March 2013

Garcia to DL; Putkonen, Alvarez Davis, Russo sent out

The latest batch of roster cuts this morning brought the Tigers down to 30 players, but none were particularly surprising.

  • Avisail Garcia will begin the season on the 15-day disabled list as expected with a right heel contusion. The move was backdated to March 22, the maximum allowed. He can be activated as soon as April 6, the first Saturday of the season.
  • Luke Putkonen was optioned to Triple-A Toledo, where he’ll reprise his relief role in hopes of getting an in-season call-up. The 26-year-old fastballer allowed six runs on 14 hits in 13 2/3 innings this spring, walking five batters, hitting three others and striking out 14.
  • Lefty Jose Alvarez was assigned to minor-league camp. He’ll begin the season in the rotation at Toledo after allowed three earned runs on 13 hits over 9 2/3 innings with a walk and six strikeouts.
  • Catcher Brad Davis was also assigned to minor-league camp. He’ll share playing time with Bryan Holaday behind the plate for the Mud Hens.
  • Utilityman Kevin Russo also was assigned to minor-league camp. He quietly had a pretty good camp, batting .308 (12-for-39) with four doubles, two homers and five RBIs. That 2-to-15 strikeout-to-walk could’ve been better, obviously.

No answer yet on Don Kelly. He has an opt-out clause he can exercise any day now, but he doesn’t sound all that nervous about it, and he doesn’t sound like he’s about to press the team for an answer. We’ll see what happens.

As for Shawn Hill, he makes the start today, but presumably will be sent out soon after that to get to Toledo and work in the rotation there. He’ll be an insurance starter; the question is whether he’ll be a sixth, seventh or eighth starter (depending on whether the Tigers hold onto Porcello).

Tigers keep Lobstein in system, trade Casali to Rays

The other Tigers Rule 5 situation is now closed. They’ll be keeping left-hander Kyle Lobstein, having acquired his full rights from the Rays in exchange for catcher Curt Casali.

The Tigers swung the trade on Monday, then promptly outrighted Lobstein to Double-A Erie.

The Tigers picked up Lobstein in December’s Rule 5 Draft out of the Rays system, where he was an extra starter in a pitching-deep system. It became clear early on this spring, though, that he wasn’t going to earn a spot in Detroit’s bullpen, which was all that was up for grabs. Considering the Rays didn’t need him, a trade seemed inevitable.

Lobstein gave up 12 runs, 10 earned, on 18 hits in 12 innings with six walks and 10 strikeouts. He’ll pitch at the Double-A level for the second straight season, having gone 8-7 with a 4.06 ERA at Montgomery last year.

The Tigers liked Casali, having brought him into camp the last couple years. Realistically, though, he was down the depth chart in the Tigers system, despite the lingering offensive questions about the prospects above him (Bryan Holaday and James McCann). Casali batted .270 with nine home runs and 43 RBIs in 94 games between Class A West Michigan and Lakeland as a 23-year-old, but he also threw out just under a third of all would-be basestealers. It’s a nice addition for the Rays system for a pitcher they didn’t really need back to stock their system.

Monday: Tigers at Marlins

The Marlins have lefty Wade LeBlanc starting today, so Matt Tuiasosopo gets the start in left. Kevin Russo gets the start in right, with Torii Hunter at DH with Victor Martinez off. Russo has quietly been enjoying a solid spring (though not likely one that will land him on the club out of camp, especially with a 1-for-14 walk-to-strikeout rate).

Former Tigers prospect Rob Brantly gets the start behind the plate. He has been having a solid spring in Marlins camp and is in position to serve as Miami’s regular catcher. Good to see. He’ll be hitting fifth today, right behind ex-Tiger Placido Polanco.

Reminder: Today’s game is on Fox Sports Detroit live starting at 1pm ET, and on delay on MLB Network beginning at 5pm ET.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Torii Hunter, DH
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Matt Tuiasosopo, LF
  5. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  6. Omar Infante, 2B
  7. Alex Avila, C
  8. Brayan Pena, 1B
  9. Kevin Russo, RF

P: Rick Porcello

MARLINS

  1. Wilson Valdez, 2B
  2. Chris Coghlan, LF
  3. Mike Stanton, RF
  4. Placido Polanco, 3B
  5. Rob Brantly, C
  6. Justin Ruggiano, CF
  7. Casey Kotchman, 1B
  8. Adeiny Hechavarria, SS
  9. Wade LeBlanc, P

Saturday: Did Matt Tuiasosopo just win a big league job?

Officially, the Tigers didn’t name Matt Tuiasosopo to the Opening Day roster. It’s a little early for that. In fact, neither Dave Dombrowski nor Jim Leyland mentioned Tuiasosopo’s name when talking about the decision to send Rule 5 pick Jeff Kobernus back to the Nationals for $25,000. Still, you had to try to block out the background to avoid the sense that Tuiasosopo has an inside track on making the team.

