Lakeland, Fla. — It’s not crunch time just yet. But, it’s getting there.
There are 11 days and 12 spring games left before the final roster decisions will be made, and fierce position battles are still being waged all around the diamond.
“When we get to that final week, that’s when it hits,” manager AJ Hinch said on Tuesday. “That room (clubhouse) gets a little depleted. The extra lockers are gone. There are more open lockers. The toughest decisions are ahead.”
With that in mind, we offer a position-by-position look at where the camp battles stand:
Starting pitchers (5)
On the roster: Eduardo Rodriguez, Spencer Turnbull, Matthew Boyd and Michael Lorenzen
Probably on the roster: Matt Manning
Still in the hunt: Joey Wentz
Analysis: By all accounts, Manning is on track physically. The arm has been responding well and he’s working his tail off trying to build back his strength, both in his legs and arms. Remember, he spent the first part of the offseason visiting specialists and making sure his arm was structurally sound. He’s been on a purposely slow ramp.
That being said, he has two starts and probably a live bullpen or simulated game before the season commences. It would be comforting for the coaching staff to see his velocity and his secondary pitches tick back up before that.
He’s been sitting at 91-92 mph in his first couple of starts, though he did throw one pitch each at 94 and 95 in his last start.
If he can’t get there, it could trigger a discussion about letting him start the season in Triple-A. Wentz, who finished strong last September and had a dominant showing in the Arizona Fall League, has been consistently impressive this spring.
Relief pitchers (8)
On the roster: Alex Lange, Jose Cisnero, Jason Foley and Tyler Alexander (LHP)
Probably on the roster: Will Vest and Mason Englert (Rule 5)
Still in the hunt: Miguel Diaz, Garrett Hill, Beau Brieske, Edwin Uceta, Trey Wingenter (non-roster), Alex Faedo, Tyler Holton (LHP), Chasen Shreve (LHP, non-roster) and Jace Fry (LHP, non-roster)
On the outside: Trevor Rosenthal, Kervin Castro, Matt Wisler and Miguel Del Pozo (LHP) — all non-roster
Analysis: This is virtually impossible to predict. Truth is, the configuration of the bullpen could be fluid most of the season. There could be a revolving door with those final four spots. Honestly, Hinch could pick the final couple of bullpen arms based on how they’d match up against the Rays, Astros and Red Sox — the Tigers’ first three opponents in the regular season.
Also, Rosenthal and possibly Wingenter — two pitchers who haven’t faced big-league competition in a couple of years — could start the season in Triple-A but be full-go and ready by mid-April. Those are two power arms the Tigers could have waiting in the wings.
As for Englert, he’s done nothing to discourage the Tigers from keeping him. Despite not pitching much above High-A (three starts in Double-A), he’s shown maturity, poise, a better-than-expected command of the strike zone and a nasty assortment of secondary pitches off a mid-90s fastball.
But, there is no telling if that will translate in the regular season.
Hinch has already said he wanted to keep one or two bridge (bulk) relievers, along with Alexander, early in the season to supplement the five starters, each one coming off a shortened season. If Brieske and Hill are the two he keeps, that leaves a serious dogfight for the last spot.
And if Hinch decides he needs to start the season with two lefties in the pen, that would make the fight between Holton, Shreve, Fry and Diaz (a right-hander who, because of his changeup, is a weapon against left-handed hitters), thus leaving Vest as the odd man out.
The other option would be to keep Hill in the bullpen, let Brieske start the season in the rotation at Toledo and bring Vest and one of the lefties north.
On the roster: Eric Haase
Probably on the roster: Jake Rogers
Still in the hunt: Donny Sands and Andrew Knapp
Analysis: Haase has become a foundation piece and an emerging leader in the clubhouse. His work ethic is second to none and his ability to play left field as well as being the regular catcher opens up another layer of matchup options for Hinch.
Rogers, coming back from Tommy John surgery, hasn’t missed a beat. In fact, with a new, quieter stance in the box, he’s looked more comfortable and competent at the plate than he was prior. The only question mark will be his endurance.
Rogers and Haase were splitting time behind the plate almost evenly before Rogers’ injury. If he can hold up physically, that could be the case again, with Haase staying in the lineup playing part-time in left.
Hinch has kicked around the idea of keeping three catchers, just like he did to start last season, though rosters were expanded to 28 then. At this point, if he went that way, it would likely be the more experienced Knapp who made the team.
It would be counterproductive for Sands, at this point in his development, not to play regularly, which he would do in Triple-A and not as the third catcher.
On the roster: Spencer Torkelson (first base), Javier Baez (shortstop), Jonathan Schoop (second base, third base), Nick Maton (third base, second base) and Miguel Cabrera (designated hitter)
Probably on the roster: Cesar Hernandez (non-roster, second base, third base) and Ryan Kreidler (utility)
In the hunt: Tyler Nevin (third base, first base), Zach Short (utility), Andy Ibanez (non-roster, third base) and Jermaine Palacios (non-roster, utility)
Analysis: Like the bullpen battle, this is going down to the wire and probably well into the season. Six players, including three non-roster invitees, grinding for two openings — and none of them playing themselves out of contention.
Only Nevin, who is out because of an oblique strain, is temporarily out of the battle. He has a minor-league option left, so he could start the season with Toledo.
What makes this tricky is not knowing exactly how flexible the 40-man roster is, at least as president Scott Harris sees it. If one or two non-roster relievers make the cut, how many more can they carry? How many more players does Harris want to lop off the 40-man to make room?
Hernandez, a 10-year veteran, has been one of the offensive standouts in camp. He’s played mostly at second base, but that will change now that Jonathan Schoop is back from playing in the WBC. Hernandez will get a longer look at third base, presumably.
Ibanez, who has been injured (finger) and out of camp with Team Cuba, will have to rally to get back into the competition. Palacios has performed well, also, but again, it’s hard to imagine two non-roster infielders making the club out of camp.
Kreidler and Short have been rock-steady defensively, playing third, short, second and center field.
Short is having a stellar spring at the plate. In fact, he’s been the embodiment of the hitting profile Harris and Hinch have been preaching: 8 hits, 7 walks, 2 homers, a .484 on-base average and a .625 slug. He hasn’t been able to carry that over in his short big-league time, but he’s 28 now, and he’s been kept on the 40-man for a reason.
Kreidler’s bat has started to come alive, too. He’s produced four hits, including a double, triple and homer, in his last three games.
If Harris doesn’t want to tinker with his 40-man roster too much, it would not be difficult, or unproductive, to keep Kreidler or Short as the extra utility man.
On the roster: Riley Greene (center field), Austin Meadows (right field) and Matt Vierling (all)
In the hunt: Kerry Carpenter (left field), Akil Baddoo (left field)
Analysis: The Tigers aren’t likely to carry four left-handed-hitting outfielders. Greene and Meadows both hit left-handed, as do Carpenter and Baddoo. Thus, the battle is between those two, and with 12 games left, it’s a dead heat.
Carpenter brings more power, Baddoo more speed. Both are below-average defensively, though Baddoo, because of his athleticism, is probably a notch ahead of Carpenter. But, if Hinch is thinking in terms of the fourth outfielder sharing the DH spot with Cabrera, you’d think Carpenter would pack more of a punch in that role.
It seems unlikely, but it’s not out of the question, that both Carpenter and Baddoo start the year in Triple-A. If the club chose to keep Kreidler or Short, plus Hernandez, either one could serve as the extra outfielder — as could Maton and Haase.
So much to sort out, so little time.