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McCosky: Injuries continue to blur outlook for Tigers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Brad Ausmus is undaunted by the Tigers' injury situation: “In terms of preparation, strategy and fundamentals, we’re ahead of schedule.”

Lakeland, Fla. – Halfway through spring training and the full picture of this Tigers team is still a little fuzzy – for obvious reasons.

The opening day lineup, while mostly set, hasn't played a single game together. Victor Martinez (knee) and Miguel Cabrera (ankle) are working their way back from surgery. Shortstop Jose Iglesias, after missing last season with stress fractures in his legs, hasn't played back-to-back games in the field yet.

Second baseman Ian Kinsler is out with a left shoulder strain. Catcher Alex Avila has only caught seven innings, missing time for paternal leave and back stiffness. Left fielder Yoenis Cespedes has been bothered by back and now leg issues.

Still, manager Brad Ausmus said everything was progressing at a favorable pace.

"In terms of preparation, strategy and fundamentals, we're ahead of schedule," he said.

What's lagging, he said, was some continuity between the middle infielders and with Martinez, Cabrera and Iglesias getting enough plate appearances.

"In terms of getting the guys that are injured some at-bats and things like that, you hope to hit the gas pedal a little bit in the second half of spring training," Ausmus said. "But we can't rush them."

Most importantly, Kinsler, Avila and Cespedes could be back in the lineup in a day or two while Martinez, Cabrera and Iglesias are all on pace to start, if not opening day, then very close to it.

The starting pitching rotation has been locked in. With Anibal Sanchez starting Saturday, it begins the third round of starts and barring injuries or other disruptions, Justin Verlander would be in line to start opening day.

Ausmus, though, has not and will not announce his actual opening day starter until much later this spring.

As for the bullpen, Ausmus said closer Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, Joba Chamberlain and Al Alburquerque were virtual locks to go north in April. Left-hander Tom Gorzelanny is also expected to be on the opening day roster.

Who occupies the other two spots, whether it's a right-hander and a left-hander or two left-handers, is up for grabs.

"Regardless of whether I am comfortable with them or not, I will take the seven best relievers," Ausmus said. "And I am confident we will have seven relievers who will help us win games."

Here are some mid-point impressions and assessments:

Superman?

Andrew Romine and Hernan Perez continue to battle for the super-utility role. Both have played first base, left field, shortstop, second and third this spring and they haven't looked out of place or uncomfortable at any position.

Dixon Machado

Both are out of minor league options, so whichever one doesn't make the club will have to clear waivers to remain in the organization.

The deciding factor may come down to Iglesias' health. If the Tigers aren't comfortable that Iglesias can handle the everyday pounding, they may be inclined to keep Romine, who is the better-fielding shortstop.

But if they feel like Iglesias has put the leg issues behind him and can handle 130 or so games, then Perez might stay. Perez is younger, has shown more at the plate and has more upside than Romine.

Also, and this is not a small factor, the Tigers might feel Romine has a better chance of clearing waivers than Perez.

Here is something else that could work against Romine. Dixon Machado, who is ticketed to play shortstop at Toledo, has accelerated his ascent through the system and is close to being big-league ready.

If Iglesias had a setback and had to miss extended time, it's not far-fetched to think they'd give Machado a chance to play every day, much like they did with Eugenio Suarez last year.

Behind the dish

Gene Lamont, Ausmus' bench coach, was talking on Thursday about the battle at catcher between James McCann and Bryan Holaday.

"Those things tend to work themselves out," he said. "You hope it's not somebody playing badly (that decides it). You hope somebody really steps up and stands out."

Unfortunately for Holaday, that might be what's happening. McCann has had an outstanding spring thus far, on the field where he's picked off three runners already, and at the plate where he took a .400 batting average into play Saturday.

Holaday, forever upbeat and energetic, is hitting .182 and seems to be pressing both at and behind the plate.

Avila, the starting catcher, has yet to get into a steady flow because of his back and the birth of his daughter. But he has swung the bat well in the small sample, hitting the ball to all fields like he did earlier in his career.

There doesn't seem to be anything more McCann can gain from another year, or even half a year at Triple-A. But Ausmus has said sending him back would be an option if he felt McCann wouldn't get enough playing time in Detroit.

So, Holaday's best chance of going north, as of right now, would be for Avila to finish spring strong, show that he can hit left-handed pitching like he once did and could be counted on to do the bulk of the catching.

It seems more likely, though, that Avila and McCann will share the duties on something close to a 60-40 split, if not a straight platoon.

Left leanings

Tyler Collins has done nothing to lose the fifth outfielder spot. His .211 batting average belies how hard he's hit the ball. He's also shown some opposite-field power with two doubles to the left-center gap.

The Tigers need a left-handed bat on the bench, preferably one with some power. Steven Moya and Daniel Fields, two left-handed hitting outfielders battling Collins, would both be best served with another season -- or at least part of one in Moya's case -- in Triple-A.

It's hard to imagine, at this point, the Tigers would keep both Perez and Romine, using one or both as the extra outfielder. That would leave Ausmus with these options off the bench – Perez, Romine, either McCann or Holaday, and either Rajai Davis or Anthony Gose.

Not good.

Of course, it wouldn't be unprecedented for president and general manager Dave Dombrowski to acquire another left-handed hitting outfielder in April or earlier.

Rounding out bullpen

As for the final bullpen spots, Ausmus has toyed with the idea of bringing three left-handers north. But, most likely, that would happen only if they decide to let right-hander Bruce Rondon ease into the season with a few appearances at Toledo.

Bruce Rondon

The way he threw Thursday, touching 100 mph on his third pitch, and the fact that he had no residual pain or soreness afterward, indicates he may not need to ease in.

If Rondon isn't on the opening day roster, Ausmus could keep left-handers Kyle Ryan and either Blaine Hardy or Ian Krol, along with Gorzelanny. Ryan and Hardy would be the only long relievers in the pen.

If that happens, it would leave a batch of right-handers out of the mix, including Buck Farmer, Angel Nesbitt, Josh Zeid, Alex Wilson and Luke Putkonen.

Regardless of how it shakes out, the Tigers have more quality arms to choose from than they had last year. Ausmus will have options now if somebody falters, and that goes for the high-leverage relievers, as well (Chamberlain, Nathan).

Final thoughts

Five players who have opened some organizational eyes this spring: Machado, Fields, Nesbitt, Wynton Bernard, Gose.

Five players who need to pick it up: Holaday, Nathan, Alex Wilson, Alberto Cabrera, Jefry Marte.

Twitter@cmccosky