March 20th, 2013

Wednesday: Time to guess the roster

I haven’t done something like this before, with all the speculation this spring, I figured it was worth a shot, seeing how it worked for some of’s other beat guys. Plus, it’s the off-day when the Tigers usually start getting down to debates like this.

From the closer to the fifth starter to the right-handed hitting outfielder to the back of the bullpen, the Tigers have decisions to make over the next week and a half. Some of them will be made sooner than that, either because of opt-out clauses or because they’re easier to make. Others might go down to the last home game of the spring next Friday, because they’re tough choices or because they’ll leave as much time as possible for a potential trade or roster add.

Here’s a projection on what all will happen, starting with what we know — the lineup. Jim Leyland announced this early in camp, and he put it on the field Tuesday for the local audience watching back in Michigan on TV. No matter what the Tigers do over the next week and a half, this part isn’t changing. So let’s fill the first nine spots on the 25-man roster with them.

  1. Austin Jackson
  2. Torii Hunter
  3. Miguel Cabrera
  4. Prince Fielder
  5. Victor Martinez
  6. Andy Dirks
  7. Jhonny Peralta
  8. Alex Avila
  9. Omar Infante

That leaves four bench spots. One of them goes to the backup catcher, Brayan Pena. Another bench spot goes to a utility infielder. If Ramon Santiago is healthy, he’s the primary guy there.

At least one of the other two spots will go to the right-handed hitting outfielder about which we’ve written so often this spring. As good of a spring as Nick Castellanos is having, he needed more time in the minors. Dave Dombrowski was on record heading into camp saying that Castellanos and Avisail Garcia won’t break camp with the team if they’re just going to be part-time players. Garcia’s injury all but takes him out of serious consideration. It shouldn’t be a lingering matter that costs him a lot of time at the start of the season, but Opening Day is pretty well out of the question.

Jeff Kobernus has done plenty well enough to find a role on this team, and well enough that the Tigers would have a tough time working out a deal to send him to the minors without paying something substantial. As big of a surprise as he has been, Matt Tuiasosopo might rival that with his recent power stretch. If the Tigers were in another situation, needing a power bat off the bench to boost an offensively challenged situation, Tuiasosopo might have a better chance of cracking the roster. For this team, though, Kobernus provides more of the skill set that the Tigers are looking for in an extra outfielder and role player off the bench.

That leaves one spot between Quintin Berry, Don Kelly and Danny Worth. If Kobernus is on the team, he basically overlaps the speed infusion that Berry brings while covering the outfield much the same. And much like Boesch, Berry’s lack of infield versatility is a hindrance in this case. Even before Berry’s recurrent patellar tendinitis, it was very difficult to envision Detroit keeping both Kobernus and Berry out of the gate.

This is where the fan outrage starts to pick up, because this is where Kelly’s versatility around the infield and outfield starts to separate him. He played a serviceable game in center field Monday against the Nationals in Berry’s place, and while his hot start at the plate has cooled off over the last week, he still has looked like he has a better idea what he wants to do in the batters box and less of a sense that he’s overmatched like he did last year. There’s some projection to make on how he’ll handle the same role in a different year, and that projection is going to have to come by early next week when his opt-out clause can be kicked in, but he has the strongest chance.

Worth’s chance at making this club would be a lot stronger if the Tigers weren’t looking for a right-handed hitting outfielder. He has shown a much better bat this spring, though he too has cooled off over the last week. You can actually make the case that Worth is a fundamentally sound baserunner who could serve as a pinch-runner for Victor Martinez in late-inning situations, though he’s not a speedster.

In the end, Berry and Worth can be optioned to the minors. Kelly, as was written earlier this week, has an opt-out clause that would allow him to ask for his release if he’s not added to the 25-man roster for Opening Day. That and Kobernus’ Rule 5 status might well serve as tiebreakers.

