Henning: Tigers' Anibal Sanchez on notice to produce

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Anibal Sanchez bends the bill of his hat on the way to the field.

Lakeland, Fla. – Final decisions are a month or so away. The Tigers won’t fret, for now, about matters relating to Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, and Mark Lowe.

But jitters over their Tigers’ futures are natural, and not only because none of the three pitched well in 2016. Anxiety meters spiraled Monday after Sanchez worked an ugly inning against the Braves at Publix Field that left him with a Grapefruit League ERA of 27.00.

His manager, Brad Ausmus, had a matter-of-fact assessment afterward.

“Not the results you want,” Ausmus said after Sanchez had been socked for four hits, four runs (three earned), and a walk in the Tigers’ eventual 10-7 triumph.

“Just one outing. We’ll see how it progresses.”

The Tigers will go north with their best 12 pitchers when they leave Florida on April 1 and fly to Chicago for an April 3 opener against the White Sox.

Their chosen 12 will make the team, officially, because they will have pitched better than other contestants. But if you believe accounting is never part of baseball consciousness, that contracts are not part of roster realities, you likely were exposed, as a child, to an excess of bedtime fairy tales.

The Tigers owe Sanchez a whopping $16.8 million for 2017. They are obliged to pay, should they choose to stay partners, $16 million in 2018. And if they don’t welcome him back, they owe $5 million as an option buyout.

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That means Sanchez will be drawing from the Tigers a minimum of $21.8 million, guaranteed, which is money a team would prefer to pay for a gainful contributor.

Sanchez has plenty of Grapefruit League games remaining and ample chances to show the Tigers he can (a) yet cut it as a starter, (b) emerge as a competent long reliever, or (c) at least be trusted to get three outs in a single inning.

But should the answer be (d) none of the above, the Tigers will dispense a lovely parting gift ensured when late owner Mike Ilitch pushed his front office to retain Sanchez, who had come aboard in a July, 2012, trade and four months later signed an $80-million-plus deal as a free agent.

In similar, but less expensive, fashion the Tigers could be on the hook for heavy severance pay in the event Pelfrey or Lowe has a ragged spring.

Pelfrey had a miserable 2016 that came as no surprise to we-told-you-so critics who weren’t sure what he had done in his past baseball life to merit a two-year, $16-million offer from Detroit.

Tigers general manager Al Avila knows all GMs make mistakes. His predecessor, Dave Dombrowski, erred on occasion (Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson extensions to name two overly optimistic calls).

Avila understands the Pelfrey signing was, as an official scorer might judge it, E-GM.

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The potential escape, and this would challenge Harry Houdini’s legacy, is if Pelfrey shows during his Florida stints that he can yet be trusted as (a) a starter or (b) as a long reliever.

He won’t be needed as a serious rotation option unless one of the Favored Five (Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann, Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd) gets hurt or falters. And if one of them should slip or hit the disabled list, it’s more likely Sanchez, because of some past capital, would be the percentage pick as a fill-in starter.

But that will only happen if Sanchez shows during March he can be counted on to pitch in any capacity. The same goes for Pelfrey, even if today he probably ranks as a better bet to survive as Ausmus’ long man in the bullpen.

Lowe is another matter altogether. He was supposed to have been an answer in the bullpen’s back end, which is how 15 months ago he extracted from the Tigers a two-year deal for $11 million ($5.5 million in 2016 and 2017).

Lowe had a nasty time last season (7.11 ERA in 54 games). True to the way in which relievers can pogo-stick from year to year, it’s possible he’ll have a pleasing Grapefruit League run that puts him in motion for a bounce-back 2017.

But, again, that probably isn’t the most plausible of scenarios. Not that there’s any deep sense today for sure-shot finalists when it comes to rounding out a seven-man relief corps.

The way it normally works when money and rosters are decided follows something of a tradition.

If there is a jump-ball between pitchers, providing there are minor-league options available for one of the contenders, the contract (maybe more than the pitcher) goes north with the club.

If the call isn’t that close, and a team cares seriously about winning (Avila’s hand is raised), they’ll hope an owner understands and the cash will be eaten.

This isn’t always ironclad. You might remember when Willis and Robertson were aboard and having issues and the Tigers did everything but hire impostor pitchers as a means to rationalize toting their heavy paychecks to Detroit.

But it is, most definitely, a matter tucked tightly within the front office’s minds as Grapefruit League auditions continue and as pitchers, roster spots – and contracts – crystallize.

Pay close attention to Florida’s pitching linescores. And maybe keep an eye, as well, on a particular pitcher’s business status with the Tigers.