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5 Position battles to watch closely in spring camp for the Tigers

Aug 31, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers center fielder JaCoby Jones (40) hits a double in the ninth inning against the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park. Detroit won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

We know that by and large, Spring Training has little meaning. But players do need to go out and get into a rhythm before Opening Day, stay healthy doing so, and perhaps most importantly for some, earn a starting role or even just a spot on the roster.

Like every other team in spring camp for the next 4+ weeks, the Detroit Tigers will be addressing some important position battles that will impact what the 25-man roster could look like come Opening Day. Let’s highlight the five ones of most importance.

CENTER FIELD

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Didn’t we just have this discussion last season as well? It’s been a revolving door since the Tigers traded Austin Jackson back in 2014.

The general consensus around the fans, and perhaps the Tigers brass as well, is that they would prefer JaCoby Jones to get a stranglehold of the everyday job, his defense and range is not an issue. But questions still remain of whether or not he can hit enough to play every day in the show, hence the additions of Leonys Martín (FA signing) and Victor Reyes (Rule 5 pick) this winter.

 2017 Statistics BA OPS wRC+ K% FLD% DRS UZR
J. JONES (56 Gms w/ DET) .170 .510 34 42.2 .992 5 -0.6
L. MARTÍN (49 Gms w/ SEA, CHC) .172 .513 35 23.9 .988 8 2.6
V. REYES (126 Gms w/ AA-ARI) .292 .731 110 15.5 .994

Credit: FanGraphs

So just looking at the respective numbers for each player from a year ago, it should be Reyes in a landslide. However, 23-year-old has not seen any time above Double-A in the otherwise terrific start to his pro career. And he can play all three outfield spots, mostly the corners. So at worst, he’ll be that fourth, or in the Tigers’ case — fifth, outfielder.

This could be as wide open of a battle as any in camp this spring. If neither Jones or Martín isn’t exactly “making a statement” and Reyes is playing very well, don’t be too stunned if he gets the nod come March 29.

BULLPEN

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Ahh yes, the Tigers bullpen… always a fascinating roller coaster to ride for 162 games.

So the only real surefire position locked down in the bullpen for Detroit is Shane Greene in the closer’s role. The starter-turned-reliever was dynamite (almost) all year long and was terrific in late-inning situations. So we’re seemingly all set there.

The other six or seven spots? Your guess is as good as mine. Alex Wilson figures to be the set-up man unless he really impresses in his spring experiment to be a starter. Blaine Hardy has pitched parts of the last four seasons with Detroit but is coming off his worst season. Daniel Stumpf performed admirably after coming over in the Rule 5 process. Buck Farmer and Drew VerHagen are two guys the Tigers would love to see excel, seeing as they may be on their last leg with the organization. And the team inked veteran Travis Wood to a deal this winter to compete for a spot as well.

The Tigers also have youngster Joe Jimenez, who many have dubbed as the closer of the future in Detroit. And the starting rotation has some questions of its own (which we will get to momentarily) that could further complicate things.

2017 Statistics IP ERA WHIP OPP BA K/9 BB/9
S. GREENE 67.2 2.66 1.24 .204 9.71 4.52
A. WILSON 60 4.50 1.37 .277 6.30 2.25
B. HARDY 33.1 5.94 1.77 .322 7.56 3.51
D. STUMPF 37.2 3.82 1.38 .259 7.88 3.58
D. VERHAGEN 34.1 5.77 1.49 .309 6.55 2.36
B. FARMER 48 6.75 1.56 .282 9.19 3.23
T. WOOD (w/ KC and SD) 94 6.80 1.73 .303 6.22 4.31
J. JIMENEZ* 19 12.32 2.11 .352 8.05 4.26

Credit: FanGraphs | *2017 w/ AAA Toledo: 25 IP, 1.44 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 13 K/9

STARTING ROTATION

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So much like the bullpen (to some degree), there is really only one spot in the rotation confirmed: Michael Fulmer — unless Detroit decides to up and trade him before Opening Day.

If the season started today, the rotation would likely be rounded out in some form by Matthew Boyd, free agent-signee Mike Fiers, Daniel Norris and Jordan Zimmermann. Boyd showed considerable improvement from 2015 to 2016 but took a step back last season. He’s also out of options. Fiers figures to be safe barring an injury or huge meltdown in spring. The same applies for Zimmermann, who has gotten worse, albeit marred somewhat due to injuries, since signing his big deal in the fall of 2015. Some around here at DSN believe he too could be in “make or break” mode. And while Norris has so much potential to be a front-line type of starter, he too has struggled to stay on the field consistently.

