Lakeland, Fla. — Do yourself a favor and don’t waste a lot of time trying to sort out the final two or three position player spots on the Detroit Tigers roster any time soon. It’d be an empty exercise.
“It’s just going to be determined by how everything breaks down with our needs, health-wise,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We just have to see how we get through spring training and kind of see what our needs are. That’ll probably determine how that all shakes out.”
Assuming the Tigers take the usual batch of 12 pitchers north, you can make a good case for 10 of the 13 remaining spots to be relatively set, barring injury or an uncommonly poor spring performance.
The projected starting lineup:
C — James McCann
1B — Miguel Cabrera
2B — Dixon Machado
SS — Jose Iglesias
3B — Jeimer Candelario
LF — Mikie Mahtook
CF — Leonys Martin
RF — Nick Castellanos
DH — Victor Martinez
John Hicks, who is out of minor-league options, is expected to be the backup catcher and first baseman.
That leaves three spots and the Tigers can go a number of ways.
If they take a fourth outfielder, Victor Reyes probably has the edge right now over JaCoby Jones (who has a minor-league option remaining), Mike Gerber, Jim Adduci and Chad Huffman.
Reyes was the first player taken in the Rule 5 draft and the Tigers must keep Reyes on their 25-man active roster in 2018 or return him to the Diamondbacks for one-half of the $100,000 Rule 5 fee. Also, he has been impressive early in camp.
“That’s why you are seeing a good bit of him; I want to see him early,” Gardenhire said. “I really like the way he covers the ground in the outfield, long glides, and we’ve seen him put some good swings on it.
“He’s still young and some of those veteran pitchers are going to probably chew him up a little bit, but he has some talent.”
So say Reyes makes the team and there are two spots left. With Candelario and Machado entering their first full big-leagues seasons as everyday players, it would make sense to have some protection for them on the roster.
Veteran Alexi Amarista and sixth-year minor-league free agents Niko Goodrum and Ronny Rodriguez are presently battling for those two spots. All three of those players can play the outfield, too.
Veteran and former Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma is also in the hunt for an infield utility spot, though he seems ticketed for Toledo, a pretty solid insurance policy in case of a long-term injury to any of the Tigers’ infielders.
Jason Krizan, another sixth-year minor-league free agent and a capable left-handed bat, can play all three outfield positions, as well as second base and first base. He’s another player who could hit his way into the conversation.
But the most obvious scenario would be to keep Reyes as the fourth outfielder, Amarista as the primary backup to Machado and Candelario, and either Goodrum or Rodriguez as the second super-utility player.
But that comes with a lot of assumptions: Martinez is healthy and back close to his normal self, Hicks’ bat stays productive, Martin can bounce back and hit enough to play every day, Machado and Candelario can hold up.
t also assumes general manager Al Avila won’t snap up some veteran free agents who get released from teams at the end of spring – he surely might.
So, nothing is remotely locked in stone at this point. But Gardenhire did provide some insight about how things could play out.
“It gets down to this: Rather than starting a season sitting on the bench watching somebody else play, isn’t it sometimes better for some of these guys to start down there (at Triple-A), get some at-bats and then bring them up a little later?” he said. “Some of these guys are going to be here this year, we know that.
“I’m just throwing out scenarios here, but you want to give the other guy a chance to get some at-bats and get their swings in (at Triple-A), rather than sitting on the bench and watching somebody else start off.”
That would certainly apply to Jones and Gerber. Rodriguez and Goodrum, on minor-league contacts, can also be sent to Triple-A without being exposed to waivers.
“We could work those guys a lot of different ways,” Gardenhire said. “We just have to be careful with some of these young guys that we don’t have them just sitting on the bench. These are the discussions we’re going to have to have when we sit down with Al – what’s the right thing to do? We’ve got a lot of young players.”
Again, this is not the time to wrack your brain about the back of the Tigers roster. As every manager in the history of the sport probably said at one time or another, these things have a way of working themselves out.