Top 10 Tigers spring training story lines

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Starting left fielder Justin Upton is one of nine new players the Tigers acquired over the offseason who are expected to play vital roles.

Detroit — The Tigers may need to issue name tags along with uniforms when pitchers and catchers report to spring training Thursday and position players on Feb. 22.

Nine new players were acquired via trade or free agency this offseason and are expected to play vital roles: starting left fielder Justin Upton, starting pitchers Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey, centerfielder Cameron Maybin, closer Francisco Rodriguez, setup relievers Justin Wilson and Mark Lowe, backup catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and veteran utility man Mike Aviles.

That’s a lot of new blood and one of the intriguing plot lines this spring will be how these players assimilate into a veteran clubhouse with a strong leadership group in place. Not that anyone expects it to be a problem.

Besides what they can bring to the team on the field, these nine new players come with strong credentials in the character department, as well.

Here are some of the top story lines we’ll be chasing in Lakeland.

1. Identifying the back end of the starting rotation

The Tigers used 11 different starting pitchers last season, not including reliever Alex Wilson, who made one three-inning start. Take away the top four starters (David Price, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Alfredo Simon), and the other seven starters were a combined 5-18 with an ERA well over 5.00.

That’s why general manager Al Avila not only added two veteran starters (Zimmermann and Pelfrey), he also steadfastly refused to trade away any of his top pitching prospects — Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, Michael Fulmer and Buck Farmer, among others.

The top of the rotation, barring any health issues, is set with Verlander, Zimmermann, Sanchez and Pelfrey. All indications are the No. 5 spot is Norris’ to lose heading into the spring.

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But there is room for somebody to steal a spot. Certainly Boyd, Fulmer, Farmer and Shane Greene could not only force manager Brad Ausmus and pitching coach Rich Dubee into some tough decisions but also put themselves in position for an early call-up should they not make the team out of the spring.

Greene and Fulmer could also win a bullpen spot if they pitch well enough. But the goal will be to identify at least eight solid starters to begin the season, five to go north and three on call in Toledo.

After a tumultuous end to the 2015 season, reliever Bruce Rondon will have to earn back his job as well as the trust of his teammates.

2. Bruce Rondon’s last dance?

The Tigers have not given up on the enigmatic Rondon, but he’s on a short leash.

He not only has to prove himself worthy of one of the two or three open bullpen spots, he also has to win back the trust of his teammates and coaching staff.

He still has minor league options left, so it’s not a do-or-die spring for him in that sense. But, he’s got some fences to mend.

“It’s going to be up to him,” Alex Wilson said after Rondon was sent home last September. “No one else’s decision but his. If he can come back and help us, we’re obviously going to welcome him back with open arms. You never want to see a guy hurt himself, especially off the field and between the ears.

“I’ve seen it done before, seen it happen before. He’s just got to be smart.”

3. The annual bullpen battle

Assuming closer Rodriguez and setup men Justin Wilson and Lowe perform as the Tigers expect, it leaves four open spots in the bullpen. Alex Wilson and left-hander Blaine Hardy, based on their performance last season, would probably have to pitch extremely poorly to lose their spots.

So that leaves two open spots. Left-hander Kyle Ryan and right-hander Drew VerHagen also pitched well at the end of last season and would seemingly have the first crack. They will have to hold off challenges from right-handers Rondon and Angel Nesbitt, who opened the season with the Tigers last year.

Right-handers Montreal Robertson and Jeff Ferrell, both of whom pitched well in the Arizona Fall League, and right-hander Jose Valdez, who is coming off a successful stint in the Dominican Winter League, will be in the hunt, as well as possibly Greene, Fulmer and Farmer.

This, by far, should be the most hotly contested position battle of the spring.

After hobbling through 2015 on a surgically repaired left knee, Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez was able to go through his normal offseason workout regimen.

4. Will Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Sanchez get kid-glove treatment?

It’s no secret the health of these three — throw Verlander in that sentence, too, if you like though he finished the season completely healthy — will go a long way in determining the club’s success in 2016.

Miguel Cabrera, for the first time in three years, had a full offseason without any post-surgical rehab. Victor Martinez, who limped through a dreadful 2015 season on a severely weakened left knee, was also able to do his usual offseason workout regimen.

And Sanchez, who developed a shoulder strain in the latter part of the season, has been on his normal throwing and training schedule all winter.

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The question is how the Tigers will walk the line this spring between getting them prepared for the season and not overdoing it? It’s not likely to be as much of a problem for Sanchez, a veteran pitcher whose preseason routine rarely varies.

It’s more complicated for Martinez and Cabrera, two workaholics who have to be pried out of the batting cages every day. You can bet Ausmus and the training staff will have a plan prepared for all three.

5. At the crossroads

In some ways, it probably feels like every other spring training for catcher Bryan Holaday, shortstop Dixon Machado and outfielders Tyler Collins and Steven Moya. These four players have been on the cusp of breaking through for the last couple of seasons, yet here they are again, seemingly on the outside looking in.

Holaday thought he was going to be James McCann’s backup after Alex Avila signed with the White Sox. But, needing a left-handed bat, the Tigers acquired veteran Saltalamacchia.

So where does that leave Holaday? He is out of minor league options, so if he doesn’t win a spot on the 25-man roster, he would have to clear waivers and accept an assignment in Toledo. He almost certainly would be claimed by another team, and if not, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t want to seek a fresh start with another organization.

