Lakeland, Fla. — One difference in the Tigers, and in spring camp 2016, is quantifiable.
They have more arms. More good arms than they’ve had in years. They have more roles that have been defined or that are open to honest competition.
Compare this camp with those Marchant Stadium moments from three years ago when a Tigers front office and team held its breath when 22-year-old Bruce Rondon arrived for some ninth-inning rehearsals. He was the team’s closer. Not officially, but realistically. He failed, and the Tigers bullpen that October betrayed what could have and should have been owner Mike Ilitch’s world championship team.
Or think about more recent times. A year ago, to be precise.
The Tigers had pieced together a rotation that was bound to need at least a couple of spare tires. And when the time came for replacements, the Tigers had Kyle Lobstein, Buck Farmer, Kyle Ryan, and so little additional inventory they had to buy a Triple A pitcher from the Blue Jays, Randy Wolf.
What’s clear as position players were to arrive Monday at Lakeland is the Tigers have more quantity in terms of potential starters, as well as in relievers. What isn’t quite as transparent is whether all these arms will match the stem-to-stern quality that led to so many playoff runs during the past decade.
Percentages would seem to be in Detroit’s favor. That is, if the team can be patient and sidestep any undue injuries or long losing interludes that can torpedo a team in a division as rough as the American League Central figures to be.
The Tigers also might resist any temptation to be stubborn. Specifically, they should be open-minded about the bottom of their rotation.
It is early, but not so early that one can’t appreciate Shane Greene’s recovery from last season’s arterial problems. Remember, there was a reason the Tigers got him in a trade with the Yankees in late 2014, and that reason was evident in his early work last April when he allowed just one earned run over three consecutive wins.
But now the Tigers are thinking of Greene as a potential bullpen piece. They’re committed to right-hander Mike Pelfrey as a fifth starter, at least initially, which was telegraphed when they paid him $16 million for his services in 2016 and ’17.
In the same manner, they are so intent on bolting together that annually irksome bullpen — and listen to the applause from Tigers Nation — they are pondering using prized prospect Michael Fulmer as another back-end option.
Rotation has possibilities
This would appear, at first blush, to be admirable thinking on the Tigers’ part. Let the five workhorses, who seem trustworthy, do the brunt of the work. Then, seal those late-inning deals with a new and improved gang of relievers: Francisco Rodriguez (when he arrives after the team’s annual visa problem), Mark Lowe, Justin Wilson, Alex Wilson, Blaine Hardy, Drew VerHagen, Rondon, Greene, or perhaps Fulmer or newcomer Bobby Parnell.
The warehouse hasn’t been emptied. Matt Boyd, who was an important left-handed prodigy lassoed during Dave Dombrowski’s final days as Tigers admiral last July, is also, potentially, a rotation add-on after he started 12 games in 2015, 10 of them for Detroit after he arrived in the David Price deal.
This is where time could be on the Tigers’ side — if they can hang in the playoff chase through midseason. Boyd, who figures to begin the season at Triple A Toledo, along with Fulmer if the Tigers leave him be as a starter, could be ready for more advanced work as summer arrives.
It’s a fairly standard component with any turnaround team that rookie pitchers, who weren’t necessarily being counted on at the start of the season, stampede the staff in surprising and dramatic ways.
In fact, it happened 10 years ago when a couple of kids named Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya finished off a rotation, as well as a bullpen’s rear end, and helped push the Tigers into a World Series.
This again is the most striking difference in a Tigers team during the early days of 2016 camp. The fact that, in the area most integral to making a team playoff-grade, pitching, the Tigers have more construction material than they have summoned in years.
Using them right is key
It’s still up to pitchers who look good to pitch well. And that, as anyone knows, can be a different story once hitters step into the box.
It’s also contingent on health. There can’t be a lot of Tommy John appointments or long disabled-list hiatuses if anything good is to happen at Comerica Park in 2016.
But it’s also, to a lesser extent, incumbent on the Tigers to make sure pitchers are slotted properly. That contracts and early designations don’t overly sway institutional opinion.
And, perhaps, that the Tigers use their best long-term judgment before Greene, or Fulmer, ends up as a reliever when their stock as future starters is, at least at this point, promising.
“At the major league level, it’s not development, it’s winning,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said Sunday, and he is, of course, right. “If he (a particular pitcher) is good in the bullpen, I’d leave him there. Bullpens are so important these days.”
You see how this could go. And why it’s a good discussion. And why having so many arms on hand in 2016 is potentially the biggest reason for a team’s renewed playoff thoughts and plans.