Tigers are 'open minded' about Steven Moya, Tyler Collins
His plans to inspect a few Tigers prospects at the Arizona Fall League changed only slightly this week when Brad Ausmus headed for the desert.
Rather than traveling solo, the Tigers manager partnered with a friend and old Detroit teammate, Alan Trammell, another offseason resident of San Diego who this week formally returned to the Tigers as a special assistant to front-office chief Dave Dombrowski.
Ausmus and Trammell together took a peek at Steven Moya, a Tigers outfield apprentice who on Tuesday had a single, double, and home run — as well as a stolen base — for the team for which he and several Tigers farmhands play, the Glendale Desert Dogs, managed by Lance Parrish.
They checked in on relievers Joe Mantiply and Zac Reininger. They had a chance to examine 19-year-old infielder Domingo Leyba. And they had more time to talk about Trammell's new role, which will involve more on-the-field interaction than might have first been appreciated.
"He'll spend quite a bit of time in uniform, I think," Ausmus said of Trammell during a Thursday phone conversation. "I expect him to be on the field in spring training a majority of the time, which is an area Tram's expressed an interest in.
"You'll see him with his old No. 3, so we'll have two No. 3s working for us," Ausmus said, referring to second baseman Ian Kinsler.
Dombrowski and Ausmus had begun talking about a possible Trammell reunion late last season, after then-Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson and his staff, which included Trammell, exited as part of a new front-office arrangement in Phoenix headed by new chief Tony La Russa.
Trammell's job will be split between the big leagues and minor leagues, with coaching and instruction, as well as personnel analysis and community relations, all part of a mixed assignment tailored to Trammell and to his 20 years as a Tigers player, before he began work as a big-league coach and Tigers manager.
"He's just a quality baseball guy, just a good person," Ausmus said. "He can do a little bit of everything."
What they saw during this week's AFL games was only a sampling and hardly deviated from general evaluations Ausmus, and even Trammell, already had absorbed about Tigers prospects whose Arizona season will wrap up next week.
Moya, the 6-foot-6, 235-pound right-fielder, is batting .278 in 20 games with four homers, five doubles, a triple, and an .833 OPS. He has stolen five bases, which is on par with the speed owned by a very large man, and to no one's surprise has played solidly in the outfield.
The Tigers are being "open-minded," Ausmus said about Moya and another rookie, Tyler Collins, who could definitely contend for at least part-time work in the Tigers outfield in 2015.
But the expectation among Detroit's development staff is that the 23-year-old Moya will almost certainly need time next year at Triple-A Toledo. Ausmus won't speak about timetables and will only say the Tigers are paying attention even as he attacks areas where a left-handed batter most needs work: evaluating the strike zone and making contact (27 strikeouts, five walks, in his 20 AFL games).
Add in Moya's past — he missed the better part of 2012 and 2013 with injuries — and neither Ausmus nor Dombrowski feels any urgency with a man who is a percentage bet to begin the 2015 season at Toledo.
"Despite fact he had a tremendous year (35 homers, .276 batting average, 105 RBIs, .861 OPS), baseball is one sport where experience — especially experience in the batting box — is so important," Ausmus said.
"Maybe he will be ahead of curve. We'll see. It's not uncommon for power hitters to swing and miss. But with experience, you hope his pitch-recognition goes up. I don't think he'll ever be Victor Martinez when putting the bat on the ball, but no one is.
"If he can make contact at the big-league level he's going to hit some homers. And in the game we saw Tuesday he stole third base. He's good in the field, too. He's not just a big meathead standing in the outfield trying to slug homers."
Collins might be the outfielder most easily overlooked as the Tigers hunt for help in right field now that Torii Hunter has headed into free agency. Collins, 24, began the season in Detroit before he was shipped to Toledo for further grooming. He returned in September and instantly hit a long home run against the Indians at Cleveland.
He is a left-handed batter, which factors into Detroit's needs in 2015, and could snag a 25-man roster spot with a solid spring camp.
"I think Collins definitely is in the mix," Ausmus said. "He's a guy who we thought coming out of spring training would play more of a platoon role for us last season, but when Rajai (Davis) swung the bat so well, Rajai played himself into a more prominent role.
"Collins certainly is in the mix. We don't know what's going to happen in the outfield right now. But I would definitely consider him a candidate."
J.D. at DH?
Dombrowski is busy in the early days of free agency, and in the first week of serious trade discussions following this autumn's World Series, talking with agents and with clubs as the Tigers chase help at several spots.
