LAKELAND, Fla. — The running joke in the clubhouse starts with Detroit Tigers bench coach George Lombard.
“They’re ducking George Lombard behind the scenes because they don’t want their shoulder tapped to come in and meet with me,” manager AJ Hinch said Friday. “They’re certainly wondering and curious. It’s really hard because we haven’t communicated their situations to them yet.”
Hinch was talking about the players still fighting for a spot on the Opening Day roster: Renato Nunez, Harold Castro and Akil Baddoo, and possibly Tyler Alexander, Victor Reyes, Joe Jimenez and Bryan Garcia, to name a handful who could be on the fence.
There are 28 players left in camp competing for 26 spots on the Opening Day roster. For non-roster invitees, a spot on the 40-man roster must be cleared for them to join the team. (Spencer Turnbull is not included because he is away from the team for COVID-19 protocols. He is on the non-baseball injured list.)
Here are the positional breakdowns as of Friday night:
Catchers (2): Grayson Greiner, Wilson Ramos.
Infielders (7): Miguel Cabrera, Jeimer Candelario, Harold Castro, Willi Castro, Niko Goodrum, Renato Nunez (non-roster), Jonathan Schoop.
Outfielders (5): Akil Baddoo, Robbie Grossman, JaCoby Jones, Nomar Mazara, Victor Reyes.
Starters (5): Matthew Boyd, Julio Teheran, Tarik Skubal, Jose Urena, Casey Mize.
Relievers (9): Tyler Alexander, Jose Cisnero, Buck Farmer, Michael Fulmer, Bryan Garcia, Derek Holland (non-roster), Jose Jimenez, Daniel Norris, Gregory Soto.
That leaves (at least) three questions the Tigers need to answer:
What about Derek Holland?
The Tigers must make Holland’s addition official by clearing space for him on the 40-man roster, but Hinch told the left-hander Friday that he will pitch in the majors to start the season. This spring, the 12-year MLB veteran has tossed eight scoreless innings, allowing five hits and one walk with 13 strikeouts.
HOLLAND’S MINDSET: How Derek Holland plans to make the most of his latest shot
ALEXANDER’S FIGHT: Tyler Alexander making his pitch for Opening Day roster with strikes
Now that Holland is locked in, the Tigers likely need to remove a player from the bullpen (barring a late injury). Because Holland is a lefty, it makes sense to target Alexander for dismissal. Then again, Alexander — a 2015 second-round draft pick — is an elite strike-thrower, with eight strikeouts and one walk in 11 innings, and he can provide multiple innings. Still, the surplus of strikes gets him in trouble at times — he has allowed four home runs this spring.
If Alexander doesn’t get clipped, where do the Tigers turn? Possibly Jimenez or Garcia. Jimenez has pitched poorly, but one could argue Garcia — who ended last season as the closer — has looked worse, despite the pair’s matching 5.06 ERAs. And despite Garcia’s 1.66 ERA last season, he allowed 10 walks and only got 12 strikeouts. Meanwhile, Jimenez’s wipeout slider is something the Tigers can still dream on.
Renato Nunez or Harold Castro?
Depending on what the Tigers do with the outfield, there is a chance both players make the roster. Yet that scenario seems unlikely. The biggest — and maybe the only — tough decision for position players comes down to Nunez and Castro.
Castro provides Hinch with defensive versatility. He has already played seven positions during 125 career games over parts of three seasons. The 27-year-old owns a lifetime .298 batting average (in a small sample), but he doesn’t boast much power. He hit five home runs in 97 games in 2019.
Nunez doesn’t provide much defensive help, limiting Hinch to using him at first base and in the designated hitter slot. He also limits Hinch’s other choices, as the designated hitter (Cabrera’s spot) will rarely open for players such as Ramos, Candelario, Mazara, Grossman and Schoop. When Cabrera plays first base, Nunez needs to be the DH if he is going to be in the lineup.
Still, Nunez has plenty of power — the type of power the Tigers haven’t possessed in years. The 26-year-old racked up 43 homers and 121 RBIs (and a .247 average) in 203 games over the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
This spring, Nunez has a .200 batting average, one homer, three RBIs, zero walks and 11 strikeouts in 12 games. Castro is hitting .250 with zero homers, four RBIs, four walks and nine strikeouts in 17 contests.
No way Akil Baddoo gets cut, right?
Hinch hasn’t told Baddoo, a Rule 5 draft pick from the Minnesota Twins, if he will make the Opening Day squad, so there’s a chance he gets bumped. But the 22-year-old has produced throughout spring training with a .314 batting average, four homers, nine RBIs, 10 walks and 12 strikeouts.
The bigger question comes down to Reyes, as it will be tricky for Hinch to keep five outfielders. A Rule 5 pick in 2018 who has spent three seasons in the majors, Reyes can play all three outfield positions, but he has minor-league options, meaning the Tigers could send him down without the risk of losing him.
Still, Reyes seems safe.
And Baddoo seems destined to get good news from his manager soon.