Paul: Tigers gain flexibility with wise roster moves

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
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You've gotta feel for Tyler Collins. He deserves to be in the major leagues. With many other organizations, he'd be in the major leagues.

But right now, right here, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

So, while Tigers' fans really don't want to hear it, manager Brad Ausmus and general manager Dave Dombrowski made the prudent decision Monday morning when they sent Collins packing to Triple-A Toledo, and opted to keep both Andrew Romine and Hernan Perez.

The fans don't like it because they know that Romine and Perez can't hit a whole lot, and they like the idea of having a bat off the bench with some pop, and Collins fits the bill there.

But that's a shortsighted view of the situation.

And I don't say that with any hint of rudeness, because, I'll acknowledge that when Ausmus a few weeks ago started floating the idea of keeping both backup infielders instead of Collins, I thought he was crazy.

Then I started doing some critical thinking on the subject and, lo and behold, it actually makes perfect sense.

The truth is, if Collins came to Detroit, he'd be a fifth outfielder on a team that has a darn good first four outfielders, and doesn't figure to need many pinch-hitters. If lucky, he would get an at-bat or two a week. And you can't waste one of just 25 roster spots on something like that.

Need for flexibility

Collins, 24, being sent down isn't an indictment on his abilities. He can play a decent corner outfield, even if he's had his adventures during the last few weeks of Grapefruit League play. He can hit for power. He can run. He does a whole lot of things well, certainly well enough to be a reserve outfielder. But he can't play anywhere but outfield, unless you count first base, and the Tigers don't figure to need another first baseman anytime soon.

And that's the rub here.

Even in the American League, roster flexibility is super important, more important than fans might realize. That's why Don Kelly had a job here for so long. It wasn't because first Jim Leyland, then Ausmus were completely blind to Kelly's skills. No, it was because having Kelly allowed Leyland, then Ausmus more room to maneuver, particularly late in ballgames.

Keeping Romine and Perez affords Ausmus that same flexibility.

Keeping Collins and just one of Romine and Perez would potentially handcuff him.

Let's start with this: If the Tigers kept Collins, how often would he actually start a ball game? Easy. Not often, if ever. The Tigers are all set on the corners, with Yoenis Cespedes and J.D. Martinez. They each figure to play 150 or more games this season, barring injury — and even if there is an injury, well, then Collins will be back in the major leagues anyway, unless Steven Moya is setting the world on fire at Toledo.

In center field, where Collins also can play, the Tigers already have two guys ahead of him, in probable starter Anthony Gose and Rajai Davis.

You can see why if in the majors, Collins could go two weeks or more without a start.

Now let's look at other areas Collins would figure to help, namely pinch-hitting late in games. He's an ideal pinch-hitter; he can hit the gaps and seats, and he's left-handed, while most closers are right-handed.

But who, exactly, are the Tigers going to pinch-hit for? Maybe Gose, maybe Jose Iglesias, maybe Alex Avila, though probably not Avila unless the closer is left-handed. And, really, that's it. Now you can see where Collins' opportunities would be severely limited there, too.

Yes, there will be times when the Tigers need a pinch-hitter, but even without Collins, there will be options, including Davis and James McCann, who made the team Monday, or Avila if McCann is the starting catcher that day. The bench, even without Collins, figures to be much superior to 2014.

Granted, Romine and Perez can't hit much. It was a super-sad state of affairs to see Perez as the Tigers' last hope at the plate in the ninth inning of Game 3 of last fall's AL Division Series. But their value still is higher than Collins', at least right now.

For starters, both can play all over the infield, and have added outfield to their resumes, too. That's important, because it allows Ausmus to use a defensive replacement for third-base liability Nick Castellanos late in games, and still have infield and extra outfield protection in case of a pinch-runner, or injury.

It also allows Ausmus to occasionally get Iglesias and the shortstop's shins a day off once in a while, and still have some defensive flexibility on the bench.

One last 'minor' problem

There's more to this story, of course, even if the Tigers insist it wasn't a factor.

The reality is, Romine and Perez, both with several stints in the major leagues, are out of minor-league options — meaning, if the Tigers kept Collins and only one of Romine and Perez, the demoted one would be exposed to waivers.

Neither Romine, with his good glove, nor Perez, with his upside, would clear waivers. Some team would've scooped them up.

Fans, of course, will say, "Who cares?" The Tigers care, that's who.

Iglesias remains a dicey situation, and while he told me last week in Tampa he is experiencing zero pain these days, the reality is he's been dealing with shin issues since he was a teenager. And the Tigers don't know, with certainty, that he's going to make it through a full season in the major leagues. He hasn't done it yet.

If he goes down, the Tigers don't have any obvious ready replacements at short, except for Romine, who did it in 2014. Eugenio Suarez is gone, remember, traded to the Reds in a December trade for Alfredo Simon. Losing Romine would be a blow. Perez isn't an everyday shortstop, not even close, but is a valuable backup infielder.

Collins, meanwhile, has minor-league options available, so the Tigers run no risk of losing him.

They don't want to lose him. They like him a lot.

Even if he might not be feeling the love today.​

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