Henning: Holaday’s big spring likely to change little

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Bryan Holaday

Lakeland, Fla. — It is the happy story the Tigers do not discuss happily.

It is a story of roster surplus as the Tigers move closer to breaking spring camp ahead of Opening Day in Miami.

Bryan Holaday is a catcher fresh out of minor league options. He cannot be returned to the minors unless he is placed on waivers. And should the 28-year-old catcher, who has big league experience and adequate skills, be yielded to the waiver wire he would be slurped up like a pizza left at midnight in a dorm hall.

The problem is Detroit has in place a starting catcher, James McCann. The Tigers have an important left-handed batter, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, as McCann’s backup on a team chock full of right-handed sticks.

The Tigers have made clear they cannot carry three catchers when the team leaves Lakeland in 21/2 weeks.

And so, the club has quietly prepared to trade Holaday, the man they call “Doc,” which is how it goes when you’re a clubhouse favorite. You have a nickname. It is used often and affectionately.

Grapefruit greatness

Holaday is one of the team’s most appreciated players. He is smart, steady, and solid as granite. His teammates love him. So does his manager, Brad Ausmus.

It leaves you to wonder if Holaday could yet change his status from Surely Gone to Maybe Stays. But it’s a long shot, even if he is hitting .588 in nine games, with three home runs, a triple, and three doubles.

Baseball men: Raw numbers play second fiddle to wisdom

Saltalamacchia was brought aboard when Alex Avila departed for free agency and for new life with the White Sox (Avila’s Cactus League numbers so far: five games, four walks, seven strikeouts, no hits, but a .308 on-base percentage).

The switch-hitting Saltalamacchia has been just what the Tigers craved — a hitter they can use primarily from the left side. His numbers through six games: .400 batting average, two home runs, a 1.471 OPS.

He isn’t as skilled a catcher as Holaday. But he can put a ball into the seats and offer endless matchup protection. That’s why the Tigers signed him in December.

That’s also why they planned to trade Holaday at the end of camp in a swap that might benefit all parties.

What they didn’t anticipate was Holaday booming the ball all over Florida. As the skipper who thinks so mightily of him, Ausmus, said last week: “He’s working his way to the Grapefruit League Hall of Fame.”

Of course, this happens all the time during spring camp. The guy who was least likely to crush pitches suddenly morphs into Jimmy Foxx.

Dubious marketability

It is necessary to remember that Holaday’s big league career, all of 108 games, has produced a .251 career batting average and .623 OPS. So be extra careful about making much of March, even if a swing adjustment no doubt has helped the TCU star, drafted in the sixth round by the Tigers in 2010, rip one pitch after another in Florida.

In fact, scouts who know players the way Apple knows iPhones, have ample notes on Holaday. It is highly improbable they are sending get-this-guy directives to their general managers. Past observations tell them Holaday is exactly what he has been: a decent defender and pitch-caller who will hit .250 or so with an OPS a bit north of .600.

In other words, don’t expect general manager Al Avila to be sorting through ever-escalating trade offers as 25-man rosters are sealed in a couple of weeks.

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Plans and dispositions can of course change. Those following Tigers spring camp have seen Ausmus experiment in recent days with Holaday at third base and in left field. The sleuth in all of us says, aha, the Tigers are trying to turn him into a flexible backup who can, in a pinch, play extra positions and stick in Detroit.

The strategy, in fact, probably isn’t that crafty, as much as the Tigers front office appreciates the compliments.

Ausmus likely — at no cost to his team’s preparation — is allowing Holaday a shot at some professional enhancement. It could make him more valuable down the road if he could tell his future manager: You need an emergency third baseman? You’ve got one.

But it does not alter reality. A good man and a solid backup almost certainly will be playing elsewhere inside of three weeks. The Tigers will view Miguel Gonzalez, headed for Triple A Toledo, as their third catcher.

Holaday will be moving on. Expect it to be a place that, in step with the team for which he now plays, will enjoy the comfortable pluses unique to a man named “Doc.”