Lakeland, Fla. — It was mentioned Wednesday to Brad Ausmus that he inherited a turnkey Tigers team. His roster is all but set. His job as a rookie manager seemingly got easier when there were as few personnel decisions in flux as the 2014 Tigers present.
“I think it’s helpful,” Ausmus said during a pre-workout briefing in his Tigertown office, and explaining that filling 25 roster spots “is easier to evaluate during the regular season than in Florida or Arizona in March.”
Of course, this issue of who cracks a 12-man pitching staff and who fills in those 13 position slots can be altered as quickly as someone strains a muscle or gets hit with a pitch. The apparent makeup of a seven-man bullpen, or a five-pitcher starting rotation, can be blown to bits if an elbow turns tender — or if a reliever ends spring camp with an earned-run average of 12.36.
But assuming reasonable health, and assuming men with pitching track records throw according to past form, Ausmus will come very close to taking north in 5˝ weeks these 25 players as the Tigers prepare for an Opening Day unveiling at Comerica Park:
The roster (for now)
Starting pitchers: Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly.
Relief pitchers: Joe Nathan, Bruce Rondon, Al Alburquerque, Joba Chamberlain, Ian Krol, Phil Coke, Luke Putkonen.
Starting position players: Alex Avila, Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Nick Castellanos, Jose Iglesias, Andy Dirks, Rajai Davis, Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez.
Bench players: Bryan Holaday, Steve Lombardozzi, Don Kelly.
Not in recent memory has a Tigers team arrived at camp with so many spots pretty much determined.
Ausmus and the Tigers are blessed most by a starting rotation that must ease in Drew Smyly as Doug Fister’s replacement but remains one of the best groups in all of baseball.
The bullpen could deal with a wrinkle or two if an intercostal muscle shreds or an elbow ligament frays. It could also face rearrangement if Putkonen, or Chamberlain, or Coke, or anyone gets lit up during Grapefruit League games and forces Ausmus and his boss, Dave Dombrowski, to consider other contestants.
But based on quality of arms and a complete — not one season — review of their past work, the above seven have a high-percentage chance of finding a seat in Detroit’s 2014 bullpen.
On the position side, Castellanos could, theoretically, look overmatched at age 21 and persuade the Tigers he needs a few more weeks or more at Triple A Toledo. But that’s a dark and unlikely scenario. He should be fine at third base, and he will progressively hit, which are skills the Tigers can trust on and beyond Opening Day.
Get over it, Kelly haters
As for Ausmus’ bench drones, a wide band of Tigers fans is strictly opposed to Don Kelly making the team or having any meaningful role on Detroit’s roster. They are certain Ausmus’ troops would be enhanced by anyone but Kelly, who is successor to past fan whipping boys Brandon Inge and Ryan Raburn.
Kelly, though, does what a 25th player should do: He plays multiple positions. He handles everything in the outfield, he has a glove and a high-caliber arm at third, and he assumes right-side infield jobs with ease. Yes, he’s a lifetime .229 hitter with a .634 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).
Deal with it. That’s about the range in which most 25th players hit. The difference is Kelly can put a ball over the fence. The greater difference is he can run and be trusted to play everywhere on the field. He’s an easy choice for a bench spot on any roster, beginning with Detroit’s.
Lombardozzi, who was one of the ingredients in that oh-so popular trade of Fister to the Nationals, is a certainty to make the team because he, too, can play a batch of different positions, even if shortstop isn’t his strong suit.
Holaday is a non-issue as Avila’s backup at catcher. Holaday won’t hit the way Brayan Pena did during Pena’s uncommonly good 2013 season, but he won’t be an instant out. He will also play better defense than Pena. The Tigers will live comfortably with Holaday’s skills.
On the verge
There are players who during the next five weeks can dislodge some of the above names, and who definitely will if injuries enter the picture.
Hernan Perez would have made the team had the Tigers not added Lombardozzi. He will be summoned to Detroit promptly should anything happen to either Iglesias or Kinsler as events unfurl.
Daniel Fields is closing in on his big-league ticket to Comerica Park and would be a potential fill-in should one of Ausmus’ outfielders get banged up.
Jordan Lennerton could easily make the club if Castellanos falters and Cabrera returns for more necessary duty at third base.
Corey Knebel, Justin Miller, Jose Alvarez, Casey Crosby — at least a couple of those gents will almost certainly be shipped to Detroit at some point this season, maybe soon, when a starter needs a day off, the bullpen needs refurbishing, or, just as likely, when someone hits the disabled list.
But for now the manifest is all but final. Unusual in the annals of Tigers spring camps is a roster so set. That’s either good or bad, depending upon what happens beginning Opening Day.