Detroit — Pitchers and catchers will report to spring training in less than six weeks, and still baseball remains in a veritable free-agent freeze-out. When the first dawn of 2018 broke Monday, there were still 136 unsigned free agents on the market, including most of the high-end talent including J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer and Yu Darvish.
A thaw is coming and probably soon. But that is of little concern to the rebuilding Tigers. They may still sign another veteran starting pitcher, another reliever — since they lost out on Japanese closer Yoshihisa Hirano, who signed with the Diamondbacks — and possibly a veteran infielder to challenge Dixon Machado at second base or Jeimer Candelario at third.
General manager Al Avila and his staff certainly will scan the eventual free agent thaw for unanticipated bargains — that process never ends — but for the most part, the Tigers’ roster is set for spring training.
There have been four off-season additions to the big-league roster — center fielder Leonys Martin, starting pitchers Mike Fiers and Ryan Carpenter and Rule 5 draftee and outfielder Victor Reyes.
Eleven players so far have been signed to minor-league deals and invited to camp: pitchers Enrique Burgos, Kevin Comer, Will Lamb, Mark Montgomery, catcher Derek Norris, infielders Ronny Rodriguez and Edwin Espinal, and outfielders, Jim Adduci, Niko Goodrum, Chad Huffman and Kenny Wilson.
While those moves aren’t likely to heat up advance ticket sales, they will create some competition and intrigue in spring training.
Here’s an early sneak peek at three possible position battles:
Presuming good health, it’s likely the Tigers will enter the spring with a starting rotation of Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann, Mike Fiers, Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris.
That is the hope. It may not be the reality.
Avila said during the winter meetings that Fulmer, who had surgery on his right elbow to alleviate the nerve issues that plagued him last season, already had started his throwing program and is expected to be ready to open camp.
Zimmermann had his first injury-free off-season in two years.
Still, until they prove otherwise, there will be health concerns with both.
On top of that, there are consistency concerns with both Boyd and Norris. Neither has played a full big-league season without a Triple-A stint. Norris, especially, has yet to firmly establish himself at the big-league level.
Bottom-line, there could be an opportunity for somebody to steal the fourth and-or fifth spot in this rotation. That, as much as anything, is why Avila is still shopping for a veteran starter, be it Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez or others.
Carpenter, 27, also will be given a long look. He’s never pitched in the big leagues but he’s big (6-5), left-handed and he throws strikes. Pitching for the Rockies’ Triple-A team in Albuquerque last season, he had a 1.2 WHIP and struck out 161 with 39 walks in 156 innings.
Buck Farmer and Chad Bell, holdovers from last season, also will be in the mix.
This could be fun. Martin, a veteran and plus-defender, likely will be the man to beat here. He will be 30 in March and has seven years of big-league experience. To be the everyday center fielder, though, he will have to revive his offensive game.
He hit .172 with just a .232 on-base percentage last season, splitting time between the Mariners and Cubs.
He bats left-handed and has excellent speed, So if he can reprise his .260-.270 production from his days in Texas, he would be an ideal leadoff hitter.
His biggest challenge will come from JaCoby Jones, who showed in his time last season that he has the range and athleticism to cover the vast center field expanse at Comerica Park. But he won’t get on the field if his strikeout rate remains at 42 percent, which it was last season.
Jones has another minor-league option remaining. So, most likely, the Tigers won’t put him on the 25-man roster if he’s not going to play at least semi-regularly. That would be counterproductive to his development.
That fact could open a spot for the Tigers to stash Rule 5 draftee Reyes. He’s 23 and hasn’t played above Double-A, but in six minor-league seasons, he’s hit .298 with a .347 on-base percentage. Also, he’s a switch-hitter, though he has been more productive from the left side.
If the Tigers decided against keeping Reyes — they would have to give him back to the Diamondbacks or let him become a free agent — they could keep rookie Mike Gerber, who is 25 and had risen steadily through the Tigers system, hitting .304/.373/.496 with 14 homers and 50 RBIs in three stops (high Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A) last season.
Gerber is more of a corner outfielder. But Mikie Mahtook, who is penciled in as the starting left fielder, could back up Martin in center.
Keep an eye on Kenny Wilson, as well, though he’s ticketed for Toledo. A former second-round pick of the Blue Jays, he’s a speedy center fielder who has grinded his way through four organizations in 11 seasons, so far topping out at Triple-A.
He stole 55 bases in 2012 (high Single-A) and has 307 stolen bases in his career.
The Tigers will miss the multi-positional consistency of Andrew Romine, who now is with the Mariners. Before Ian Kinsler was traded to the Angels, Machado was slated to move into a full-time utility role.
Now, Machado will have the opportunity to be the everyday second baseman.
Two non-roster invitees will have a chance to win the utility role this year: Ronny Rodriguez, long-time Indians farmhand, and Niko Goodrum, a former Twin.
Goodrum, the Twins’ second-round pick in 2010, will turn 26 in February and is as versatile defensively as Romine. He can play everywhere around the infield, as well as center field. And, like Romine, he is a switch-hitter. He’s starting to show some spark offensively, as well.
His OPS was .734 and .816 the last two seasons and for his eight-year minor-league career, he has a .333 on-base percentage and a .712 OPS.
Rodriguez, who turns 26 in April, has more power than Goodrum. The last two seasons at Triple-A Columbus, he’s hit .274/.308/.427 with 27 home runs and 123 RBIs. He has played corner outfield, but he’s better suited to play shortstop, second and third base.
Another player in the mix is Jason Krizan. He’s 28 and the Tigers’ eighth-round pick in 2010. Although drafted as an outfielder, he’s been transitioning to a utility role the last two springs and he’s listed as an infielder among the spring invitees.
He’s been a solid left-handed hitter. In eight minor-league seasons, he’s hit .273/.351/.392 with 44 homers and 341 RBIs.