They need a center fielder and are pondering options there, which might include free agent Colby Rasmus. They likely will need an experienced pitcher as it appears Max Scherzer will be signing a free-agent deal elsewhere.
They could be looking at finding another lineup bat should Victor Martinez, also a free agent, relocate to a new team. And they are resigned to fixing a bullpen that has been a chronic sore spot the past two years.
Ausmus acknowledged Thursday that should Martinez not return — the Tigers hope a deal can be reached — one option at designated hitter could be J.D. Martinez, who normally plays left field.
"It's possible," Ausmus said. "We're certainly hoping something works out with Victor, but we have talked about that —about using J.D. there, depending how things shake out.
"I don't think you'd have to stick him at DH and never take him out or not use him in the outfield. Really, at that age —Martinez is 27 — I don't think I'd want to pigeon-hole him at DH."
What isn't clear is the degree to which the Tigers might get help in 2015 from a corps of young starters: Kyle Lobstein, Robbie Ray, Buck Farmer, Kevin Ziomek, Drew VerHagen, or even Jonathon Crawford, their first-round pick in 2013.
Dombrowski's past tendency has been to not overly trust rookie starters, which could leave the Tigers shopping for a solid, relatively inexpensive innings-chewer along the lines of Brad Penny, whom Detroit signed in January of 2011.
"Any time you talk about sticking a young pitcher in the rotation, there's always doubts," Ausmus acknowledged. "By the same token, every team now and then has to do it. You can't just sign a $15 million pitcher to fill a fifth spot. But every organization deals with needing to fill one spot, and often more than one."
Dombrowski allowed two weeks ago that the Tigers could shift at least a couple of their young starters to the bullpen, not only because of an overload, but because their bullpen could get a boost from homegrown arms.
Ausmus does not disagree, nor does he oppose thoughts that two of the group's harder throwers, VerHagen and Farmer, might be among the favorites to shift roles, at least for a season or two.
"I'm not going to name names, but those are two possibilities," Ausmus said.
"A couple guys who might end up being starters in the long term could, in the next few seasons, be a real asset in the bullpen. A lot of times, a younger guy who hasn't yet commanded a third pitch, but who has a fastball with some velocity — and one secondary pitch that he can throw for strikes as a swing-and-miss pitch — can go to the bullpen for a few seasons and come back to the starting rotation.
"Kind of like Drew Smyly (now with the Rays) did."
The best fall by a Tigers pitcher in the AFL belongs to Mantiply, a left-handed reliever who in nine games and 11 innings has a 3.27 ERA, a 1.09 WHIP, and a .238 opposing batting average.
Mantiply, 23, is 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, and was a 27th-round pick in 2013 from Virginia Tech. He pitched last season at Single-A Lakeland and at Double-A Erie where in 46 games combined he had a 2.52 ERA and 1.11 WHIP.
"Mantiply (pronounced: Man-ti-PLY) had a really good inning when I watched him," Ausmus said. "I kind of got the idea Mantiply has a funky delivery that hitters don't pick up real well. Despite velocity that's 89 to 92ish, he probably looks a little bit deceptive."
Reininger, 21, is a right-hander who has had consistency issues in Arizona following one of the best 2014 seasons by any Tigers farm reliever. He had a 2.54 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 33 games at Single-A West Michigan. Reininger struck out 58 batters and unintentionally walked 16 in 562/3 innings, which included an opposing batting average of .204.
Arizona hasn't been as gentle. Not that it overly bothers Ausmus.
"I hadn't seen him before, and when I saw him he looked like he had some movement on the ball," Ausmus said of Reininger, who is 6-4, 170, and was an eighth-round pick in 2013 after he pitched for Hill Junior College in Hillsboro, Texas. "He mixed his pitches threw strikes. It was old-school pitching in that he looked like a pitcher, if you know what I mean.
"He was not throwing 97 and blowing balls by hitters. But he kept hitters off-balance, moved pitches around, and changed speeds."
Ray, a left-hander who had a handful of starts last season for the Tigers, has been generally fine in four AFL appearances, good for a 2.45 ERA. Leyba, a switch-hitter, has seen light duty as Parrish has been grappling with a 37-man roster and with mandatory appearances for some of the more advanced AFL prospects.
As for Ausmus, he is back home and preparing for next month's Winter Meetings, which will be held a few miles from where he lives in San Diego.
"Been doing a lot of postseason team analysis," Ausmus said. "It's been fun. As a player, I used to enjoy the downtime after a season.
"But I'm already looking forward to Lakeland (Florida, spring camp). I'm ready to go. I'm ready to get going and chase the championship again."