In that sense, Holaday’s spring is an audition for other clubs.

Machado, Collins and Moya do have options remaining and seem destined to start the season in Toledo. But they could certainly give the coaching staff something to think about.

Collins and Moya are left-handed hitters, which the Tigers lack. Both can also hit for power, something the Tigers have lacked off the bench for a couple of years. The plan is to carry four outfielders (Upton, Maybin, Anthony Gose and J.D. Martinez) and use Aviles as the fifth outfielder if needed.

It would be interesting to see what might happen if Collins or Moya have a big spring.

Machado is in the same boat. He played well in place of starting shortstop Jose Iglesias last season and he had a productive stint in winter ball. The Tigers, though, don’t see him as a utility player. So barring injury, there isn’t likely to be a place for him.

Tigers prospect JaCoby Jones is playing at Triple A Toledo where he is hitting .333.

6. Knocking at the door

As always, spring training is a showcase for the club’s top young players and this year, the Tigers have invited some intriguing prospects.

Start with JaCoby Jones and Dominic Ficociello. Both project to be corner infielders, though Jones considers himself a shortstop, and both have a lot of pop in their bat. The Tigers are considering giving them some reps in the outfield this spring.

Jones, whom the Tigers acquired from the Pirates for Joakim Soria, is probably the closest to being ready but he still needs to serve the remaining 32 games of his suspension for violating Minor League Baseball’s drug policy (non-performance enhancing).

Ficociello is coming off a solid showing at the Arizona Fall League, where he helped the Scottsdale team win the championship. He most likely will start the season at Double-A Erie.

Outfielder Mike Gerber has made a strong first impression on the Tigers. A 15th-round pick in 2014, he helped West Michigan win the Midwest League title in Class A and was a key contributor in Scottsdale’s AFL title.

It’s unusual for a Class A-level player to be invited to play in the AFL. That tells you how highly he is regarded.

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Austin Green, drafted in the 13th round in 2013, might be the club’s best catching prospect. He hit 15 home runs with 53 RBIs at High A Lakeland in 2014. His power numbers fell off a bit at Double-A Erie last season, but he still hit .259 and threw out 29 percent of attempted base stealers.

Among the pitchers invited to big league camp, right-hander Joe Jimenez and lefty Kevin Ziomek. Jimenez, 21, stuck out 61 in 43 innings at Low A West Michigan last season.

Ziomek, the Tigers second-round pick in 2013, has averaged 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings with a 1.148 WHIP in three minor leagues seasons. He pitched at High A Lakeland last year and could make the jump to Double A this year.

7. Wild card entries

The Tigers have invited a couple of interesting veteran, non-roster outfielders to camp.

Nate Schierholtz, 32, compiled a .253 average and .707 OPS in eight major league seasons. He hit 21 homers with 68 RBIs for the Cubs in 2013. But he only hit .195 in 2014 and spent last season in Japan, hitting .250 with 10 home runs for Hiroshima.

Schierholtz hits left-handed, which is a draw for the Tigers.

They will also kick the tires on 32-year-old John Mayberry Jr., who spent last season with the Mets but was left off the postseason roster. In seven big league seasons, Mayberry has hit .235 with a .720 OPS.

One of the more intriguing position battles will be Anthony Gose fighting Cameron Maybin for the starting center field spot during spring training.

8. Center field

This is going to be a battle. Between Gose and Maybin, you have two prideful guys. Both want to play every day and have similar skill sets — speed, ability to cover a lot of ground in the outfield and can hit around .250 with sporadic power.

Maybin has more experience but Gose made significant strides last year in his first full season in the big leagues.

Platooning them isn’t necessarily the bailout option, either. Yes, Gose hits left-handed and Maybin right-handed. But if they were strictly platooned, Gose would get the bulk of the playing time. Last season, the Tigers had 4,807 plate appearances against righties and 1,352 against lefties.

9. Breakout season

What doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger. Nick Castellanos found that out last season. He battled through the worst offensive slump of his life and came through it like a champ. He finished the season with 15 homers, 73 RBIs and a .255 average. That after being benched for three games in June.

He is entering his fourth season and is still growing into his 6-foot-4 frame. If you need to pick a breakout player for 2016, this could be your guy. He’s capable of 20-plus homers and 100 RBI.

10. “The Tigers Way”

During the Winter Meetings, Avila said he, Ausmus and director of player development David Littlefield were going to develop an organization-wide handbook, a manifesto, for how they want to play the game.

“We haven’t had this,” Avila said. “It’s something new. We are going to get the major league staff and the minor league staff together before spring training and hash out a plan for the entire organization. Baseball A to Z. We want players from the minor leagues, when they come up, there’s consistency from what they did in the minors to what they do in the big leagues.”

Avila didn’t share specific tenets or philosophies then and he’s not likely to this spring, neither.

“This isn’t something we’re doing for the media,” he said. “This is basic, sound baseball stuff that we feel is necessary for the organization to have some continuity and consistency in the system. Quite frankly, it’s going to be low-key, under the radar. It’s not something we’re going to put out there — ‘The Tigers Way.’

“That’s not the intent. It’s for our internal use. We want to make sure guys know what we want.”

Still, it will be interesting to see how this will manifest itself throughout the spring.