Lakeland, Fla. — In years past, that last Grapefruit League game in March was D-Day for guys hoping to make the big-league cut.
Not so Sunday at Publix Field/Marchant Stadium where the Tigers were waiting, perhaps till mid-week, to seal their Opening Day roster.
“Today is a little bit of a fake last day,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch explained a few hours before the Tigers and Rays were playing, in Hinch’s words, “a shell game.”
Two explanations for the “fake last day” and “shell game” references.
The Tigers and Mets were wrapping up their Grapefruit League seasons Sunday. The other MLB teams play through Monday.
That means the Tigers were waiting 24 hours, and maybe more, to find out what appealing players from 28 other teams might be liberated and potentially free to join Detroit.
Also factoring in the waiting game is Opening Day, which for the Tigers is Thursday at Tampa Bay. The Tigers can play it cool in Lakeland through Monday and will work out as normal on the TigerTown turf, playing a five-inning simulated game.
They will then head for St. Petersburg, have a Wednesday tune-up at Tropicana Field, then meet the Rays at 3:10 p.m. Thursday as a six-month calendar officially begins.
“We’re going to be here, anyway,” Hinch said, speaking of Lakeland. “So we’re waiting as long as we can to make the right decisions and inform the players as we know (who makes the club).”
Keeping the Rays from overly snooping ahead of next weekend’s games also factored Sunday in Hinch going with a cast of pitchers who largely won’t be part of that opening series at Tropicana Field.
“I wish we could have switched with the Phillies or Yankees or whoever’s playing at Tampa today to avoid this shell game (with the Rays) we’re playing,” Hinch said. “I’d have gladly taken the road trip.
“Not all of those relievers pitching (Sunday) would have been pitching if we weren’t playing the Rays. That’s probably the most unique thing — playing the team you’re about to play in four days.”
Roster mysteries continue. Kerry Carpenter or Akill Baddoo, or both? Ryan Kreidler or Zack Short?
On the bullpen side, there’s a natural expectation the Tigers will be hanging onto Rule 5 right-hander Mason Englert, which leaves three spots for the following to sort out: Beau Brieske, Garrett Hill, Trey Wingenter, Matt Wisler, Chasen Shreve, Tyler Holton, and Jace Fry.
Given the fact the Tigers would dearly love to enrich their reliever cast, Monday’s vigil was all the more essential. And that watch could easily extend into Wednesday.
A few decisions, most of them expected, were finalized Sunday:
▶ Third baseman Tyler Nevin will open the season on the injured list. But he was scheduled to take at-bats Sunday in a back-lots game at TigerTown and is moving closer to offering Hinch an option, thanks to his right-handed power and infield/outfield fluidity.
▶ Michael Lorenzen, who was set for the Tigers rotation, also will be an injured-list resident. But, he, too, is healing well and is expected back quickly. In the meantime, Joey Wentz is Lorenzen’s stand-in.
▶ The Tigers will take with them to Detroit two convalescing pitchers, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, and have them as part of the clubhouse culture in Detroit. Mize is mending from Tommy John surgery; Skubal from flexor tendon surgery.
The Tigers are using back-lot and simulated games Sunday through the middle of the week to maintain workloads. Spencer Turnbull was pitching in Sunday’s back-fields tussle. Matt Manning and Matthew Boyd are pitching in game-caliber situations also this week as Hinch gets ready for back-to-back road series against the Rays and Astros.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.
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