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Henning: Roster plot thickens as spring days dwindle

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
James McCann should have the backup catcher job locked up as team heads north.

Lakeland, Fla. — Clubhouse navigation became easier this week at Marchant Stadium. Maybe one-third of the portable cubicles that jam a locker room were rolled away. Players destined for the minor leagues in 2015 returned to Tigertown's brooder coop on the complex's far east tract.

It means time is getting short for the Tigers. And for players chasing big-league jobs. In two weeks the survivors will be in Detroit, prepping for Opening Day, April 6, and a 2015 season that could go either way for a team that no longer is a popular favorite to win the American League Central.

Jobs are settled in all but a few cases. Brad Ausmus, whose surer ways as manager in Year Two are one of spring camp's more interesting developments, has sticky decisions ahead, some of which will be determined by how certain people perform during these remaining dozen Grapefruit League games.

One person's thoughts on the 25 players Ausmus — and the man who authorizes final roster decisions, Dave Dombrowski — might today take north:

Position players

There are two discussions, only, as 13 names shake out: catcher and how Ausmus' bench is configured.

Alex Avila's back-up appears to be rookie James McCann, who a year from now is probably the Tigers' top pick to catch regularly. This assumes Alex Avila will be lost to free agency, which is a percentage bet.

McCann has done everything right in spring camp. Returning him to Triple A Toledo for storage is a waste of talent. He should get enough work in Detroit, probably as more than a platoon option, to justify taking him over accomplished back-up catcher Bryan Holaday.

Given the potential for injuries — Avila's history must be considered here — Holaday might want to pack lightly for Toledo. He could be back in a hurry. But he's an important insurance policy and a good bet to play in the big leagues for a significant time because of the steady need for reserve catchers.

For now, McCann should make the team and be of help, defensively and even offensively. A likely long-term starter should get a first full season's taste of the big leagues.

Outfield/infield options

It comes down to two places for three players: Hernan Perez, Andrew Romine, and Tyler Collins.

Collins has the bat fans want on Detroit's bench. And they have a point. There should be at least one piece of thunder-lumber in a big-league dugout when games get into late innings and an extra-base hit can be a game-changer.

But from Ausmus' standpoint, there's a hang-up.

He more likely will need to pinch-run rather than pinch-hit late in games. He more often will need a defensive replacement than need a substitute batter.

It makes carrying a fifth outfielder, which Collins would become, difficult in those early days and weeks of the regular season.

Compounding the case against Collins is a fact of life about minor-league options. Perez and Romine can't be returned to the bushes unless each clears waivers. They have burned their three option years when minor leaguers can be brought to The Show, as they say, and returned as many times as is necessary in a given season.

Romine and Perez have in their favor a handy ally: versatility. It's what kept Don Kelly in Detroit for ages, no matter how infuriated it might have made certain residents of Tigers Nation.

Shortstop, second base, third base, first base — and now the outfield — when you have players who run as well as these two gents sprint and who can play positions where backups can be critical, it's difficult to see how the Tigers can keep Collins and expose either Perez or Romine to waivers.

Another possible option is in play. Dombrowski could always make a deal involving one of his out-of-options candidates, or even Collins. Dombrowski could, conceivably, put together a package that brings the Tigers a healthier bat that paired with some flexible defensive skills would provide an upgrade and help Detroit escape a waivers trap.

But finding that brand of hitter is more than difficult. Every team is looking for big bats it can plug into a lineup or, as a luxury, stock on the bench.

And rarely are they available.

Should he be returned to Toledo, Collins, like Holaday, can probably expect a short stay. It never fails. Someone strains a calf or hamstring. An ankle acts up. A guy who two weeks earlier was cleaning out his locker in Lakeland, bitterly accepting a Triple A jail sentence, finds himself back in Detroit.

Two weeks of games remain and needs can change. But, if Ausmus were to act today, it seems all but sure he'd go with Romine and Perez.

Bullpen

This is where your guess is as good as anyone's. The Tigers, included.

A handful of relievers are all but in:

Joakim Soria, Al Alburquerque, Bruce Rondon, and rookie left-hander Kyle Ryan, who fits as a long reliever, look as if they're safe. It was thought even two weeks ago that Rondon would need a few extra days baking in Florida before the Tigers could recall him a year after Tommy John surgery.

But he has been throwing beautifully. His recovery from Tommy John has been textbook in terms of recovery and timeline.

Joba Chamberlain probably has a job, as well. He still has a fastball and has the essential secondary pitches to grab a seat on that charter to Detroit.

Ian Krol should win the second left-hander's sweepstakes in the Tigers bullpen.

That leaves two spots wide open.

Ian Krol should win the second left-hander's sweepstakes. He has the best arm of any lefty competing. Krol has pitched far better than Tom Gorzelanny, who has been bludgeoned in Grapefruit League games.

There has been no mystery to Gorzelanny's bad numbers (9.00). He has had nothing on the ball and hasn't located pitches any better.

Blaine Hardy is still a factor, but only officially. He can't match the stuff Krol has been throwing. And it seems unlikely Ausmus would take three left-handers, even if that option might look more appealing in a couple of weeks.

If something close to the above lineup coalesces, one spot remains.

Do the Tigers go with rookie Angel Nesbitt over old soul Joe Nathan?

Today, the answer probably is yes.

But remember that two full weeks of camp remain. And in those two weeks, perhaps in even the final two days, one or more jobs is bound to be decided.

Nathan has shown little during these Grapefruit League tune-ups. He is trying to compensate for a past-tense fastball by throwing two-seamers and a slew of secondary pitches. He is an artist enough to make those pitches work, at least some of the time.

But that's a tightrope walk for a big-league reliever. You must be so precise. And at age 40, which is the only reason Nathan no longer has his old fireball, expecting him to succeed would seem, today, to be unrealistic.

It doesn't mean he won't go north. A couple of respectable outings and he has a shot, especially if Nesbitt leaks oil during these closing days of camp.

Nesbitt has a strikeout arm and should have big seasons ahead in Detroit. Until he got knocked around Saturday (1.1 innings, three hits, two runs, two walks, two strikeouts) a 24-year-old pitcher with splendid stuff had all but cracked the 25-man manifest to Detroit.

But never has he pitched above Double A, and Saturday he looked like a newbie. It appeared to Ausmus as if Nesbitt was "rushing" his pitches — a telltale sign of youth.

Nesbitt is entitled to one bad appearance in Florida. But another would remind the Tigers that he came to camp with no realistic chance of pitching anywhere in April but at Triple A. That might yet be his destination.

The Tigers need Nesbitt to get some crust as quickly as possible. Even if Nathan wins a job and a kid right-hander must return to the bushes for a short apprenticeship, there are no guarantees Nathan can survive for long in Detroit. Not at his age. Not when he has been fighting to throw pitches a bullpen's back end demands.

There is the race to watch most closely during spring camp's waning days: Nathan versus Nesbitt.

McCann, Romine, and Perez are likely flying to Detroit in two weeks. A couple of bullpen jobs are still a long way from being resolved.

Lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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