2/8/2013 12:00 A.M. ET
Competition for roster spots will keep Tigers focused
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
The Tigers enter Spring Training with the vast majority of their roster back from the team that made it to the World Series last fall. They finally have the blend of proven veterans and potential-laden youngsters they've been seeking for years.
And yet, surprisingly, they have more competitions to settle this spring than they did a year ago. They aren't exactly trivial, either, which makes for one interesting camp.
The Tigers must decide whether Rick Porcello will hold onto the starting spot he has owned for four years, or if Drew Smyly will again crash the rotation. They have to decide whether Bruce Rondon and his 102-mph fastball are ready to take over closing duties for a World Series favorite -- without a pitch of experience in the big leagues. Last but not least, they have to sort out the left-field mix between Andy Dirks, Avisail Garcia, Brennan Boesch and Quintin Berry.
It's not exactly what one would expect from a team looking for another run at the Fall Classic, but it's certainly not boring.
At the very least, it'll give them something better to worry about than expectations.
"We all come in with a clean slate. Every one of us," manager Jim Leyland said in January. "Nobody cares that we swept the Yankees [in the ALCS]."
Expect that to be part of the theme when Leyland addresses his players in meetings next week -- pitchers and catchers first, then position players when they arrive a few days later. It's the same line of thinking Leyland tried to get across after the Tigers made it to the World Series in 2006, turning the page and warding off any hint of complacency. That 2007 team came out of Spring Training hot and played well, despite fading down the stretch.
If he needs a fresher example, however, Leyland needs to look no further than last spring, when the Tigers came in with championship hopes and came out struggling at season's start, spending most of the summer trying to make up for it and claw their way to the top of the division. Preseason favorites, the point goes, mean nothing.
Pitchers and catchers report
Full squad reports
First Spring Training game
Tigers at Braves, Feb. 22, 1:05 p.m. ET
Tigers at Twins, April 1, 4:10 p.m. ET
Triple play: Three questions that need answers
1. Can Bruce Rondon nail down the closer role?
The Tigers have no doubt that Rondon has not only the fastball to become a shutdown closer, but the secondary pitches as well. The question they have to figure out is whether he has the nerves to handle it this soon in his career with a team that carries World Series expectations. They're going to try to find an answer in Spring Training, but this is the Grapefruit League, not the American League. So Leyland is going to have to do some forecasting based off what he sees in camp.
2. Does Rick Porcello have a role on this team?
Barring an injury, Porcello is going to come out of Spring Training with one of three possibilities: He's at the back of the rotation, he's in the bullpen or he's on another club. Team officials have said Porcello will go in as the leading candidate for the fifth starter role, but Drew Smyly showed last year that he could handle competing as an underdog. Assuming a team somewhere will encounter an injury to a starting pitcher this spring, a strong camp would do wonders for Porcello's case to start, whether in Detroit or elsewhere.
3. Can Victor Martinez be anywhere near the hitter he was two years ago?
From a health standpoint, the reviews on Martinez have been glowing this offseason, to the point that the Tigers expect him to be a full participant in workouts, with few if any restrictions. Nevertheless, a year away from live hitting is a big deal, and it is something Martinez will have to bridge as he goes through Spring Training. With a set lineup and no diversion to the World Baseball Classic, Martinez is in line for a lot of at-bats this spring.
88-74, first in AL Central
Projected batting order
1. CF Austin Jackson:
.300 BA, .377 OBP, .479 SLG, 16 HR, 66 RBI in 2012
2. RF Torii Hunter:
.313 BA, .365 OBP, .451 SLG, 16 HR, 92 RBI in 2012
3. 3B Miguel Cabrera:
.330 BA, .393 OBP, .606 SLG, 44 HR, 139 RBI in 2012
4. 1B Prince Fielder:
.313 BA, .412 OBP, .528 SLG, 30 HR, 108 RBI in 2012
5. DH Victor Martinez:
.330 BA, .380 OBP, .470 SLG, 12 HR, 103 RBI in 2011
6. LF Andy Dirks:
.322 BA, .370 OBP, .487 SLG, 8 HR, 35 RBI in 2012
7. SS Jhonny Peralta:
.239 BA, .305 OBP, .384 SLG, 13 HR, 63 RBI in 2012
8. C Alex Avila:
.243 BA, .352 OBP, .384 SLG, 9 HR, 48 RBI in 2012
9. 2B Omar Infante:
.274 BA, .300 OBP, .419 SLG, 12 HR, 53 RBI in 2012
1. Justin Verlander, 17-8, 2.64 ERA in 2012
2. Doug Fister, 10-10, 3.45 ERA in 2012
3. Max Scherzer, 16-7, 3.74 ERA in 2012
4. Anibal Sanchez, 9-13, 3.86 ERA in 2012
5. Rick Porcello, 10-12, 4.59 ERA in 2012
The new guys
OF Torii Hunter: A decade after Tigers owner Mike Ilitch talked about wanting to emulate the Twins to build a dynasty in the American League Central, the team is counting on the cornerstone of those Twins teams to help provide the potential final piece to a championship. On the field, Hunter greatly improves Detroit's defense and speed. Off the field, he's the kind of leader the Tigers lost when Brandon Inge lost his spot on the club.
C Brayan Pena: Before anyone asks cynically how important of an addition a backup catcher can be, consider how much more of a role Gerald Laird played last year compared with expectations when the Tigers signed him. With a switch-hitting bat and a positive personality despite some lean years with the Royals, Pena has the chance to be a significant addition even if he plays just a couple of days a week.
