Roster battles in focus as the Tigers send four more to minor league camp

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The fallout from the protracted CBA negotiations continues to have unique consequences as teams look to finalize their active rosters this spring. The compressed spring training schedule has thrown off the timing of the usual spring calendar. Normally, the final roster decisions would be coming through right now, with the season only days away. Instead, there are still 10 days until Opening Day, and the Tigers are just now trimming major league camp down to the likely hopefuls for their final roster spots.

Take for example, Tigers’ reliever Jacob Barnes. The big right-hander was the most notable minor league free agent the organization acquired this offseason. A veteran with a history of erratic performance year-to-year, but with quality stuff and several good seasons to his credit, Barnes entered camp looking like the most likely of the club’s minor league free agents to provide depth for the bullpen at some point this season. His command has been bad thus far and his last two outings were ugly, but that can be said of a lot of pitchers after just two weeks of games. Rony Garcia blew up on Monday as well but has a 40-man spot and will likely get another shot.

With the extra two spots recently added to the active roster, one might think Barnes might be a lock anyway. Instead he was reassigned to minor league camp on Monday.

Beyond Barnes, the Tigers also optioned reliever Bryan Garcia and outfielder Daz Cameron to the minors, and reassigned right-handed pitchers Miguel Diaz and Ricardo Pinto to minor league camp. Garcia’s stuff continues to look a little light when not pared with good command. Diaz was rocked for a pair of homers in his last outing against the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday. They also informed catcher Ryan Lavarnway that he won’t make the major league roster, though he’ll remain in major league camp to provide depth until joining the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens in advance of their season opener on Tuesday, April 5.

The Tigers appear set to use one of the extra roster spots on a position player, and one on a reliever. With Gregory Soto, Michael Fulmer, Jose Cisnero, and Alex Lange apparently locks for the pen, Kyle Funkhouser dealing with a lat issue that has kept him on the shelf, and Tyler Alexander slated to start the year in the rotation, there are presumably five spots remaining in the bullpen for the taking. With Barnes’ reassignment, there are now six pitchers contesting for those five spots.

RHP Joe Jimeñez

RHP Jason Foley

RHP Rony Garcia

RHP Will Vest

RHP Drew Hutchison

RHP Chase Anderson

Of this group, Jimeñez, Foley, and García already hold 40-man roster spots. Expect them to make the Opening Day roster. That leaves Vest, Hutchison, and Anderson for the final two spots. One would think AJ Hinch would simply take the two who are performing best right now, but again, things may not be so straightforward. When Funkhouser is ready to return, and starter Michael Pineda—dealing with work visa issues—gets up to speed and joins the rotation, both Funkhouser and Alexander will presumably move into the bullpen, displacing two pitchers.

So for now, the Tigers will take the two best of Vest, Hutchison, and Anderson. Frankly, with none of the three really distinguishing themselves thus far, it probably doesn’t matter a whole lot. However, after losing Vest in last year’s Rule 5 draft, and then reacquiring him, one would expect that the Tigers have more long-term interest in him over Anderson or Hutchison.

On the positional side, things are more straightforward. Assuming the Tigers take one extra position player, there are really six players left battling for those three spots.

C Dustin Garneau

IF Harold Castro

IF Willi Castro

IF Isaac Paredes

OF Derek Hill

OF Victor Reyes

All of those players are currently on the 40-man roster. At this point, Garneau seems like a lock. AJ Hinch appears to like the idea of carrying three catchers, allowing him to flex lefty masher extraordinaire, Eric Haase, at multiple positions to keep his bat available. Garneau appears to be the preferred backstop, and has swing the bat reasonably well this spring. They’ll have to reconsider the three catcher protocol when rosters contract, but early in the season the ability to keep their catchers rested could pay dividends late in the season. They also don’t have much in the way of catching prospects until Dillon Dingler is ready, and they won’t want to rush that, so Garneau is more than a luxury. That leaves one infielder and one outfielder left to add to the active roster.

Harold Castro seems bound to get the nod as the utility infielder. His leadership and experience have earned the trust of the coaching staff, and we’ll have to see if his knack for the key hit continues to bolster a pretty powerless profile at the plate.

Neither Paredes nor Willi Castro has done enough with the stick to wow anyone this spring, and Castro in particular continues to look like a defensive liability, at least in the infield. He’s taken some outfield reps this spring, and one assumes he’ll be reassigned to Toledo to work on his outfield defense, looking to rebuild himself into a utility option that can provide switch-hitting, some power, and speed on the bases. If he can get on track and get comfortable playing some outfield as well, his bat and his speed could still make him worth rostering on the bench this year.

Paredes looks essentially unchanged after multiple attempts to break into the major leagues over the past few seasons. He plays pretty solid defense and continues to provide disciplined at-bats, but has yet to figure out how to hit for much power. All three players have at least one option remaining, so they can be optioned to Toledo. However, the 40-man roster is going to need some space cleared at some point soon. There are certainly other options on the roster to designate, but if neither Paredes nor Willi Castro can supplant Harold Castro this year, it’s probably time to move on from one of them.

Kody Clemens and Zack Short are both on the 40 man roster already. Short is presumably the first odd man out among the infielders. The Tigers would probably like to at least see Clemens sometime this year. However Clemens isn’t cut out to play shortstop. In the event of a vacancy at shortstop, you’re most likely to see prospect Ryan Kreidler added to the 40 and called up.

In the outfield, the battle for the fourth spot comes down to Derek Hill and Victor Reyes, with Daz Cameron sent to minor league camp. So far, Hill has looked pretty good and flashed some opposite field power, lifting two home runs to right-center over the past week. Add to that the fact that he’s one of the faster players in the game, with good baserunning and quality defense in center field, and his versatility looks pretty appealing.

Hill can do a few things in late game scenarios that Reyes cannot, and that could give him the edge. Hill is also the younger of the two, and with only 162 major league plate appearances, hasn’t gotten much of a look yet, though that’s partly a function of his penchant for spectacular diving catches and the occasional collision. With some added muscle, and an ongoing rebuilding of his swing starting to bear fruit, my money is on Hill here.

Reyes continued to function as a decent fourth outfielder last year, posting solid defensive metrics and decent production. However, he also holds a career OBP of just .296 in 944 plate appearances, doesn’t offer even as much power as Hill could provide, and isn’t quite the base stealing threat that Hill would be off the bench. Each has an option remaining, and the Tigers would probably like to keep them both. But again, you just have to wonder how long they can both remain on the 40 with Riley Greene about to be added, and Daz Cameron still in the mix as well.

This is the way things go with a team on the upswing and producing a good amount of young talent. Suddenly the roster decisions are tougher. The holes stand out more sharply in relief against an otherwise improved team. And this is all set against the backdrop of a seriously shortened spring training with precious little time to evaluate new players, and several players still absent with visa issues and reliever Kyle Funkhouser still on the shelf.

In 2021, new manager AJ Hinch and his coaching staff were quite experimental in sorting through their options early in the season. They tested their players in different situations and made some pretty tough calls, like moving on quickly from free agent signing Wilson Ramos, their starting catcher, or moving Michael Fulmer to the bullpen for good. However, expectations are higher now, and the coaching staff knows what they’ve got in each player now. With the clock ticking on several young players, and the added element of the expanded April roster, we can expect expect a wild ride in the coming weeks.

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