  1. Brayan Pena
  2. Ramon Santiago
  3. Jeff Kobernus
  4. Don Kelly

Is it a formidable bench hittingwise? No, but that’s not really what the Tigers are looking for here. They don’t need a Marcus Thames type of catalyst as much as they did in past years. They want guys to fit roles for them and complement the offensive talent they already have on their lineup (a defensive replacement or two, a pinch-runner for V-Mart, occasional starts to spell the middle infielders and the catcher). If the Tigers were looking for more and had the playing time to offer for it, Castellanos would’ve had a better chance to build off his hot start.

The bench is pretty easy to figure out compared to the pitching staff, where the Tigers’ decisions on a fifth starter and a closer have an impact up and down the roster. And nobody could’ve anticipated both of the potential starters pitching as well as they have.

In theory, Rick Porcello’s performance should make it easier to trade him, especially since the improvements he has made address some of the biggest questions about his game. But the better he pitches, the bigger the issue about getting fair value, what fits the Tigers’ needs better, and which needs the Tigers would fill in a trade.

I would be surprised if the Tigers traded Porcello simply to get a closer. Even if you question whether Bruce Rondon is the closer of the present (more on that later), he’s clearly the closer of the future. If you’re going to trade for a reliever, you’d better believe he can slot into a setup role in the very near future. Trading three seasons of Porcello straight up for, say, two seasons of Andrew Bailey is a tough proposition if you see Rondon as your closer for more than half of that time. Even in win-now mode, you’d like a little more than that.

I’m not sure if that deal is out there right now. It might have a better chance during the summer. The appeal of 2 1/2 seasons of Porcello to a team not likely to contend for a while could be less than it is now, but the field of potential closers has a better chance to grow.

There’s also this: The Tigers have six starters right now. I’m not sure, at least right now, what they have after that. And considering the Tigers have a starting rotation that has pitched extended innings in back-to-back seasons, that depth question should be as unnerving to some as the closer question is to others. Leyland not-so-subtly hinted at this last week.

Not sure about the order just yet, but here’s a guess at the list:

  1. Justin Verlander
  2. Anibal Sanchez
  3. Doug Fister
  4. Max Scherzer
  5. Rick Porcello

That leaves the question of what to do with Drew Smyly, who either has to go to the bullpen or go to Toledo. And that leads into the question of what the Tigers do at closer.

Rondon has been very good since the mechanical adjustment a couple weeks ago. If you’re going to make an argument that he shouldn’t be in the big leagues, then there’s a fairly good chance your mind was locked in on that before spring training began, and nothing short of striking out every hitter was going to change.

Stuffwise, Rondon can compete with a lot of closers out there. The question is whether he’s ready to close full time now, and the answer might come down as much to perception as to practice. The Tigers could install Rondon as the closer right now and commit themselves to weathering the questions along the way, or they could use Rondon as part of a committee and pick and choose his save chances according to the situations. Either way, they’re going to get questioned. The one difference is that with the committee, the questions aren’t all centered on one guy.

If the Tigers go with the committee, the fifth, sixth and seventh relievers become a lot more important for filling situations in the seventh and eighth innings on occasion. And the ability for a long reliever to do more than eat innings becomes much more important. In the end, as long as Porcello is pitching well and sticking around, the combination of a long relief and second lefty relief is the best chance for Smyly to make this team out of camp. It looks far from clear, but you can pick up the hints. It would be a tough break for Darin Downs, who has quietly had a fairly good spring trying to nail down a lefty relief role.

From there, it’s not difficult to write down the rest of Detroit’s bullpen:

  1. Bruce Rondon
  2. Joaquin Benoit
  3. Octavio Dotel
  4. Phil Coke
  5. Al Alburquerque
  6. Brayan Villarreal
  7. Drew Smyly

So there you have it. Something on this list will probably end up wrong, either through a roster move at the end of camp, an unforeseen injury or simply a decision to go in another direction on one of these spots. But here’s an educated guess.