Henning: Issues follow Tigers as they leave Lakeland
Lakeland, Fla. — If you don’t feel a splash of melancholy when spring training wraps up, you’re either fresh out of red blood or you’ve been overly dwelling on next week’s Michigan weather forecast.
The Tigers said goodbye to their Publix Field home schedule Wednesday and this farewell wasn’t fun. The new Marchant Stadium complex, beautified by a $48-million makeover, is more inviting than ever. Temperatures were in the high ’80s. A nice crowd (6,872) turned out for the finale.
It hurts to leave this place. Every year it hurts. Baseball in March is the best of all baseball months. The games have an Eden-like sparkle. And everyone’s in a grand mood when the strains and tensions of a long regular season have yet to arrive.
This year’s exit has a different feel as the Tigers head to Sarasota and then to Jupiter for their final three Grapefruit League games. The Tigers roster is still being hammered into something the front office hopes can contend.
But there are issues. Roster issues. Pitching issues. Competitive issues. The Tigers, who would happily have begun a retooling/rebuilding plan this spring, ran into a shutdown trade market and are forced to chase a playoff spot when the team appears, mostly from a pitching perspective, to be lacking.
The rotation could be a savior for general manager Al Avila and for manager Brad Ausmus. But even if five starters shine, the Tigers’ old trap door, the bullpen, looks as shaky as at any point in the past five years.
The lineup will be fine. When it’s intact. But there will be nights, particularly early, when cold weather, and having J.D. Martinez on the disabled list until May or so, will leave them in shutout mode. Which makes their pitching even more important — and, perhaps, more prone to disappoint or deflate.
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So, having dumped a wheelbarrow load of pessimism on Tigers Nation, it’s fair to cite some pluses. And there are many.
Justin Verlander is going to have another knockout season. So, too, will Miguel Cabrera, who, like Verlander, is turning 34 and looks as awesome as at any time in his career. Nicholas Castellanos has extended his game-name by two syllables from his old days as Nick Castellanos. His game has grown by at least as much. Expect a big year from him, as well as from Justin Upton.
There will be surprises along the way. Joe Jimenez will be in Detroit in a few weeks and should be a nifty bullpen add-on. JaCoby Jones has handled pitching better this spring than was predicted.
He could be a huge help in center — if he can survive the scalpels with which big-league pitchers will attack a rookie hitter.
But if this team were genuinely equipped to win a championship there would have been fewer unsettling moments this week.
Mark Lowe was released. Mike Pelfrey has been pink-slipped as well.
Anibal Sanchez is going north, for now, as a reliever with a 2017 salary of $16.8 million. It tells you how little the Tigers trust him to take the ball every five days.
The Tigers, no surprise, had zero luck trying to trade Steven Moya and, according to ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark, have already put him on waivers, as was expected when his minor-league options have expired. The Tigers have since confirmed.
As for that supposed strong link, the starting rotation, questions have creeped into the picture there as well, even after Ausmus announced Thursday that Matthew Boyd is a rotation lock.
Reading deep into words and expressions Monday night at Disney World, where Daniel Norris had an ugly night, there was more than a sense Ausmus was nervous-plus over Norris.
The youngest Tigers starter felt out-of-whack in his bullpen warm-up and never came close that evening to reconnecting with his considerable skills during a brutal pitching exhibition.
Norris is 23. The Tigers had hoped he could pitch past his youth and tender big-league background.
But there are natural worries there, at least at the regular season’s outset, and particularly when the Tigers bullpen is best used sparingly.
This could all change, of course. The Tigers open in Chicago against a White Sox team that’s reconstructing and Ausmus’ gang could start with the kind of flash the Tigers showed in winning their first three games a year ago.
But it’s difficult to keep a team in genuine playoff shape when its prime time has passed and when, particularly, you don’t have dominating pitching of the kind the Tigers brandished in winning all those division championships.
It was another time. Another team, those Tigers clubs that made baseball deep into October a regular habit in Detroit. And what’s remembered about those particular clubs is how it felt leaving Florida.
It always felt as if those teams would simply get on with the business of proving over the next six months they were playoff-grade, maybe good enough to win it all.
As the Marchant Stadium staff gathered Friday on the right-field patio, for beers and burgers and their annual end-of-spring celebration, there wasn’t that same sense of strength or inevitability.
There was instead a somber final glance at the ballpark’s green turf, a stroll to the parking lot, and heavy acceptance that, beginning next week, there will be 162 games ahead, none as inconsequential, or as carefree, as these Grapefruit League rehearsals.