Prospects to watch
RHP Bruce Rondon: Unless you spent the offseason on a deserted tropical island, you've surely heard about Rondon, his triple-digit fastball and Detroit's plans to give him a shot to use it in save opportunities. He's a special prospect, and the Tigers hope he shows enough in the spring to persuade them to let him gain experience on the job before the playoff races pick up in the summer. Whether he wins a job or not, his fastball -- which Tigers officials claim has hit 103 mph -- makes him a guy to watch like nobody the Tigers have had since Joel Zumaya in his prime.
OF Avisail Garcia: Not even a nice little role on the Tigers' trek to the World Series last fall was enough to earn Garcia respect in baseball's top prospect rankings. If it earns the potential five-tool stud a long look at a job in left field out of camp, he'll gladly take the slight. He's the right-handed bat the Tigers could use in left, but he's 21 years old with just 35 games above Double-A ball if postseason contests are included. He'll start out at Triple-A Toledo if he doesn't crash the Opening Day roster.
OF Nick Castellanos: Remember when Castellanos was the talk of the Tigers' organization and a potential September callup six months ago? The combination of Garcia's rise as a Tiger and Castellanos' late fade in the Arizona Fall League to end a marathon stretch of baseball took some shine off his status, but Castellanos' potential remains unquestioned. He's a long shot to break camp with the Tigers, far more likely to open in left field for the Mud Hens as he learns the position, but his hitting ability will force people to pay attention when he plays this spring.
RHP Melvin Mercedes: Bruce Rondon's breakout season rightly overshadowed anything else from relievers in the Tigers' system, but Mercedes' season at Class A West Michigan caught the attention of Tigers officials. He's big, and he throws hard, and while he needs time to hone his command, a solid spring could put him in position for a quick rise through the system.
LHP Kyle Lobstein: As rare as it is for a World Series contender to be active in the Rule 5 Draft, the Tigers took a shot on Lobstein, a starter who was overshadowed in the Rays farm system the last couple of years. They'll stretch him out as a starter this spring, but a good spring would give him a chance to crash the roster as an extra lefty reliever. If he doesn't, the Tigers have to offer him back to the Rays.
2B/OF Jeff Kobernus: The Tigers admitted as soon as they drafted Kobernus that they wanted the 24-year-old ex-Nationals farmhand for his speed. He stole 42 bases at Double-A Harrisburg last year, and his ability to play infield and outfield could give him a chance to take the last spot on the roster as a utility player and pinch-runner.
On the rebound
DH Victor Martinez: His catastrophic knee injury last January created the need that led the Tigers to sign Prince Fielder for nine years. Now, Martinez is back, and the run production potential in the middle of Detroit's lineup is perhaps the deepest it has been since at least 1984. The question, as mentioned already, is what Martinez lost in his reconstructive surgery.
2B Omar Infante: Infante didn't miss any time with injuries after his return following a trade from the Marlins, but the wrist injury he suffered in the final game of the World Series was serious enough to sideline him for most of the winter ball season. He's expected to be back at full strength for Spring Training and available for Team Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic.
RHP Max Scherzer: His September shoulder problems were muscular, not structural, according to the Tigers, so there was no need for offseason surgery. Still, given Scherzer's history of shoulder concerns from his early days in Arizona, it's worth the Tigers keeping an eye on him to make sure he doesn't start out too aggressively in camp coming off more than 200 innings last year between the regular season and playoffs.
3B Miguel Cabrera: With Pablo Sandoval manning the hot corner for Team Venezuela, Cabrera is expected to reprise his old post at first base. He has taken part in every World Baseball Classic.
RHP Justin Verlander: Verlander has never taken part in the World Baseball Classic, but he pitched for Team USA in the 2003 Pan Am Games while he was in college. He enjoyed the experience, and that could sway him to represent his country once more while he has the chance. He hasn't committed to Team USA yet, but has left the decision up to the way his arm feels in early spring workouts before national teams set their rosters Feb. 20.
RHP Octavio Dotel: Dotel has pitched for 13 different teams in his 14-year Major League career, but he has never pitched for his native Dominican Republic. At 39, this is most likely his last chance. He was placed on the provisional roster last month.
RHP Anibal Sanchez: Sanchez's late-season run with the Tigers might have helped more than his leverage in negotiations for a new contract as a free agent this past winter. It might well have landed him the second spot in the rotation for Team Venezuela, right behind Felix Hernandez.
2B Omar Infante: Officially, Infante has not yet been added to the roster for Team Venezuela. However, a Twitter post from the president of the Venezuelan baseball federation suggested that Infante would be added, and the Tigers are awaiting word. Infante spent most of the offseason recovering from a wrist injury he suffered in Game 4 of the World Series.
RHP Jose Valverde: The Tigers announced at the start of the offseason that they would not try to re-sign Valverde, whose perfect 2012 season gave him impossible standards to match. A miserable stretch run, including blown saves in back-to-back postseason appearances that knocked him out of the closer role, all but ticketed his departure.
OF/DH Delmon Young: Victor Martinez's expected return from knee surgery meant time was running out on Young's Tiger tenure almost as soon as the 2012 season began with free agency on the horizon. Detroit wasn't going to bring him back to man left field, and Martinez's return meant the DH spot was taken for 2013. Add in the saga of Young's arrest in New York last April, and Young was pretty well auditioning for the open market most of the year. Young signed a one-year contract with the Phillies a couple of weeks ago.
IF/OF Ryan Raburn: The Tigers cut ties with Raburn by not tendering him in November. Just eight months earlier, his six home runs midway through Spring Training had him seemingly on track for a big year. He never found his groove as a hitter after that, leaving him banished to Triple-A Toledo. Raburn signed a Minor League contract with the Indians, meaning Tigers fans could get to see him quite a bit.
C Gerald Laird: Truth be told, the Tigers would've loved to bring Laird back on another short-term contract for similar terms to last year. Laird believed he could find a better deal on the open market as a free agent, and he got it with a two-year deal from Atlanta.