Henning: Math not on Collins' side, despite pop in bat

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Tyler Collins gets congratulated after he hit a fourth-inning solo home run off Aaron Harang of the Phillies.

Clearwater, Fla. — What Tigers followers appreciate about Tyler Collins is he can make a baseball disappear.

He whirls his bat, left-handed, and presto. A pitch that was sailing in on him at 90-plus mph leaves the ballpark in a blur, as happened in the fourth inning Sunday at Bright House Field in a game the Tigers and Phillies played to a 4-4, nine-inning tie.

It was Collins' second home run of the spring. He is 24 years old, 5-foot-11, and at 212 pounds is built like a small-college middle linebacker. Fans see the power and want him on Detroit's 25-man Opening Day roster.

But he probably isn't flying north with the Tigers next weekend.

Almost certainly he will be packing for Triple A Toledo. The math doesn't work for Collins. Andrew Romine and Hernan Perez are in line to get two bench spots that won't easily welcome a fifth outfielder, which would be Collins' role.

"They've got a job to win ballgames," he said of his bosses, Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers front-office general, and manager Brad Ausmus. "If that includes me, wonderful. But there's nothing I can do about it except play hard and not concern myself with those decisions. What's going to happen will happen."

You can understand the fans' argument as Dombrowski and Ausmus get ready for Opening Day, April 6, at Comerica Park.

Bats are secondary

The Tigers in recent years haven't been a team big on bench bats.

Once upon a time there was a Marcus Thames or a Delmon Young who could step from the dugout and in late innings offer a long-ball threat.

But the Tigers dugout has been less imposing of late: Don Kelly, Ramon Santiago, Romine, Perez, etc. — players who were better at playing multiple positions than at hitting for multiple bases tended to be late-inning options.

Fans prefer power. They warmed to Collins as quickly as he arrived last September and knocked a pitch into the center-field shrubbery at Progressive Field in Cleveland. A couple of Grapefruit League homers imply all the more to hitting-hungry Tigers Nation that Collins should be on hand when a tight game can be rocked by a bat with Collins' brand of power.

The counter argument is compelling, and not only because Ausmus has explained why pinch-runners and flexible defenders (Romine and Perez) should help his team more than a fifth outfielder (Collins).

It might also be noted that Collins isn't yet Gates Brown, the Tigers pinch-hitting star of the '60s and '70s. He is batting .234 in Grapefruit League games. He has a heftier OPS (.747), thanks to a .321 on-base average and .426 slugging percentage. But he has som polishing ahead.

The Tigers seem not to be interested in taking a developing player's bat and turning it into a part-time asset.

Given their roster arithmetic, this likely isn't much of a front-office debate, especially when Perez and Romine are out of minor-league options and would hit the waiver wire if they don't crack the Opening Day team.

Still growing

And so it's easy — somewhat. Collins, who has options remaining, can head to Toledo and get steady at-bats that can make him a sturdier hitter.

"If that happens, I'll just go down and play my (tail) off," said Collins, who weighed 220 last spring and has since dropped eight pounds, which has helped his quickness. "I'll just play hard and be ready."

Ausmus will let the week play out before he commissions his final 25 men ahead of the April 6 opener, against Minnesota at Comerica Park.

Until then, he can talk about Collins as a hitter and as a prospect. He can compare this year's player to the rookie who showed up at spring camp a year ago.

"He's learned to throttle down a little bit," Ausmus said Sunday. "There's not so much the bull in a china shop. He's a little more thoughtful."

In other words, he has grown. Collins' mission, should the Triple A orders come this week, is to add a bit more crust, with emphasis on that potentially helpful left-handed bat.

After all, the trip to Detroit from Toledo is only an hour by car. And yet everyone knows a car doesn't get you to Comerica Park. Your bat does.

Collins is the guy Comerica's customers want on hand. If the numbers aren't quite right in March, an outfielder with his heart set on the big leagues could make matters urgent by doing some mashing for the Mud Hens.