alexander or even Casey Mize. But then he would have an extra option off the bench.
Neither scenario is ideal. Nor is the prospect of playing the Twins 19 times in 2022 and watching Baddoo emerge as their starting center fielder. The Tigers need to carry Baddoo all season or else offer him back to the Twins, from whom they drafted him.
It’s a sticky issue, for sure — almost damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Let’s examine the remaining roster battles.
► In: Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull
► All but in: Tarik Skubal, Julio Teheran, Jose Urena
► On the bubble: Casey Mize, Michael Fulmer
► Comment: It seemed a little portentous on Wednesday when Hinch said Fulmer’s next outing would be Sunday and that he would be the second or third pitcher used that day after Matt Manning, who already has been optioned to Triple-A, started.
“We’re going to give him a different look,” he said.
Fulmer’s transition post-Tommy John surgery has gone slowly. He could be optioned to Toledo, but it sounds like the organization would prefer to keep him with the big-league staff — coaching, training and medical.
So, it’s conceivable Fulmer starts the season in the bullpen — similar to what Daniel Norris did at the start of last season.
He could then be used in tandem with Mize or Teheran in the early weeks. But that would potentially take another reliever off the active roster — Jimenez or Alexander, as an example.
Keep an eye, too, on two other pitchers who could be in the rotation later in the summer — Manning and Erasmo Ramirez. Manning likely will stay and work through minor-league camp in April and then be promoted to either Double-A Erie or Triple-A Toledo to start his season. By June, he could be ready to step into the rotation as the inevitable innings limitations start creeping up on Skubal, Mize or another starter.
Ramirez, who can swing between starting and long relief, seems on a similar path.
► In: Daniel Norris (LHP), Gregory Soto (LHP), Jose Cisnero, Buck Farmer, Bryan Garcia
► All but in: Tyler Alexander
► On the bubble: Derek Holland (LHP), Ian Krol (LHP), Joe Jimenez
► Comment: You see how keeping a starter or two in the bullpen impacts the final bullpen spots. And it’s almost impossible to make a case against Holland being on this roster. His fastball has stayed steady at 94-95 in these shorter, three- to six-out stints. He’s developed a knuckle-curve as a weapon against right-handed hitters. He’s got 11 strikeouts in six scoreless innings this spring.
Something to thing about, too: Hinch doesn’t have any allegiances here. He’s working off a clean slate. So whatever history players like Jimenez, Garcia, Alexander or even Farmer have in this organization is irrelevant when it comes to picking this team.
Right now, Jimenez, with a 93-mph fastball and almost no visible conviction in his slider, doesn’t look like a useable player. A stint at the alternate site wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing for him.
Over the course of the season, you can expect to see Krol, Alex Lange, Ramirez, Kyle Funkhouser and even Robbie Ross be part of the club’s pitching carousel.
► In: Wilson Ramos
► Almost in: Grayson Greiner
► On the bubble: Jake Rogers, Dustin Garneau, Eric Haase
► Comment: Hinch has said this would probably be the final decision he makes. Not because it’s the toughest, but because it doesn’t impact any other decision. There is going to be one backup catcher behind Ramos.
And the leader in the clubhouse right now is Greiner. Even missing a week after getting his nose busted by a 94-mph fastball, he’s been rock solid — both behind the plate and at the plate. He’s revamped his entire approach and mechanics and looks like a different hitter.
Hinch has said, in a perfect world, it would be best for Rogers to continue his development at the big-league level. But that privilege has to be earned. And the reality is, to this point, Greiner and Garneau have performed better.
Haase, too, has made himself an option for later in the season by showing he can handle left field as well as catching.
► In: Miguel Cabrera, Jonathan Schoop, Willi Castro, Jeimer Candelario, Niko Goodrum
► On the bubble: Isaac Paredes, Harold Castro, Greg Garcia, Renato Nunez
► Comment: Again it comes down to, if Baddoo makes the team, and the club carries 13 pitchers, one open spot for the four bubble guys. And in that scenario, it really comes down to Paredes or Nunez.
Paredes’ ability to play second base almost certainly puts Harold Castro and Garcia on the outside of the decision for now. Both likely will play roles with the Tigers at some point in the season, though Garcia could have an opt-out in his minor-league deal.
Both Paredes and Nunez likely will play just about every day from here on out. Let the most productive player win.
► In: Robbie Grossman, JaCoby Jones, Nomar Mazara, Victor Reyes
► On the bubble: Akil Baddoo
► Comment: Reyes has minor-league options, yes. But to use that to facilitate a longer look at Baddoo runs counter to the message that Hinch has preached from Day One. And that is to win today. Win the game today. Take the 26 players who can best help the Tigers win on Opening Day. And Reyes is one of the 26.
So, all the numbers games will be played at other positions — pitching or with the second utility spot.
Derek Hill should be mentioned, too. Although he’s already been optioned to Triple A, he could end up being a useful player in Detroit at some point this summer. Hinch told him as much before he was sent down.