‘Ton of time’: Tigers’ Hinch taking bullpen, roster decisions to the wire

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Considering it was the morning after a rare night spring training game, the energy level before the game Friday was high.

The catchers were throwing the football around in the outfield. There was a lot of hooting and hollering during a three-purpose drill with runners at first and third, working on a safety-squeeze bunt play. The second-to-last hitting group erupted when Jonathan Schoop ended the session by sending a laser shot to the berm in left field.

Pretty spirited stuff. Which might have been at least partly a byproduct of manager AJ Hinch’s morning message.

“We have a ton of time left,” he said, which sounded counterintuitive, given Opening Day is less than two weeks away.

“I told the team, two weeks from (Thursday) we have Opening Day,” he said. “Which is 13 days before we have to get the roster set. That is a long time to make decisions.”

The message to the players was clear: If you’re performing well, don’t let up. If you’re struggling, you’ve got time to get it going. But, the intensity is going to increase. Stay focused. These roster battles are going to the wire, and possibly beyond.

“We’re so fixated on Opening Day,” Hinch said. “And that’s meaningful because Opening Day rosters are special. But I will tell everyone who is involved in these decisions that it is just one decision. There’s plenty more ahead.”

Hinch wasn’t completely joking when he said he might not have the same team for the home opener as he had for Opening Day. This is especially possible in the bullpen, where it’s conceivable that some relievers make the Opening Day roster based on their matchup value against the Rays and Astros.

“We’re trying to take the best pitchers that we can,” Hinch said. “But, obviously, we’re trying to build a bullpen. We have a number of options and we can build it in a lot of different ways.”

As we sit here on March 17, only four bullpen spots are relatively secure: right-handers Alex Lange, Jose Cisnero and Jason Foley, all short-inning relievers, and lefty Tyler Alexander, who is built up to work longer stints.

The Tigers selected right-hander Mason Englert in the Rule 5 draft, and if he’s not kept on the big-league roster all season, he will be sent back to the Texas Rangers. You’d never know it from his poise on the mound that he’s only made three starts above High-A. His stuff is real, and so far in camp he’s had good command of the strike zone.

So, if he’s in as a multi-inning reliever, that leaves three open spots.

Will Vest, a vital cog in the Tigers’ bullpen success last season, has only pitched three innings this spring. He’s been spending most of his time on the back fields, working to get his mechanics back in working order. These next two weeks are critical for him.

“He’s doing a lot of delivery stuff behind the scenes,” Hinch said. “We’ve got to get him moving down the mound the way he normally does. His extra work has cut into a few of his games, but it will pick up.”

Vest was scheduled to pitch a live bullpen on Saturday.

Others very much still in the mix for those three or four spots include right-handers Miguel Diaz, Garrett Hill, Beau Brieske, Edwin Uceta, Trey Wingenter (non-roster), Alex Faedo and lefties Tyler Holton, Chasen Shreve (non-roster) and Jace Fry (non-roster).

Non-roster right-handers Kervin Castro and lefty Miguel Del Pozo also have pitched well. Veteran right-hander Matt Wisler has struggled, but he still has time to get back into the mix.

And, last but not least, former All-Star closer Trevor Rosenthal is working on the back fields trying to build himself back up after not pitching the last two years. He may not be ready by Opening Day, but he could be an option early in the season.

The questions confronting these decisions are endless: Is there a need for a second lefty? How many bridge relievers (bulk innings) will they keep? How many non-roster players will they keep, knowing they will impact the 40-man roster? How much do they value veteran relievers vs. younger arms, particularly early when workloads can be infrequent?

“Nothing needs to be decided until the end,” Hinch said. “Everybody is looking for a clear picture, and it might not even materialize until after camp is over. We have tons of time and we’re going to use as much time as we can. That’s tough on players and it’s tough on you guys (media). It’s tough on everyone. But, it is not necessary to make a decision until we are absolutely sure.

“We have a lot of options, and we can go a lot of different ways.”

Injury updates

… Infielder Andy Ibanez had an MRI on his sprained left finger and apparently, it was clean because he went through a full day of workouts Friday, including hitting. If there are no setbacks, he could play in the Tigers’ game at Jupiter tomorrow against the Cardinals. It’s possible he will leave the team again on Sunday and join Team Cuba for its WBC quarterfinal game Sunday.

… Infielder Tyler Nevin, who is out because of a left oblique strain, took ground balls on the field before the game Friday but did not make throws. He’s been hitting off the tee and could face live pitching next week.

… Outfielder Matt Vierling (right knee strain) worked on the field before the game, even taking part in the safety-squeeze drill. He expects to hit live pitching on the back fields Saturday and Sunday and could be back in game action by Monday.

… Coach Gary Jones made his debut in the third-base coaching box Friday. He’s been recovering from an offseason procedure on his knee, though you’d never know it by how active he’s been during drill work. Jones, who coached first base last season, is replacing Ramon Santiago in the third-base box this season. Double-A manager Gabe Alvarez has been filling in for him this spring.

Twitter: @cmccosky

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