Pitchers and catchers have already reported and position players must show up by Tuesday. With that in mind, I thought today would be a good time to examine the Tigers' spring training issues.
The starting lineup is essentially set as is:
C - Ivan Rodriguez
1B - Carlos Guillen
2B - Placido Polanco
SS - Edgar Renteria
3B - Miguel Cabrera
LF - Jacque Jones
CF - Curtis Granderson
RF - Magglio Ordonez
DH - Gary Sheffield
The batting order would look like this:
Against lefties, I might think about switching Renteria and Granderson when a lefthander is on the mound.
From my point of view, this bench looks to be set as well. Assuming Vance Wilson is healthy, he's our backup catcher. Our backup infielders will be Brandon Inge and Ramon Santiago. Our OFs will be Marcus Thames and Ryan Raburn. Battling Raburn for a spot in the spring will be Freddy Guzman and Timo Perez. Guzman is a speedster who offers little else. Perez will look to capitalize on his amazingly fluky second half and win a spot. I hope we keep Inge as a backup, I really do. He can play outfield, third, and catcher, and probably the other infield positions in a pinch. Especially if Wilson doesn't come back at full strength or experiences an age-related decline, Inge can be a fine backup catcher. As a starting third baseman, Inge was well below-par offensively. However, as someone who can play multiple positions, especially catcher, Inge's power off the bench is extremely valuable. Plus, he is only 30 years old so, if he sticks around, he can be a bridge to our next young catcher after Pudge retires. If Inge is traded during camp, it will open up a bench spot for either Mike Hessman or Brent Clevlen. Both players have the power to contribute off the bench, but they don't offer Inge's versatility.
Leyland could also decide (please, please!!) that he doesn't need Santiago on the bench. Raburn and Inge can handle third and second, Guillen can handle short obviously. Santiago offers no offense and little versatility on defense. Perhaps with Zumaya's injury, Leyland will take a 12th pitcher and let Santiago go. As much as I don't like seeing teams carry 12 pitchers, especially in April when there are more off-days, Santiago's presence is redundant. Our bullpen is our weakness and we will need more reinforcements there than on offense.
I also am anxious to see how Leyland handles the LF spot. Jones looks to be the weak link of our offense at this point. In fact, three of his most similar players are Rondell White, Juan Encarnacion, and Bobby Higginson, all former underachieving Tiger OFs. Neither Jones nor Thames offer much in terms of batting eye or discipline at the plate. They are free swingers that will pop the occasional homer. But, Jones does his best against righties, while Thames mashes lefties. Hopefully, Leyland sticks with this platoon to maximize our lineup potential.
Another area of concern is Granderson's ability to hit lefties. As our leadoff hitter and tablesetter for such an impressive lineup, we need Granderson to improve that stat. His averages last year were .190/.225/.269 (AVG/OBP/SLG) against southpaws. Against righties, he hit .337/.393/.621, which frankly would have been Hall of Fame numbers over a whole season. If he wants to be an All-Star and help our offense reach its full potential, the Tigers need Granderson to become at least league-average against lefties.
I'm not too concerned with Guillen's move to first. I was impressed in his limited duty there last season and he didn't do anything to change my mind in Winter Ball or the World Baseball Classic a couple years ago. I am curious to see what Renteria will do in his return to the American League. The last time he was here in 2005 with Boston, he had the worst year of his career with 30 errors and 100 Ks. Now, after rejuvenating his career in Atlanta, which Renteria will we see? The one whose career was on the decline with St. Louis and Boston, or this new Renteria that walks more, regained power, and improved his defense?
As always, the issue with this Tigers squad will be the players' health. Our stars very fragile and we need to monitor their health throughout March. Any rest they can get is needed because our minor league system won't offer much in the way of reinforcements.
On to the pitching staff, our starting five looks to be set as well. If Leyland wants to alternate lefties and righties, he'll likely begin with Kenny Rogers, followed by Justin Verlander, Nate Robertson, Jeremy Bonderman, than Dontrelle Willis. However, the more likely rotation will be Verlander, Rogers, Bonderman, Willis, Robertson. I'm not too concerned with the order, frankly. If anyone gets injured, we have Zach Miner, Denny Bautista, Jordan Tata, and Virgil Vasquez waiting in reserve.
The bullpen is the area with the most question marks heading into camp. A few jobs are locked down, but the back end is wide open. Todd Jones returns as the closer. As long as we bring him in with no one on base, anything else becomes dangerous. Fernando Rodney will be our top setup man for the 8th. Joel Zumaya is out until about midseason, so look for lefty specialists Bobby Seay and Tim Byrdak to pick up some of his role. Jason Grilli will also likely be back in long relief. Those five will comprise the main relievers. The sixth (or seventh) reliever who gets to stick around until Zumaya gets back is probably the biggest position battle of the spring. Those in contention include Yorman Bazardo, Zach Miner, Denny Bautista, Francisco Cruceta, Macay McBride, and Clay Rapada. Moreso than talent, a big factor in determining these spots will be who has options left. If someone can be sent to the minors without facing waivers first, it makes it much easier to send him down. Bazardo, Bautista, and Cruceta are out of options, therefore must go through waivers before being sent down. All three have pitched in multiple organizations, as teams have been in love with their potential, but let down by the results. Bautista and Cruceta are flamethrowers, but have shown little control. On the other hand, Bazardo is a sinkerballer who has a little too much control, surrendering too many HRs last year. I imagine at least one will make the team because of their situation. Miner has shown what he can do the last couple years. He's a serviceable arm out of the pen who can start when needed. But, I think Detroit will end up stashing him in Toledo and bring him up when injuries/doubleheaders occur. Rapada and McBride are two young lefties that are likely to be sent to Toledo as well as insurance for Byrdak and Seay. Obviously, you aren't going to find a perfect guy to round out the back end of a bullpen. When it comes down to it, Detroit will likely take some combo of Cruceta, Bazardo, and Bautista to round out the pen.