Here’s what we know:

  • Kobernus is out of the picture. And when Dombrowski and Leyland were asked to explain the reasoning for the move, the answer from both of them was that it became clear Kobernus wasn’t going to make the 25-man roster.
  • Here’s what else Dombrowski said in regards to Kobernus: “We just think somebody else was ahead of him at this point.”
  • Avisail Garcia is all but out of the picture. He isn’t expected to play in either of the next two days, and if the soonest he plays again is Tuesday, then it’s very possible the Tigers make their final decision before then. Leyland said he doesn’t have any meeting planned with Dombrowski yet, but that they could do it after they get back from Jupiter Monday night.
  • Moreover, Leyland made it sound like Garcia’s running out of time. “It would be fair to say the timing of the injury probably put a little bit of a damper on him as far as breaking with the club,” Leyland said. “I think that’s just a common-sense thing. Now, could a miracle happen? I’d prefer not to see the headlines: ‘Garcia doesn’t make the team.’ That’s not the case. It’s just that his injury came at a time where it wasn’t the best of timing. I don’t want to make it sound like we don’t like Garcia or we sent him down. It’s just he’s probably not going to get enough time to break camp. Again, don’t etch that in stone, but I think that’s kind of common sense.”
  • There are no other right-handed hitting outfield candidates left, unless you count infielder Danny Worth. Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter already have starting spots.
  • Dombrowski said he feels confident they can fill the right-handed hitting outfield role internally, though he didn’t say they would.

This is what we don’t know:

  • Who is going to be out there on the market next week for the Tigers to acquire? Maybe Casper Wells doesn’t make the Mariners roster. Maybe the Tigers can parlay their depth in another spot, maybe an extra reliever, into an extra outfielder.
  • How far away is Nick Castellanos? If a hot opening month in Toledo can get him to Detroit, how long will the Tigers need an extra right-handed hitting outfielder? Is he the in-case-of-fire-break-glass move if the Tigers struggle through April?
  • What happens to the Tigers’ hope of having a good baserunner on their bench to run for Victor Martinez late in games? Kobernus was supposed to be able to fill both spots, though he didn’t steal a base all spring.

That last point is particularly big for the other open spot on the bench. If the Tigers still want a baserunner, Quintin Berry’s chances of making the team just got better. It’s not that Don Kelly and Danny Worth can’t run; they just can’t run like Berry.

Personally, I think there’s a real chance the Tigers add somebody at the end of Spring Training, like they did with Josh Anderson as a speedy outfielder at the end of camp in 2009 (no, it didn’t work out, but that’s not the point). Otherwise, they would have at least mentioned somebody by name. I also don’t think you cut Kobernus loose unless you actually do feel confident you can fill the spot with Tuiasosopo if you don’t get somebody else.

So, to answer the question that started all this: Did Tuiasosopo just win a big league job? Maybe.

Tigers send Kobernus back to Nationals

The Tigers’ search for a right-handed hitting fourth outfielder just whittled down to the point that Matt Tuiasosopo’s best competition probably isn’t in this camp.

On the same day manager Jim Leyland all but ruled out Avisail Garcia winning a spot on the Opening Day roster, the Tigers returned Rule 5 pick Jeff Kobernus to the Nationals, opting not to keep him on the 25-man roster.

Amanda Comak of the Washington Times first reported that Kobernus will be back in Nationals camp on Sunday. The Tigers confirmed it after the game.

For those who have forgotten the rules of the Rule 5 draft, teams must either keep their selections on the 25-man roster for the entire season (save for some leeway for DL time), work out a trade to keep him, or offer him back to his old club for $25,000, or half what they paid to select the player back in December.

Kobernus looked like he had a great chance to make the team two weeks ago, getting off to a torrid start at the plate. Since then, his batting average has plummeted, and his playing time in turn. His camp ends up at 11-for-50 (.220) with two triples, no homers, three RBIs, five walks and seven strikeouts.

As for Garcia, he remains out with a bruised left heel, and is not listed on the travel roster for the team’s upcoming two-day trip to Port St. Lucie and Jupiter.

“I think it would be fair to say the timing of [Garcia's] injury probably put a little bit of a damper on him,” Leyland said Saturday morning.

That would leave Tuiasosopo as the only extra outfielder in camp who bats right-handed. The Tigers still have a week left in camp to scan the trade market and waiver wire for options from other teams, a move that might not come until the last minute.

Saturday: Tigers vs. Yankees

Another game for Matt Tuiasosopo in left field, this time against a very good lefty in Andy Pettitte. No start for Jeff Kobernus. Other than that, it’s the regular lineup.

If you’re looking for a test to see if this spring Tuiasosopo is enjoying suggests he can hit in the big leagues, today might be a good start. It’s the time of spring when starting pitchers are usually working towards their regular-season arsenal, which means a lot of everything from Pettitte.

