Henning: Expect Mahtook to start in center for Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Notes, thoughts, items a week into the Tigers’ annual spring fling in central Florida:

Guessing at manager Brad Ausmus’ pick as Opening Day center fielder

Unless someone gets hurt, or a rookie named JaCoby Jones pulls a reprise of the old Spring Phenom act, Mikie Mahtook (MAH-took for the phonetic fans) figures to be the Tigers’ choice in center when they get rolling, for keeps, April 3 against the White Sox. Even before a single Grapefruit League game has been played it’s simply a percentage call Mahtook will bag Cameron Maybin’s old job after Maybin was shipped to the Angels in November.

The Tigers like Mahtook and liked that they got him from the Rays for either (cash) or (b) a player to be named later, which tells you in either case Mahtook came at a price a team in Luxury Tax Land found irresistible.

They like that he’s 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, with good feet and a right-hand bat strong enough to have launched nine home runs in 41 games in 2015.

They appreciate that he was a first-round draft pick (2011, Louisiana State). And they loved the testimony from their good friend, LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri, who told them Mahtook played baseball in the fashion of a Marine infantryman bent on taking an island — single-handedly.

They probably didn’t care for his .195 batting average in 2016. But a player who batted .295 in 41 games for the Rays in 2015 could easily have been dealing last year with issues from a hand fractured by a Josh Tomlin pitch in June, which is how Mahtook views last season’s falloff.

“He’s got a nice swing,” Ausmus was mentioning the other day, a slice of praise that, surprisingly, you don’t always hear from a manager about a big-leaguer.

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You can’t say with any assurance how the center-field sweepstakes will play out in Florida. But assuming as the Tigers do that Jones will need more time in the Triple A Toledo oven, and that Tyler Collins makes the team as more of a fourth outfielder, this job is headed Mahtook’s way. At least as today’s handicapping goes.

How a 12-man pitching staff might shake out

This is where Tigers drama-lovers will be focused for most of spring camp.

At the moment, Jordan Zimmermann is feeling whole and will join Justin Verlander as the grizzled guys in Ausmus’ starting rotation. Michael Fulmer has a seat reserved, and so does Daniel Norris. Matt Boyd should win a ticket, as well, assuming his slider/curveball mix behaves as it did during his rotation shifts in 2016.

There, at least as today’s scoresheet would have it, is Ausmus’ starting stable.

Move next to that ever-exciting Tigers repository known as the bullpen.

Francisco Rodriguez is set at closer. Bruce Rondon has grown from his past days as the Talented Tigers Pitcher Most Likely To Not Succeed to being all but anointed as Ausmus’ set-up man.

Alex Wilson is probably a certainty, as well, as is Shane Greene. And so is left-hander Justin Wilson, who has been working overtime on a second pitch he rather needs. You can project that Kyle Ryan, too, has a job because of his strong left arm and capacity to work multiple innings.

Blaine Hardy is another lefty option if health or performance sacks Ryan and, so, at least technically, is one Daniel Stumpf, whom the Tigers snared in December’s Rule 5 draft and who either must be handed a 25-man roster spot or returned to his last employer, the Royals.

The Tigers need a long reliever. Unless one of the Five Favorites slips from the rotation because of arm ills or ugly Grapefruit League trials, Anibal Sanchez could/should be Detroit’s long-innings option.

K-Rod, others convince Rondon it’s time for change

If the forecast hold, that leaves for a single spot two contenders from last year’s crew who hold 2017 contracts, some of them expensive. Mike Pelfrey is owed $8 million and no team likes digesting that kind of cash. It’s possible Pelfrey could be drafted as Ausmus’ long reliever and Sanchez could be used in shorter shifts.

Mark Lowe could always pitch his way into the team’s consciousness this spring, all because relievers so often bounce from bad years to good, and vice versa. Lowe’s campaign a year ago was so awful (7.11 ERA in 54 games) he has few places to go but up.

He also, at the moment, and soon to be 34, has the toughest road to a roster spot when camp breaks in five weeks.

Post script: The wildcard in 2017 could be Drew VerHagen. It was news last week when VerHagen, at his behest, was transferred to starter duty. No one knows how long this might last. Or if it will keep VerHagen from relocating to a bullpen the Tigers thought was his best path to big-league employment.

“There are differing opinions,” Ausmus said, “on whether it’s easier for him (to be effective) as a starting pitcher, or as a reliever.”

In VerHagen’s favor: He has a big body (6-foot-6), he was a starter at a place that’s produced its share of Grade A big-league beef (Vanderbilt), and, with that Tigers bullpen at the moment unusually crowded – we’ll see how long that lasts.

It’s a move that makes sense when a pitcher can always return to relief chores if this rotation audition doesn’t go smoothly.