Henning: Taking a stab at Ausmus’ list of priorities
Lakeland, Fla. — This spring camp for the Tigers, as most have detected, has been low on drama.
Among those who might agree is Brad Ausmus, who stood in front of the Tigers dugout at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, sunglasses guarding his eyes, and a hooded sweatshirt fighting off some rare chill on a 50-some-degree day that followed nearly a month straight of temps in the 70s and 80s.
The Tigers manager was asked where his to-do list stood a bit more than two weeks before the Tigers head north for Opening Day.
“Pretty good,” he said, with a nod. “From a fundamentals standpoint, I think things have smoothed out.”
Well, yes and no.
The Tigers won another game Wednesday, beating the Braves, 8-6. It sealed a four-game unbeaten string (three victories and a non-recorded Grapefruit League tie), which pushed their spring record to an electrifying 6-12.
Various unresolved issues could have been mentioned Wednesday by Ausmus. But it’s understood a skipper probably isn’t into roster dissection on the same level as media and fans 17 days before the team flees Florida.
So, here’s a stab at some of the checkpoints Ausmus might have cited as he dueled with Wednesday’s sun and cold morning breeze:
Make sure Matthew Boyd is in that starting rotation.
Only because Anibal Sanchez had a sudden revival Tuesday, striking out five and not allowing a hit or walk in four innings, is there any debate here. The Tigers, of course, are rooting for Sanchez the way you root that your kid’s college tuition won’t be wasted.
They owe him $21.8 million and prefer to dispense it for quality service. They naturally will allow Sanchez every chance humanly defensible in his quest, and theirs, to make the team.
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The problem is that another pitcher at risk to receive a fat unemployment check (Mike Pelfrey, $8 million) has also rebounded this week and suddenly offers the Tigers a dreamy notion he could earn his supper at the very least as a long reliever.
You don’t carry two pitchers as long relievers.
Nor, if you’re the Tigers, are you terribly interested in paying Sanchez $20-million plus to work the occasional single inning, a job for which he might or might not prove suitable.
But you must also be careful about sticking with Sanchez as a rotation choice when he has had a couple of tough years and, at least until Tuesday, had endured a brutal spring camp marked by hitters billyclubbing his pitches.
The rationalizations become more damaging if you decide a pitcher who has been throwing as well as Boyd has been tossing in Florida should start the year at Triple A and thus make room for either Sanchez or Pelfrey.
This would not be fair.
Nor would it be in Boyd’s emotional and professional interests to have his heart smashed when performances otherwise warranted a seat on the April 1 team charter.
If events during the final two weeks make it clear the Tigers in fact are better with Sanchez or Pelfrey in the rotation, so be it. The evidence will speak accordingly.
But what can’t happen here, not if the Tigers care to contend while keeping a hammerlock on their credibility, is to look generously at a pitcher with a gilded contract, only to slight a better prospect who has minor-league options and who’s being paid a comparative fraction.
No one says that’s about to happen. But it’s a thought some less-than-cynical folks are at least tucking within their oh-so-innocent minds.
Resist temptations to hurry JaCoby Jones.
The Tigers have this one nailed. Or, so it seems.
Fans who understandably aren’t wild about a center-field platoon of Mikie Mahtook and Tyler Collins want to play Wheel of Fortune and take a spin on Jones as the Tigers’ Opening Day man in center.
The problem is understood by those who appreciate big-league baseball’s penchant for cruelty.
Jones is still learning how to hit. It might be a challenge he subdues in the short term — well enough, anyway, to justify a trip to Comerica Park.
Or, it might take a month, or months. Also possible is that it won’t happen at all, given baseball’s sadistic ways.
It’s a seductive thought, going with Jones when he can speed across acres of turf and snatch balls that for too many years have been sneaking past Tigers center fielders.
The Tigers figure to give him some necessary gestation time at Toledo.
No one will be watching, or wishing, more than Ausmus and his boss, Al Avila, that Jones figures out breaking pitches. That he sticks rigidly to strike-zone boundaries. And that he becomes more familiar with the subtleties of hitting a big-league pitch.
Because this team, this manager, this front office, desperately need an everyday, two-way answer in center field.