Henning: Tigers have sure hits, red flags as camp nears conclusion

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Miguel Cabrera

Lakeland, Florida – Six weeks of Tigers spring camp wraps up Tuesday with a game at Tropicana Field against the Rays.

And then it’s on to Detroit. And to a baseball season fans are viewing, not incorrectly, as more of a chore than an adventure.

Notes from a rebuilding club’s traits and habits during a spring tune-up that went astonishingly quickly:

Miguel Cabrera: His back issues have eased, as doctors last year said they would. Cabrera is swinging the bat breezily. He feels good. He has been uncommonly warm and good-humored in the Tigers clubhouse. For all the stress he supposedly is dealing with, as a court duel plays out with his former mistress, Cabrera looks and sounds great. Expect a season in line with past years even as he next month turns 35.

Michael Fulmer: The best pitcher on the team. One of the most talented starters the Tigers have had – up there with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer in terms of pure ability to shut down a team and defeat good hitters. The Tigers will only trade him if they can get a prospects package that makes dealing him a bonanza for Detroit. That means at least three very good prospects. The belief here is a swap will materialize between now and the end of July.

Victor Martinez: A surprise here. Martinez, at 39, has been hammering the ball. No one knows how long it can last nine months from 40. But he is playing with zest. He ironed out last year’s teammate issues. He will get a shot at ending his eight years in Detroit, with dignity, and with lineup value. Which wasn’t, frankly, anticipated at the end of 2017.

Jordan Zimmermann: He is throwing the best baseball any of us has seen from him in two years. His neck is cooperating. He has some zip on his fastball. He still isn’t sure if, on a given day, his slider or his curveball is the pitch he can trust for six or seven innings. But he should give the Tigers 180 capable innings, even if on this team a .500 win-loss record and a 4.00-plus ERA is probably as good as it will get for Zimmermann. His contract was the product of Mike Ilitch wanting to go for it, still, in 2015. He then was the Tigers’ best option. He benefited more than his team at a point the market was still player-friendly. But he takes his job seriously and is trying his best to earn his pay.

Nick Castellanos: Splendid hitter who is about to have, at age 26, a dandy of a season. Castellanos is relaxed in right field and defends acceptably. So, last year’s transfer from third base worked for all parties. The Tigers will not extend him at a contract price he and his agent are hunting, which means, if he has the kind of first half expected, there should be an offer the Tigers find worthwhile as they bore into July’s trade mart.

Dixon Machado and Jeimer Candelario

Jeimer Candelario: Good baseball player. Solid young professional. And it’s easy to like him in that No. 2 spot in Detroit’s order. Smart hitter who knows the advantages of hitting to the opposite field rather than trying to drive pitches onto the Pepsi Porch. Plays a solid third base. A player here fans will appreciate.

Dixon Machado: Nice presence. Nothing flashy. Nothing dramatic. Won’t make a lot of friends among fans who want an All-Star at every position. But he plays a surprisingly smooth second base for a man who is more naturally a shortstop. Hitting will be the challenge, and a likely reason some fans will never warm to him. But in spring he has been better on both ends than some of us envisioned.

James McCann: Has added 10-15 pounds of muscle to his lower body and everyone, of course, wondered if that’s why he spent most of the Grapefruit League season swinging a .156 bat. Appeared to regain consciousness this week and, if so, that’s a big boost to a lineup’s back end. This probably is the season McCann determines, with some finality, how good he is and can be. Still a lot of jury pondering there.

Matthew Boyd: Was not expected to be the prize of the pitchers Detroit got from Toronto three years ago when the Tigers dealt David Price. But that’s how it stands today. Does not vaporize hitters or beat them up with power stuff. Have always said – and you must go way back for this – he’s reminiscent of a left-handed Paul Foytack. Those who remember Foytack get the comparison.

Daniel Norris: Still trying to figure out some things. Just as the Tigers are sorting out why, after three years, it has taken Norris so long to find his way. It can happen at any point. Or it might not. Probably the most mystifying player on the Tigers roster.

Jose Iglesias: No dramatic ups or downs with Iglesias this spring. Creates less news than anyone in the lineup. Which probably is a plus.

Leonys Martin: Has been a surprise, in center field, and as a leadoff hitter. The offense (.300-plus batting average) probably won’t last. Martin has played 621 big-league games, so, at age 30, he’s a known quantity. But the Tigers were smart to sign him as an affordable ($1.75 million) free agent. He plays a wide center field and at least brings a left-handed bat and fleet feet to the batting order’s top.

Francisco Liriano

Francisco Liriano: Still owns a powerful arm five months after he turned 34. Liriano will walk a few too many batters. But he throws his secondary potion with enough artistry to typically get out of innings that could turn into major messes. A good bargain starter for $4 million.

Shane Greene: A shame he won’t have more Tigers games to close. He comes into an inning and all but touches a match to three batters. Power stuff. Very clinical. A good bet to be saving games for a contender by the time the midseason’s trade aisles have cleared.

Mikie Mahtook: Capable baseball player who offers the Tigers protection in two ways. If it develops that Martin doesn’t hit or isn’t the best everyday choice in center, Mahtook can move there. Or, he can perhaps stick in left field as JaCoby Jones gets a shot at center – or, should Jones become Mahtook’s replacement in left if Mahtook doesn’t begin to hit (.143 heading into Sunday’s game). He has a minor-league option remaining. So, no serious issues there if things get crowded and Mahtook is better off with some time at Toledo.

Victor Reyes: Remember that Rule 5 picks aren’t good enough to have made another team’s 40-man roster. Bear in mind, also, that the Diamondbacks aren’t exactly the Cubs or Dodgers or Astros when it comes to talent stockpiles. Arizona decided Reyes wasn’t worth a 40-man seat when the Tigers claimed him in December. The Tigers liked his skill set and his age (23) and thought gambling on him filling out and adding power could make a switch-hitting outfielder a potential steal. Maybe, maybe not. But you can see watching him play this spring why Detroit gambled.

Ron Gardenhire: The Tigers got the right guy to run a rebuilding team. He has the personality and fire as manager fans will appreciate. He is respected by players who appreciate how he balances carrots and sticks. Fans who believe the Tigers won’t boot or throw away a ground ball, or won’t get picked off base, or won’t screw up in a hundred different ways in 2018 with Gardenhire at the helm, will learn differently. Gardenhire “teaches” as well as any manager. He can yell as loudly. But watch any team perform for a week and baseball’s ability to turn professionals into guys who look as if they should be banished to the sandlots will be displayed graphically. Gardenhire isn’t overcoming baseball’s hard realities.

Al Kaline: Still a marvel of a man. He’s 83 and looks closer to 63. Works in uniform on the field. Often in the clubhouse chatting with players or catching up on iPhone news. Always has time to talk about whatever even after a few dozen people stopped him this morning for autographs. Kaline has embodied for 60-years-plus Tigers baseball. He still does.

Tigers payroll: Still way, way north of $100 million, which is $50 million too much for a team that could lose 100-plus games. This is the legacy of Mike Ilitch’s bid to win until his last breath. It will take time to recede, which isn’t the priority, but rather, the product of a team’s imperative to get younger and more talented. As a younger roster drivetrain emerges, payroll can re-inflate by adding free agents that can augment the core talent and become difference-makers. But that’s a few years down the road.

The Tigers overall: Nothing has changed. This team is headed for somewhere in the radius of a 55-107 finish. The pitching isn’t good enough to offer much hope. Next spring, Tigers camp will be all about how many young starters and lineup rookies the team might take north. This year, a broad baseball building project remains, necessarily, in the hole-digging stage.

Twitter @Lynn_Henning