Henning: Toughest cuts loom at TigerTown
Lakeland, Fla. — Seven weeks of Tigers spring camp are wrapping up. Good news for those counting hours until Opening Day can be bad news for players who had hoped they could yet help a big-league team from Detroit.
Mark Lowe was Sunday’s heavy casualty as a batch of cuts and minor-league assignments hit TigerTown. It matters little that Lowe will get a $5.5 million paycheck in 2017 whether he pitches again in the big leagues or not. Money is big in the minds of fans who can’t imagine the freedom a millionaire enjoys. Money matters less to professionals whose lives have been personally defined by competing and performing and who dread the day they no longer are wanted.
In Sunday morning’s Tigers rosters decisions, which also featured news that Anthony Gose will try and exhume his old ways as a left-handed pitcher with a 97-mph fastball, the reality of letting good people go from their jobs, of ripping them from a team of friends who appreciate them as people as much as players, crash-landed on manager Brad Ausmus.
“Held back a few tears,” Ausmus said, and anyone who has come to know Lowe the past year understood completely how a gentleman as unfailingly decent as Lowe would have left an imprint, even if he never came close to being the reliever the Tigers thought they signed.
Ausmus’ head and heart are in for more bruising. This is cutdown week. A few people who might have earned a seat on Detroit’s Opening Day roster will get squeezed.
The Tigers have their share of issues, most of them interconnected, beginning with how final pieces to Ausmus’ 25-man roster will shake out and how those moves will influence the more basic question of whether this team is good enough to contend.
Ausmus, general manager Al Avila, and cohorts will debate roster spots in these final days and don’t they wish this were only a sports-bar squabble.
Anibal Sanchez has pitched his way into employment and to a role his bosses seem not to have decided upon. In the name of competitive integrity as well as fairness to people who supposedly are being rewarded for performance, a thought here is that Sanchez should go north as a long reliever and fill-in starter.
Matthew Boyd deserves a rotation spot. Any move that would send Boyd to Triple-A Toledo and make Sanchez a starter could strain a front office’s credibility. That’s avoidable when Boyd has shown he’s ready for regular big-league work. Now.
The bullpen figures to be more of a tussle.
This ranks as pleasant news, of sorts, given the Tigers relief corps in past seasons has earned all the trust associated with used car lots.
Francisco Rodriguez, Alex Wilson, Justin Wilson, Shane Greene and Kyle Ryan have five spots nailed. To repeat, the vote here is for Sanchez as a sixth man. That would leave one more spot, which, given the current flux, might be determined all of 30 seconds before Ausmus’ crew breaks camp later this week.
Bruce Rondon is the obvious pick. Or is he?
He showed up at camp weighing 300 pounds, maybe more, which tells you what kind of offseason he enjoyed. His fastball is running in the mid-90s rather than the more-typical high 90s. He is the bullpen’s perennial problem child and you sense that even if rides the weekend charter flight to Chicago for Opening Day he is on probation.
Blaine Hardy has pitched well, as he seems always to do. Another plus has been Angel Nesbitt, who right now is throwing a variety of quality pitches Rondon isn’t matching. Although Rondon has spent three different seasons in the minors, and otherwise would be out of options, he pitched fewer than 20 days there in 2015 and retains a single option. Toledo might be the best place for him to reclaim that fastball -- if it's retrievable -- when Nesbitt today looks like the stronger choice to go north.
Mike Pelfrey probably is finished in the same way as Lowe. Pelfrey is owed $8 million. But it hasn’t worked in Detroit and, with Sanchez out-pitching him, there would seem to be zero room for another long reliever/spot starter.
Avila and Ausmus can next move to their position sweepstakes. And to an outfield lineup now ajar because of J.D. Martinez’s sprained foot and shelving deep into April.
The Tigers can play it a number of ways here. They can go with JaCoby Jones in center field, or in right, with Mikie Mahtook and Tyler Collins platooning in center. Or, they can stick with their deeper thoughts and send Jones to Triple A for some advanced courses in hitting and pitch-selection. This would allow Mahtook and Collins to work in center, with, say, Alex Presley patrolling in right (or center) until Martinez returns.
Omitted from any serious consideration here is Steven Moya, who hasn’t shown he can hit or defend at a constructive level. When you’re out of farm options and have no trade value, the waiver wire is near.
Anyone who believes these decisions already have been made and that this week’s Grapefruit League finales are a formality needs to head for a nearby happy hour and bring Avila along.
Guaranteed, some of these pitching and outfield decisions are far from solidified. Much rests on games tonight through at least Thursday.
And then where are the Tigers? Even with a 25-man roster they’ve so carefully and collectively assayed?
Ausmus isn’t sure.
He was asked that very question Sunday morning as he talked during batting practice, sitting atop a bench in the Tigers dugout.
“Everyone’s got rainbows and butterflies in spring training,” he said, acknowledging that hopes often defeat realities ahead of a new season.
But he also said “we’re gonna lean a lot on our starting pitching,” and that’s the best of all strengths to take into a 162-game calendar.
It’s a matter now of finalizing who, exactly, tops off that five-man rotation. And who grabs those last chairs on the team charter.
There are your final considerations and contemplations waiting for the bosses’ gavel. And then it’s on to Chicago and the White Sox for the first peek into what this baseball year truly might be all about.