It struck me yesterday, as I was pondering who might (and who might not) win the prestigious position of second utility infielder, that the Detroit Tigers have very few pressing roster questions facing them as they head into Spring Training. Even last year, when they were predicted to win the division and be one of the better teams in the American League, there were very real questions at this juncture that would affect the makeup of the everyday lineup.
Will Delmon Young play actually left field? Who will play second base every day (Brandon Inge, Ryan Raburn, or Ramon Santiago)? Can Miguel Cabrera handle the hot corner? Which unproven youngster, Jacob Turner, Drew Smyly, Duane Below, or Adam Wilk, would win a rotation spot?
Those were actual questions whose answers would play a role in the actual filling out of lineup cards. Few such questions exist this year.
As far as I can tell, the questions facing the organization that carry the most weight are:
Will they find a right-handed hitting outfielder they like enough to play 25% of the time? Is league average production out of the shortstop position as good as the Tigers can do? Who will be the team’s fifth outfielder? Which highly qualified starting pitcher will win the last spot in the rotation? Who will serve as the backup, backup middle infielder? Which low-leverage lefty reliever could also handle mop-up duty?
Twelve months ago the Tigers had question marks at four starting positions, this year perhaps 25% of one position remains up in the air. The questions we’re left debating about as fans are so inconsequential that it doesn’t even matter what the answer is.
It’s times like these — where we’re down to the nitty gritty of the last couple spots on the roster — that I like to think back to the early part of the 2000’s. It makes me appreciate the transformation this team has made in the last ten years. It’s no longer “which AAA player should start at shortstop this year”, it’s “which MLB pitcher do we need to send to AAA”. From 49 wins to back-to-back division titles and a trip to the World Series.
We’ve gone from wondering where all the MLB caliber players were, to arguing which of the few mediocre guys should start, and which should sit the bench, to debating about the 24th and 25th men on the roster. It’s a good place to be.
The Tigers have very few open questions right now. That might make for a less intriguing spring, but it means the Tigers have an exceptional team. It serves as an example for how far the team has come in the last decade.