No TV for this game, surprisingly. You can listen on 97.1 FM in Detroit and MLB Gameday Audio online.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Torii Hunter, RF
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B
  5. Victor Martinez, DH
  6. Matt Tuiasosopo, LF
  7. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  8. Alex Avila, C
  9. Omar Infante, 2B

P: Anibal Sanchez, Darin Downs, Bruce Rondon, Luke Putkonen

YANKEES

  1. Brett Gardner, CF
  2. Eduardo Nunez, SS
  3. Ichiro Suzuki, LF
  4. Kevin Youkilis, 3B
  5. Travis Hafner, DH
  6. Juan Rivera, 1B
  7. Ben Francisco, RF
  8. Jayson Nix, 2B
  9. Chris Stewart, C

P: Andy Pettitte, Jim Miller, Cody Eppley

Friday: Tigers at Nationals

Nearly all the Tigers regulars are going on the Sunday-Monday overnight trip to Port St. Lucie and Jupiter, so Victor Martinez and Prince Fielder are the only regulars today. However, the starting outfield has three candidates to make the roster — Tuiasosopo in left, Berry in center, Kelly in right. They’ll all get to face Stephen Strasburg at Space Ghost, er, Coast Stadium.

TIGERS

  1. Quintin Berry, CF
  2. Don Kelly, RF
  3. Victor Martinez, DH
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B
  5. Brayan Pena, C
  6. Matt Tuiasosopo, LF
  7. Ramon Santiago, 2B
  8. Danny Worth, SS
  9. Kevin Russo, 3B

P: Drew Smyly, Brayan Villarreal, Jose Alvarez, Phil Coke

NATIONALS

  1. Denard Span, CF
  2. Jayson Werth, RF
  3. Bryce Harper, LF
  4. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
  5. Adam LaRoche, 1B
  6. Ian Desmond, SS
  7. Danny Espinosa, 2B
  8. Kurt Suzuki, C
  9. Stephen Strasburg, P

Villarreal has quietly been having a very good spring, which could be a saving grace for Leyland after he was clearly frustrated about Al Alburquerque’s outing last night. Coke, meanwhile, has alternated good outings with four-hit innings over his last four appearances, though the second of them featured a couple hits that could have been handled better.

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 MLB.com’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.

Tuesday: What is going on with Doug Fister?

Doug Fister (AP)

Doug Fister (AP)

Yeah, I know, it’s only Spring Training. I’ve seen terrible camps turn into very good seasons for starting pitchers (Max Scherzer 2010), and I’ve seen great camps yield pretty bad seasons (Rick Porcello 2010, Daniel Schlereth 2012). I know a pitcher completely out of rhythm for most of spring can find his mechanics at the end and dominate.

That, obviously, is what the Tigers hope happens with Doug Fister.

In fairness, if you look at Fister’s career Spring Training stats on his player page at MLB.com, his dominant spring last year was an outlier amidst a history of March mediocrity. This is what the Mariners saw from him in their camps. It fits with Fister’s observation that Spring Training is usually a process for him as he builds up towards Opening Day.

That said, the only building so far has been the pitch count. Fister’s work on getting his mechanics down and finding his fastball command has been a lot of labor and little to no progress.

“That’s the biggest thing for me, finding the sinker consistency,” Fister said after Tuesday’s loss, “and it’s not there. It’s been something that I’ve focused on and I’ll continue to work on. It’s just a feel thing. There are times when it’s there and there are times when it’s not, so it’s just a matter of being consistent.”

It’s a release point issue, he says, but it’s not overall command. It’s just his fastball.

“I felt comfortable with the changeups that I threw,” Fister said. “I felt good with the curveball. And even the cutter is coming along. It’s just a matter of being consistent with the sinker. I feel like it’s there. It’s just a matter of being able to repeat it over and over again.”

I couldn’t watch the broadcast, so I didn’t have a constant watch on the velocity on Fister’s pitches. The home-run ball, though, seemed like it was pretty low. Other times, Fister looked to be hitting the low 90s. So it appears the inconsistency might have also been reflected in the velocity.

Fister has two more starts left this spring to get things ironed out. The fact that he has had rough springs like this before and gone on to enjoy the regular season consistency that has been a trademark of his career so far gives every reason to expect he can get through it this time too — as long as he’s healthy, which is believed to be the case.

Tuesday: Tigers vs. Rays (on tee vee)

If it’s a game late in camp on Fox Sports Detroit, it’s an Opening Day lineup. Jim Leyland said yesterday he’s going to watch how much his regulars play today, so don’t expect them to go the full distance. That won’t start happening until after Wednesday’s off-day, the unofficial start to the home stretch of the spring.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Torii Hunter, RF
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B
  5. Victor Martinez, DH
  6. Andy Dirks, LF
  7. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  8. Alex Avila, C
  9. Omar Infante, 2B

P: Doug Fister, Kyle Lobstein, Luke Putkonen, Darin Downs, Phil Coke

RAYS

  1. Desmond Jennings, CF
  2. Ben Zobrist, SS
  3. Matt Joyce, LF
  4. Luke Scott, RF
  5. Sean Rodriguez, 2B
  6. Jack Cust, DH
  7. Ryan Roberts, 3B
  8. Chris Gimenez, 1B
  9. Jose Lobaton, C

P: Jeremy Hellickson, Kyle Farnsworth, Dane De La Rosa, Will Inman, J.D. Martin

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