In the end, the impression that so many young Tigers made in 2010 stood for something when it came time to decide who breaks camp with the club in 2011.
Brennan Boesch and Casper Wells will head north as Detroit’s extra outfielders, both of whom manager Jim Leyland will try to keep fresh with a diet of at-bats. Enrique Gonzalez, the relief candidate from which Leyland knew what to expect, will get the first chance as a long reliever.
Danny Worth, Andy Dirks and Adam Wilk, meanwhile, will head to Triple-A Toledo and wait for their shot. With their cuts from camp Saturday morning — Worth was optioned to Triple-A Toledo, while Dirks and Wilk were assigned to Minor League camp — the Tigers’ 25-man roster is complete. Unless Detroit makes a trade or waiver pickup between in the next few days, and Leyland said they have “nothing going on” at the moment, this is the group that will take on the Yankees next Thursday in the Bronx.
The one player going there without a Major League game to his credit is reliever Brayan Villarreal, who essentially gets his chance with Joel Zumaya opening the season on the disabled list.
“I have a couple concerns, obviously, but I really like our team,” manager Jim Leyland said. “And if guys do characteristically what they’ve done over their career, and I’m speaking more about the veteran guys that we have, we’re going to be pretty good.”
If Boesch and Wells can find their best forms from 2010 — Boesch’s form coming in the first half of the year, Wells more from the stretch run — it would be big. That played no small part in Leyland’s decision.
Leyland’s first positional choice was whether to take two outfielders or go with one along with Worth. That was apparently decided earlier in the week.
“He kind of let me know a couple days ago,” Worth said Saturday.
Once that was decided, the Tigers had to weigh Dirks’ torrid spring against what Boesch and Wells have already shown in the regular season, as well as this spring. Since Wells bats right-handed, he had the advantage of fitting into the lineup against left-handed pitching, when Victor Martinez could catch and Magglio Ordonez could shift to designated hitter.
“When you start making the case for Rhymes — because when he got the opportunity, he took advantage of it — I think even though the second half wasn’t good at all, you still have to make the case for Boesch,” Leyland said.”He had 14 home runs with 67 RBIs as a rookie.”
If he didn’t think he could find at-bats for Boesch, Leyland said, he wouldn’t have taken him. As it is, he’ll get some at-bats in left field, mixed in with Ryan Raburn.
Dirks, whose prospect status rose with a breakthrough season last year at Double-A, hit his way into serious consideration for a reserve outfield spot. He entered Saturday tied for the team lead in hits and third in at-bats, going 19-for-57 with four doubles, three triples, a home run and nine RBIs. He’ll head to Toledo in a similar position Boesch had last year before an injury to Carlos Guillen created an opportunity in mid-April.
“Now I have to carry it into the season,” Dirks said. “It doesn’t mean anything [unless he keeps hitting at Toledo].”
Dirks could potentially play into all three outfield spots at Toledo.
Worth batted .333 (12-for-36) with six doubles, a triple and seven RBIs. He hit his way into the mix for the Tigers’ second-base opening that Will Rhymes will fill starting out. Ramon Santiago will back up at second, while Don Kelly has the capability of playing there. Worth, meanwhile, is expected to play several infield spots at Toledo, with a good amount of games at third base.
Wilk had built an impressive case for himself as a potential third left-hander in the Tigers bullpen, having allowed only one run over 12 2/3 innings before Friday night. Leyland said he had made his roster choices before Friday, which would mean Wilk’s four-run, three-inning start against the Braves Friday night would’ve had no impact on his chances.
“To come so close to making the big-league roster and then to get called in and hear they’re sending you to the minors, it’s a tough feeling,” Wilk said. “It’s tough to hear that.”
Wilk’s situation was part of the challenge facing Leyland in filling out his bullpen without Joel Zumaya, who will open the season on the disabled list with no current timetable for a return.
“You have to remember that Zumaya was a void, so somebody had to take that spot,” Leyland said, “and it probably ended up being Villarreal.”
Villarreal owns just eight games of experience above Class A ball, all of them starts, but his aggressive pitching and mid-90s fastball made an immediate impression on Leyland.
“He’s got a real quick arm, he’s very athletic and he’s not scared,” Leyland said. “The true test will be: When they rough him up, how does he respond? But I think he’s a tough nut. I like him a lot.”