Lakeland, Fla. – We’re in the home stretch now, just 10 days left before the Tigers break camp and head down to Miami to open the 2016 season.
At this point, barring any injuries or mishaps, the Tigers starting lineup is set:
Infield: First base Miguel Cabrera, second base Ian Kinsler, shortstop Jose Iglesias, third base Nick Castellanos.
Outfield: Justin Upton in left, Anthony Gose in center and J.D. Martinez in right.
Battery: Pitcher Justin Verlander, catcher James McCann.
And since they open at Miami, playing by National League rules, the Tigers will have a few extra days to allow the left hamstring of designated hitter Victor Martinez to heal.
Though the lingering uncertainty of Martinez’s health could impact the final cuts.
But there are still some heated battles raging for four, possibly five spots. Here’s a breakdown:
NO. 5 STARTER
The fight for the fifth spot has taken a sudden turn in the last two weeks.
Left-hander Daniel Norris was considered the front-runner based on how well he pitched at the end of last season. But he’s been erratic this spring and now is dealing with back stiffness.
The back issue, the Tigers believe, is temporary. But the reality is, both Shane Greene and left-hander Matt Boyd have pitched more consistently this spring, and nobody in camp other than possibly Jordan Zimmermann has pitched better than Greene.
When manager Brad Ausmus opted to travel to Lake Buena Vista on Sunday to watch Greene pitch in a split-squad game instead of staying in Lakeland with ace Verlander — after spending Friday and Saturday on the road in Jupiter — you knew Greene was a serious contender for that final spot.
And Greene pitched another strong five innings.
Ausmus has said repeatedly: It’s not who performs the best in spring training, it’s who the club thinks can perform the best in the regular season. And right now, it appears Greene is that guy.
Had Norris prevailed, Greene likely would have won a bullpen role with the team. That’s not in the cards for Norris or Boyd. Both will likely open the season in the rotation at Toledo.
Projected starting five: Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez (whom Ausmus said may start the second game in Miami), Jordan Zimmermann (starting home opener), Mike Pelfrey, Shane Greene.
FINAL BULLPEN SPOTS
Four spots seem secure: closer Francisco Rodriguez, set-up men Justin Wilson and Mark Lowe, and left-hander Blaine Hardy.
A quick note about Hardy. His velocity has been down (in the low- and mid-80s) and he’s been hit around quite a bit this spring. Because he has worn down the last two seasons, he changed his offseason throwing regimen. He’s always had to fight to make the club, so he’s always come to camp with his arm already built up to regular-season strength.
This year he pushed back his throwing program and decided to use the spring to build his arm strength. He expects, for the first time in his career, to have it timed right – where he hits peak strength right as the season opens.
As for the other three spots, Alex Wilson’s lingering shoulder and lat issues cloud things. It seems likely he will not be ready to start the season on time, which opens a spot.
Right-hander Drew VerHagen and left-hander Kyle Ryan have pitched well this spring. It’s hard to see them not making the club at this point. Incidentally, Ausmus said he has no qualms about keeping three lefties in the bullpen, especially since both Ryan and Hardy can work long relief.
The seventh spot, though possibly only a place-holder for Alex Wilson, is wide open. Bruce Rondon, Bobby Parnell, Lendy Castillo and possibly Buck Farmer are all in the mix. Rondon, back in the good graces of the clubhouse, has been ringing up triple digits on the radar gun but his results have been spotty.
Parnell's velocity is inching back up into the high-90s, but his command has been spotty. Castillo, who has big-league experience, has very quietly had an outstanding spring. If you are looking for a sleeper pick, he's your guy.
Farmer, who is stretched out to start, has been lights out since adding a cutter to his repertoire. The Tigers will have to weigh the pros and cons of keeping him and using him sparingly vs. letting him start every five days in Toledo.
Tigers projected bullpen: Rodriguez, Lowe, Justin Wilson, Hardy, VerHagen, Ryan, Rondon. Alex Wilson – DL.
Bryan Holaday has been brilliant this spring. He’s hitting the ball on the screws just about every at-bat. He’s hitting gaps and he’s clearing fences. There’s never been any question about him defensively.
In most years, on most teams, he’d be a lock as the backup catcher. At the very least, he’d start every day in Toledo until he was needed in Detroit. But he’s out of minor-league options and would never clear waivers.
The Tigers, though, are a right-handed heavy offensive club. Starter James McCann is a right-handed batter. The Tigers, as presently constructed, will have one, possibly two, left-handed bats on the bench.
That’s why they went out and got switch-hitting Jarrod Saltalamacchia. He’s had himself a solid spring, too, though it’s been dwarfed by Holaday. The only way Salty is not the backup catcher, it seems, is if another team comes in with a too-good-to-pass trade offer for him.
A more likely scenario is Holaday gets moved to another team that needs catching help – a team like the Mets.
Projected backup catcher: Saltalamacchia.
FOURTH OUTFIELD SPOT
Centerfielder Cameron Maybin is going to start the season on the DL and the Tigers are going to need somebody to back up Gose in center field.
There are three candidates at this point: left-handed hitting Tyler Collins, who has been getting increased duty in center field lately; Wynton Bernard, a true center fielder who hasn’t played above Double-A; and utility man Andrew Romine, who is expected to get a full audition in center field soon.
A case for Collins: He’s a left-handed hitter with power, he hit the ball well down the stretch for the Tigers last season, he’s hit well this spring and he seems comfortable playing center. Also, he would provide some insurance as a left-handed DH if Victor Martinez’s hamstring is slow to heal.
A case for Bernard: He the best defensive option, he’s a right-handed hitter (Gose is left-handed) and he would be a valuable pinch-runner late in games.
A case for Romine: He has to show he can handle it defensively, but since he’s already on the roster, it would give the club the option of carrying another player (Holaday or perhaps another pitcher) until Maybin gets back.
Projected fourth outfielder: Collins.