The March equinox, which marks the scientific commencement of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, will not take place this year until March 20th. In less than two weeks, though, those looking to play for the Detroit Tigers will report to the club’s spring training home in Lakeland, Florida. Then, the real, immensely more personal first day of spring–one that has nothing to do with the tilt of the Earth’s axis but holds far greater romantic meaning–will take place on February 24th, when the team holds their first full workout to prepare for the 2012 baseball season.
Around this time, green players around the league will be looking to do everything possible to impress their managers and win major league jobs from established competition. But for this year’s Tigers, few such battles will take place.
As far as position players, we as fans have a pretty good idea of what the product Jim Leyland and company will put on the field–at least at the start of the season.
Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch will occupy two outfield spots. Delmon Young is currently being pegged as the starting left fielder by Dave Dombrowski, but if the well-publicized experiment at third base works out, Young, categorically the worst defender on the team, should see plenty of time as the designated hitter.
At first base, we’ll have Prince Fielder almost every day. Jhonny Peralta will be at short. Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago are still set to platoon at second (despite my thoughts that Raburn should leave Santiago to man second while moving to left field and pushing Young to almost a full-time DH role). Miguel Cabrera will be the opening day third baseman
Kelly, along with Inge, would be, for the most part, a utility infielder, sliding in mostly at shortstop when Peralta needs a day off or at third base when a ground ball pitcher is on the mound for Detroit. It’s my feeling that Inge, similarly, should only start when such pitchers are going on the same days that a left-hander is starting for the opposition. Danny Worth, though, could play a similar role to either Kelly or Inge and may be better defensively than both. Obviously, the Tigers could use a bit of fielding prowess. His inclusion on the 25-man roster is still a bit of a long-shot, though, considering the fact that Inge is being paid $5.5 million and Kelly is thought to be quite well-liked by management. Worth hits right-handed as well, so it’s more likely that if he were to win a job, it would be the one currently belonging to Inge. In short, I don’t see it happening. (On a related note, check out today’s post from Kurt Mensching at Bless You Boys on Inge versus Worth.)
The final position up for grabs, then, is that of the fourth outfielder. The job probably belongs to Dirks as of today. He has a lot of momentum at present as he did much to help his Dominican winter league team win a championship this week. He’s not a lock at this point, though, and if he were to be outperformed this spring, it would likely be by Clete Thomas, who some may have forgotten due to his complete absence from the major leagues since his replacement level performance in over 100 games in 2009. Again, the chances Dirks loses out on a spot with Detroit come April seem pretty slim.
With no interesting spring competition on that half of the roster, much of the attention will shift to the pitching side of things.
Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello would have to turn into Dontrelle Willis to lose their respective rotation spots, and they might even keep them if they did. Of course, that leaves one slot still unspoken for. At the Detroit Sports Broadcasters luncheon yesterday, Dombrowski listed six men who will compete for that job barring a potential acquisition which still may come; Jacob Turner, Drew Smyly, Casey Crosby, Andy Oliver, Duane Below, and Adam Wilk. This is by far the most intriguing campaign coming to Lakeland this spring and if the Tigers brass deems Turner in need of more seasoning, it’s wide open.
Things are mostly set in the bullpen, too, but a couple of spots remain up for grabs. Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, and Phil Coke are shoo-ins; if healthy, those four will be handling the seventh through ninth innings every day. Daniel Schlereth is not in that high standing, but it’s not a stretch to write his name in as the second left-handed reliever on the depth chart. Schlereth has proved a very effective pitcher at times, especially when used in a specialized role; he’s held left-handed hitters to a .211 average in his major league career.
That leaves two relief spots. Yesterday, Dombrowski spoke of Collin Balester; “When we made that deal, we made it with the idea that he would be on our club. Again, he has to earn it, but the feelings are that he will.” At this point, I’m taking his word for it and penciling him in. The last spot, as James Schmehl wrote for MLive.com in the article previously linked, will be up for grabs much like the fifth starter role, with Below, Wilk, Luis Marte, David Pauley, and Brayan Villarreal in the running along with Chris Bootcheck and Darin Downs, both non-roster invitees.
To recap, the performances of Kelly, Inge, Worth, Dirks, Thomas, Turner, Smyly, Crosby, Oliver, Below, Wilk, Marte, Pauley, Villarreal, Bootcheck, and Downs are all worth keeping an eye on when the gloves start popping in a couple of weeks.
This kind of goes without saying, but despite the lack of riveting position struggles, spring will be interesting for the Tigers as we watch Cabrera try to relearn third base and welcome Fielder, Dotel, and Laird (again) to the club.
Can we start now?