Detroit Tigers spring training preview: 10 things to watch as camp begins

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Welcome back, baseball.

Now that MLB’s lockout is over, the Detroit Tigers can begin spring training in Lakeland, Florida. Camp officially opens Sunday, but many players have already trickled into the facility since Friday.

The Tigers’ 18-game Grapefruit League schedule starts March 18 in Lakeland and concludes April 5 in Tampa. Opening Day is set for April 8 against the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park.

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Here’s what to know about the Tigers as the 2022 season begins.

1. Spencer Torkelson’s chances

Thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, top prospects who finish in first or second place in Rookie of the Year voting — as determined by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America — automatically receive a full year of MLB service regardless of when they joined the big-league roster. On the flip side, teams earn additional draft picks if a top prospect finishes in the top three in Rookie of the Year or top five in Cy Young or MVP voting.

Those details boost Spencer Torkelson‘s chances of making the Opening Day roster.

JEFF SEIDEL: Why Spencer Torkelson looks different — Tigers prospect may be starting 1B in 2022

But Torkelson isn’t a lock. The former No. 1 overall pick needs to produce in the batter’s box in spring training to win the first baseman job. In last year’s camp, Torkelson went 1-for-27 with four walks and 16 strikeouts.

The 22-year-old hit .267 with 30 home runs, 77 walks and 114 strikeouts in 121 games in the minor leagues last season. He posted a .238 batting average with 11 homers in 40 games for Triple-A Toledo. If he avoids a repeat of last spring, Torkelson should be in the Opening Day lineup.

2. Riley Greene’s chances

The new CBA helps outfielder Riley Greene, too.

Torkelson is the No. 4 prospect in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline, while Greene comes in at No. 7.

CANDY’S OFFSEASON: Tigers’ Jeimer Candelario expects Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene to ‘contribute’ in MLB

READY ROOKIE?: Why Tigers’ Robbie Grossman can’t wait for Riley Greene’s debut

Greene, though, has less to prove in spring training, considering he hit .308 with eight homers in 40 games for Triple-A Toledo. In total, Greene had a .301 batting average with 24 homers, 63 walks and 153 strikeouts in 124 games for two affiliates.

The 21-year-old needs to earn his way onto the roster, but he appears in excellent shape to take over as the starting center fielder at Comerica Park.

3. New faces

The Tigers are set to welcome three key newcomers to TigerTown: shortstop Javier Baez (2018 National League MVP runner-up), left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez (sixth place in 2019 American League Cy Young voting) and catcher Tucker Barnhart (two-time Gold Glove winner).

Baez signed a six-year, $140 million contract; Rodriguez inked a five-year, $77 million deal; and Barnhart was acquired in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds. With the lockout over, the Tigers are expected to add at least another starting pitcher.

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4. Year 2

Tigers manager AJ Hinch, arguably the smartest skipper in baseball, set the foundation for his winning culture during his first season in 2021, guiding the organization to a better-than-expected 77-85 record for a third-place finish in the American League Central.

Now, the pressure is on.

The Tigers have enough talent to make the 12-team postseason.

[ AJ Hinch didn’t know if he’d get another chance. The Tigers are sure glad he’s theirs ]

5. Another Miggy chase

Designated hitter Miguel Cabrera accomplished historic milestones last season. He reached 500 career home runs in August and enters this year with 502.

Cabrera, who turns 39 on April 18, also boasts 2,987 career hits, putting him 13 away from No. 3,000. To get there as soon as possible, Cabrera needs to stay healthy during spring training. The two-time MVP, 11-time All-Star and 2012 Triple Crown winner is entering his 20th MLB season.

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Just six players have reached both 500 home runs and 3,000 hits: Albert Pujols, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro and Alex Rodriguez.

6. Matt Manning’s development

Right-hander Matt Manning is entering his second MLB season. The 24-year-old shouldn’t have too much trouble making the Opening Day roster.

He started 18 games for the Tigers last season, after a June call-up from Triple-A Toledo, and logged a 5.80 ERA with 33 walks and 57 strikeouts in 85⅓ innings. He finished his rookie year with five scoreless innings against the Chicago White Sox and a career-high seven strikeouts.

