Lakeland, Fla. — At least Ron Gardenhire won’t be calling his players “Buddy” this spring. He can call them, most of them, by their proper names now — something he struggled to do early last year in his first season at the helm of the Tigers.
More importantly, as pitchers and catchers report for official duty Tuesday, harkening the start of his second spring training with the Tigers, Gardenhire and his staff will be able to officiate some genuine position and roster battles going into the 2019 season.
“The greatest thing about this whole deal is competition,” Gardenhire said at TigerFest last month. “We’ve got competition now. And if you are going to be good, you need to have that. Last year, we were like, ‘Who the heck are we going to keep out this group?’
“This year, it’s more like, ‘How are we going to send this guy down?’”
There will be tough decisions to be made at several positions, and that, for a young team in the second year of a rebuild, is a positive.
What follows is a breakdown of some of the more intriguing roster battles this spring.
The contestants: Jordan Zimmermann, Michael Fulmer, Matthew Boyd, Tyson Ross, Matt Moore, Daniel Norris, Ryan Carpenter and Spencer Turnbull.
The skinny: Zimmermann and Fulmer come to camp healthy after offseason surgeries (core muscle and meniscus, respectively), and Boyd returns after being the club’s best starter in 2018. The Tigers signed Ross, a nine-year veteran coming off his first full season in three years, to a $5.75 million deal and he will be given every chance to stay in the rotation.
The battle: Barring injury, the real fight is for the final spot. Moore and Norris, a pair of left-handers, are the primary contestants entering camp. Moore, entering his ninth season, spent most of last season in the bullpen with the Rangers and has mostly floundered since his All-Star season in 2013. Norris, healthy after groin surgery curtailed his 2018 season, has a minor-league option left and could be on an innings limit this year. Turnbull, who made a strong first impression last season, and Carpenter are expected to start the season in Toledo.
The wild card: Turnbull showed with his performance last September that his stuff and his temperament play at the big-league level. He could end up playing a big role with the Tigers this season.
The forecast: The Tigers likely will start the season with both Moore and Ross in the rotation. In a perfect world, one or both will be this year’s version of Mike Fiers — players on one-year deals who perform well enough to be flipped for prospects before the trade deadline. Theoretically, Moore and Norris could work out of the bullpen. But as you will see in the next item, it’s crowded down there and the Tigers don’t have much depth in the rotation.
The contestants: Right-handers Shane Greene (closer), Joe Jimenez (set-up), Drew VerHagen, Buck Farmer, Victor Alcantara, Louis Coleman, Reed Garrett (Rule 5), Sandy Baez, Zac Reininger; left-handers Daniel Stumpf, Blaine Hardy, Matt Hall, Jose Fernandez.
The skinny: Twelve of those pitchers worked last season. And by the end, VerHagen, Farmer, Alcantara, Hardy and Stumpf, as well as Greene and Jimenez, had earned the trust of the coaching staff and seemingly solidified their spots. That’s a full bullpen coming back, which will put the heat on Garrett, Coleman and Baez, especially.
The battle: VerHagen and Farmer are out of options, which means they would be subjected to waivers if they don’t make the squad. VerHagen already has been DFA’d once and re-signed. So has Coleman. Garrett is going to be given every chance to win a spot, just like Rule 5 outfielder Victor Reyes was last season. The Tigers like his power arm and believe if he gets his command issues solved, like Alcantara did last season, he can be a useful player.
The wild card: The Tigers scouts like Fernandez, whom they claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays. He will turn 26 later this month, and after having a solid stretch at Triple-A Buffalo last year and a strong showing in the Dominican Winter League, the Tigers feel he could be finding his niche. He features a mid-90s fastball and a sharp cutter.
The forecast: It’s going to be another revolving door. The closer role may end up being a competition too, between Greene and Jimenez. Other players may enter the bullpen fray, too, like right-handers Bryan Garcia (who is expected to return from Tommy John surgery in May), Zac Houston, Paul Voelker, John Schreiber and Chris Smith.
The contestants: Niko Goodrum, Gordon Beckham, Dawel Lugo, Brandon Dixon, Ronny Rodriguez.
The skinny: The Tigers' long-range view is for Goodrum to be a super-utility player, one who gets 400-plus at-bats a year. In the short-term, though, he might be their best option at second base. Beckham, 32 and a non-roster invitee, hasn’t hit above .226 since 2013. Lugo had some good moments in his September audition last year, but may be best served with another year of seasoning. Dixon is 27, and like Goodrum last year, got his first taste of the big leagues (with the Reds) after a strong, six-year minor-league career.
The battle: It’s wide open and the Tigers could easily bring in another veteran to compete before camp breaks. If they commit to Goodrum as the everyday second baseman, that would kick Beckham to Triple-A and leave Rodriguez and Dixon to compete for the utility job.
The wild card: Dixon is intriguing. He has played everywhere except catcher and shortstop. He even pitched two games for the Reds last year, 1.1 scoreless innings. He didn’t hit much at the big-league level, but he did throughout his minor-league career — .288/.344/.489 with some power at Triple-A.
The forecast: The rest of the roster likely might determine how best to use Goodrum’s versatility. If the biggest need ends up being at second base, then he will log most of his minutes there, like he ended up doing last season. But the Tigers would be thrilled if Beckham or Dixon, or even Lugo, could seize that spot and free Goodrum to play multiple spots.