IP ERA WHIP OPP BA K/9 BB/9
M. BOYD 135 5.27 1.56 .286 7.33 3.53
M. FIERS (w/ HOU) 153.1 5.22 1.43 .263 8.57 3.64
M. FULMER 164.2 3.83 1.15 .239 6.23 2.19
D. NORRIS 101.2 5.31 1.61 .291 7.61 3.90
J. ZIMMERMANN 160 6.08 1.55 .308 5.79 2.34

Credit: FanGraphs

Barring injuries and/or major performance collapses this spring, this figures to be the Tigers’ Opening Day rotation. While it’s largely due to the fact that the team doesn’t have a whole lot of other options to start, there are some bullpen guys (Farmer, VerHagen, Wood) with starter experience who could get a shot if they do well.

UTILITY MAN

Utility players have always been a part of the 25-man roster makeup but they have never been more emphasized than in recent years. The Tigers had Andrew Romine for the last four seasons before the team decided to waive him at season’s end.

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The team acquired Romine in March of 2014 from the Los Angeles Angels and with each passing season in Detroit, Romine’s value improved based on his ability to adequately play all over the field if need be. These “super utility” players are often glove-first performers that can fill in in a pinch and anything they provide offensively is essentially a bonus.

This arguably may be the most free-for-all position battle in spring camp for the Tigers. The cast of characters competing for this role ranges from major league veterans to some who haven’t even sniffed the majors yet.

  • Pete Kozma, 29 | .111/.200/.178 in 39 games with NYY and TEX; 314 career ML games
  • Alexi Amarista, 28 | .238/.269/.351 in 96 games with COL; 702 career ML games
  • Ronny Rodriguez, 25 | .291/.324/.454 in 117 games with AAA-CLE; no ML experience
  • Niko Goodrum, 25 | .265/.309/.425 in 127 games with AAA-MIN; made ML debut with Twins in 2017, playing in 11 games
  • Kody Eaves, 24 | .271/.341/.464 in 96 games between AA/AAA-DET; no ML experience

Here’s a closer look at the candidates based on positions they played in during last season.

Career Games by Position 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF FLD%
P. KOZMA 9 97 45 753 3 .979
A. AMARISTA 551 73 803 58 209 9 .977
R. RODRIGUEZ* 77 306 70 264 13 24 .980
N. GOODRUM* 12 62 216 281 3 35 49 .938
K. EAVES* 402 142 3 .957

Credit: Baseball-Reference | *Career MiLB games

So there’s certainly positives and negatives to take away from this. Both Kozma and Amarista both offer major league experience, which could bode well in a clubhouse filled relatively with young, inexperienced players. It also prevents the Tigers from “forcing” a younger player like the other three into a role and perhaps altering/stunting their growth.

But a lot like the other position battles here, if the veteran candidates falter and any of the younger kids soar in spring camp, the Tigers may have no choice.

DESIGNATED HITTER

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Look, this is at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to position battles of importance for a reason. As long as Victor Martinez can stay healthy through spring training, he’s very likely going to win the job uncontested.

And it’s very reasonable to suggest that if he is healthy all year (big if), he may turn in a nice offensive season. Just look at the previous three seasons for V-Mart:

Victor Martinez, 2015-17 BA OPS HR RBI wRC+ WAR
2015 | 120 Games .245 .667 11 64 77 -2.0
2016 | 154 Games .289 .826 27 86 119 0.8
2017 | 107 Games .255 .697 10 47 85 -1.1

Credit: FanGraphs

It’s very simple for Martinez, or at least it should be. If he is healthy, chances are he’ll be closer to the 2016 form than either season sandwiched around it. And one would be hard-pressed to find many players in his generation that had better bat-to-ball skills than Martinez, perfect for young players coming up trying to find their way (talking to you, JaCoby Jones).

No, what this really boils down to in the eyes of many, including some here at DSN, is his level of commitment, leadership and demeanor moving forward. Reports started to leak out last year that Martinez has a sense of entitlement around the clubhouse as opposed to leadership for a young club, which could certainly damper the chemistry for first-year manager Ron Gardenhire.

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Martinez’s apparent frustration is understandable to a degree. Hell, I would be too if I dealt with multiple heart conditions during a season and if my mind is telling me “yes, keep going,” but my body says “nah bruh, you’re done.” Victor has had a terrific career but in the “what have you done for me lately” society, the recent body of work, both on and off the field, just is not going to cut it.

Many believe the Tigers need to make a strict business decision and cut their losses now with Martinez. A lot of this falls on Victor himself. If he’s not willing to commit to the current state of the team, then such a decision may need to take place, allowing for someone like Miguel Cabrera or John Hicks to assume the DH roles (or maybe even a freshly-available Corey Dickerson?).

But again, so long as Victor is on board and stays healthy, the DH job is his. No questions asked.

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