Lakeland, Fla. — There are 11 exhibition games left this spring, less than two weeks before the Tigers head north to begin the regular season in Chicago against the White Sox.
And yet, the club is no closer to solving the riddles at the back end of the rotation or the final bullpen spots. Believe manager Brad Ausmus when he says both decisions aren’t likely to be made until the final hour.
General manager Al Avila has said throughout camp that the mission is to be a playoff team, and thus he and Ausmus will make every effort to identify and keep the 12 best pitchers on staff.
But in the end, how will that ideal hold up under fierce financial reality? Anibal Sanchez is owed $16.8 million this year and another $5 million if the Tigers choose to buy out his option for 2018; Mike Pelfrey is owed $8 million and Mark Lowe $5.5 million.
All three pitchers are on the bubble, in terms of securing a roster spot. Would Christopher Ilitch be willing to eat $35.3 million in contracts when he knows he is likely on the hook for a hefty luxury tax bill for a second straight year?
He has indicated he would. His willingness to allow Avila to go forth with the present roster and $200 million payroll mostly intact was a sign that, like his father, the late Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, he values a winning product over a healthy fiscal picture.
But push has yet come to shove.
In the meantime, let’s try to make some sense out of this pitching staff.
It seems inarguable now that Daniel Norris, along with Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer and Jordan Zimmermann are locks.
There was some concern whether Zimmermann would have enough time to build up his pitch count before the team broke camp, but his 66-pitch outing on the back fields Monday, with two starts left, allayed those fears.
Norris has not yet been definitively awarded the No. 4 spot, but it’s clear he’s well on his way to securing it.
“I actually hope he is,” Ausmus said. “He’s got the ability and the stuff to be a very good major-league pitcher. He’s really pitched well in spring and he finished strong for us last year.”
The leaves Matthew Boyd, Sanchez and Pelfrey for the fifth spot.
A week or so ago, it seemed Boyd had it locked. He has, by far, had the most productive and impressive spring, and the other two scuffled early. Even though Boyd has continued to pitch extremely well — 16 strikeouts and no walks this spring — Sanchez and Pelfrey have started to come on.
Sanchez has pitched eight straight scoreless innings since tweaking his mechanics (pitching coach Rich Dubee got him to move his arm away from his head). Pelfrey, getting more comfortable with his new pitch pattern, which includes more slow curves, change-ups and sliders, also has put together two strong outings.
Each likely will get two more starts.
Boyd has another minor-league option left, which gives the Tigers a bailout should Sanchez and/or Pelfrey continue to trend positive. And Boyd is strong enough mentally, and secure enough in his ability, that he wouldn’t likely let a business decision of that nature — if it came down to that — dispirit or deter him.
Sending him down will be a tough sell, though. On the pure merits of his pitching, Boyd deserves the final spot.
But sending him down would buy the Tigers some time, either to get a better read on Sanchez-Pelfrey or to find a trade partner. The Tigers would have to eat a large portion, if not all, of either contract.
Of the two, Pelfrey would make more sense as a bullpen option — though that’s a crowded field, too.
Again, Ausmus hasn’t made any declarations, but assuming good health, six of the seven spots are set: Closer Francisco Rodriguez (right-handed), Justin Wilson (left), Bruce Rondon (right), Shane Greene (right), Alex Wilson (right) and Kyle Ryan (left).
Muddling that picture somewhat is the fact that Rodriguez and Rondon are just now returning to camp after competing in the World Baseball Classic. Rodriguez fought through a tight hamstring and before he left, Rondon’s arm wasn’t close to being built up.
The Tigers aren’t worried about some of the early camp struggles of Greene and the two Wilsons — all three have shown positive signs lately. They are a little anxious, though, to see Rodriguez and Rondon progress in these next two weeks.
That leaves seven pitchers in camp fighting for one spot: Lefties Blaine Hardy, Daniel Stumpf, and right-handers Lowe, Pelfrey, Angel Nesbitt, Arcenio Leon and Joe Jimenez.
Nesbitt has been impressive in camp, with much better command of his upper-90s fastball, and has put himself back on the team’s radar. Jimenez, a long shot to start with, is still competing in the WBC.
Both of those two are likely to start the season at Triple A Toledo.
Leon has gone from off the grid to a legitimate contender in just a few weeks. He’s 30 years old and signed to a minor-league deal with no camp invite. But with a fastball was clocking at 97, and big-league ready slider and splitter, he opened eyes in a hurry.
He’s in big-league camp now and threatening to steal that last spot.
Lowe has had a good spring. His velocity is climbing back up toward the mid-90s, his slider has been more consistent and he’s reincorporated a change-up with good results. But you wonder if it’s enough in the organization’s eyes, given their other options, to claim that last spot.
The Tigers know who Hardy is and they are comfortable with him. He is a steady, dependable lefty who is as tough on right-handed hitters as he is on left-handed hitters. He can fill a situational role and work multiple innings.
But, he has a minor-league option left. The Tigers may find it convenient to use it in April, take a longer look at somebody else (Pelfrey, Leon, Stumpf), knowing Hardy will be there when they need him.
Stumpf is a Rule 5 draftee. He would have to be sent back to the Royals, from whom the Tigers took him, if he doesn’t make the 25-man roster. But the Tigers aren’t looking to stash developing players on the big-league roster. Stumpf, though his stuff is intriguing, hasn’t pitched consistently well enough to secure the final spot.
Depending on what the Tigers do with Sanchez and Pelfrey, Leon has seemingly put himself in position to win the final bullpen spot.
Check back in 10 days.