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Manning said in late February he cleaned up his mechanics to improve his fastball velocity and overall consistency with his delivery. He also bolstered his secondary pitches, especially his revered curveball.

If those developments prove to be true, Manning is a no-doubter to join Rodriguez, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal in the starting rotation.

7. Tyler Alexander’s role

The Tigers relied on left-hander Tyler Alexander as a starter in 2021 more than ever before in his three-year MLB career. He finished with a 3.81 ERA, 28 walks and 87 strikeouts in 106⅓ innings over 41 games (15 starts).

As a starter, Alexander had a 3.38 ERA, 18 walks and 52 strikeouts in 66⅔ innings.

Out of the bullpen? A 4.54 ERA in 26 games.

[ Tigers’ Tyler Alexander on his future: ‘I’ve proven that I can be a starter’ ]

The numbers suggest Alexander is better when he starts, and he deserves a chance to compete for a spot in the rotation this spring, but the Tigers think they can maximize his value as a multi-inning reliever and spot starter. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising if Alexander ends up stringing together a handful of starts this season.

8. Three catchers?

The new CBA surely helps Torkelson and Greene, and if the Tigers were entering the 2023 season, 34-year-old catcher Dustin Garneau would be the biggest beneficiary of the fine print.

Under the new CBA, contracts for arbitration-eligible players will now be fully guaranteed. The Tigers tendered a contract to Garneau, who is out of minor-league options, in November, meaning he will show up to spring training and enter the salary arbitration process.

One big issue: The new arbitration rule doesn’t kick in until after the 2022 season.

CATCHER SITUATION: How Tigers could mesh Tucker Barnhart, Eric Haase and Dustin Garneau

For 2022, like in years past, arbitration contracts are not guaranteed. Teams can release a player on or before the 16th day of spring training and be responsible for only 30 days of pay. Players cut between the 17th and final day of spring training get compensated for 45 days of pay.

The Tigers have three healthy catchers with MLB contracts: Garneau, Barnhart and Eric Haase. Garneau could receive as much as $1.6 million in salary arbitration, according to MLB Trade Rumors, but his non-guaranteed salary should be around $800,000 to $1 million.

Barnhart is the starting catcher, while Haase could see more playing time as a left fielder and first baseman.

The Tigers, because of Haase’s versatility and Garneau’s leadership, are thinking about carrying three catchers, but if there isn’t a spot for Garneau, the organization can cut him before Opening Day without paying him his full 2022 salary.

9. Position battles

The outfield and bench are the notable position battles.

The Tigers have six outfielders in the mix: Greene, Akil Baddoo, Daz Cameron, Robbie Grossman, Derek Hill and Victor Reyes. Grossman’s roster spot is locked in, and Baddoo has a sizable advantage, leaving Greene, Cameron, Hill and Reyes to compete for what could be two openings.

Tigers’ 2022 Opening Day roster prediction 2.0: Key needs filled, one hole remains ]

Infielders and utility players, plus two catchers, are seeking bench roles. Those names: Haase, Garneau, Harold Castro, Willi Castro, Isaac Paredes, Kody Clemens and Zack Short.

Harold Castro appears lined up as the primary utility player. Considering Haase — a catcher, first baseman and left fielder — crushed 22 homers in 98 games as a rookie last season, he is likely to make the team, but he must establish himself as a big-leaguer to stick around.

The composition of the bench will be influenced by Torkelson and Greene.

10. Opening Day predictions

Lineup: Riley Greene (CF), Robbie Grossman (RF), Jeimer Candelario (3B), Javier Baez (SS), Miguel Cabrera (DH), Spencer Torkelson (1B), Jonathan Schoop (2B), Tucker Barnhart (C), Akil Baddoo (LF).

Bench: Harold Castro (UTIL), Eric Haase (C, LF, 1B), Victor Reyes (OF), Dustin Garneau (C).

Starting rotation: Eduardo Rodriguez (LHP), Casey Mize (RHP), Tarik Skubal (LHP), Matt Manning (RHP), free agent.

Bullpen: Gregory Soto (LHP), Jose Cisnero (RHP), Michael Fulmer (RHP), Kyle Funkhouser (RHP), Alex Lange (RHP), Joe Jimenez (RHP), Tyler Alexander (LHP), Jason Foley (RHP).

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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