Lakeland, Fla. — Ronny Rodriguez acted as if anybody could just walk up and swat a 96-mph fastball from Aroldis Chapman off the scoreboard in left field at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, like he did on Sunday.
“Chapman throws fastballs, so I am not looking for any different pitches,” he said. “I don’t think he’s going to throw me a change-up or slider. I just think about jumping on the first pitch. I don’t try to hit it out, but I do.”
Rodriguez, who has re-inserted himself into the crowded mix for what is believed to be the last couple of position-player spots on the Tigers 25-man roster, has four hits this spring. Three of them have left the yard.
“I’m just trying to be consistent with my mechanics,” he said. “It’s something that I have been working on and we are on point right now.”
After spending seven seasons working his way up to Triple-A in the Indians organization, Rodriguez finally made his big-league debut with the Tigers last season. He wound up hitting .220 with a .256 on-base average, with five home runs in 206 plate appearances over 62 games.
That after hitting .338 at Triple-A Toledo. What he found out was, while holding his hands high in his stance and being jumpy in the batter’s box worked in Triple-A, it did not work against big-league pitching.
“We’ve tried to eliminate a lot of movement and be a little quieter at home plate,” he said. “Just see the ball. I know the potential I have and what I can do at the plate. It’s just something where after I changed my mechanics, and it’s something I am still working on, we’ve been seeing the progress lately.”
This battle for the final one or two spots can go a lot of different ways, depending on how many pitchers the club wants to keep. But for our purposes here, let’s presume the Tigers will keep the usual five starters and seven relievers — which is likely for the first couple of weeks of the season when a fifth starter isn’t always needed.
That leaves 13 position spots. Eleven of those are mostly secure, barring injury:
►Catcher: Grayson Greiner
►First base: Miguel Cabrera
►Second base: Josh Harrison
►Third base: Jeimer Candelario
►Shortstop: Jordy Mercer
►Left field: Christian Stewart
►Center field: JaCoby Jones
►Right field: Nick Castellanos
►Utility: Niko Goodrum
►Outfield: Mikie Mahtook
►C-1B-DH: John Hicks.
It’s not cut-and-dry, by any stretch, how the Tigers might want to fill those final spots. If they are worried about Jones offensively, Mahtook could get more work in center field, which could open a spot for another outfielder.
However, with Goodrum and Harrison both able to play corner outfield spots, it’s more likely they will keep two multi-positional players.
There also is a slight chance that, with two relatively inexperienced catchers and with Hicks maybe splitting more time with Cabrera at first, the Tigers could keep a third catcher — which would put veteran Bobby Wilson in the mix.
Here are some thumbnail sketches of the contestants in this derby.
►Rodriguez, 26: The other day in Tampa he played second base, third base, first base in right field. He struggled at times playing first base last season, but he offers the same positional flexibility as Goodrum, though less of an offensive threat.
►Brandon Dixon, 27: A waiver claim from the Reds, he is primarily a corner infielder and corner outfielder — though he has played second base. He’s hitting .267 this spring and has hit a couple of home runs (one against Southeastern University).
►Dustin Peterson, 24: A waiver claim from the Braves, he’s had a huge spring to this point. He has eight hits (hitting .421), 12 total bases and seven RBIs in eight games. He is primarily a corner outfielder, but the Tigers have been giving him a lot of reps at first base. Both Peterson and Dixon hit right-handed, which might play a role in the decision. Of the Tigers regulars, only Stewart, Candelario (switch) and Goodrum (switch) hit from the left side.
►Victor Reyes, 24: The Tigers plan all along has been for Reyes, who spent last season on the active roster as a Rule 5 draftee, to play every day at Triple-A. Even though he came to camp 15 pounds stronger and was stinging the ball early, it doesn’t appear that the plan has changed. They want him to get 400-500 at-bats this season, and that won’t happen in the big leagues, barring injury.
►Gordon Beckham, 32: The signing of Harrison hamstrung his chances of starting the season with the Tigers. But, as he’s shown this camp, he belongs in the big leagues. He’s still a very useful player. His best position is second base, but he can play third and corner outfield, as well.
►Harold Castro, 25: He was signed back on a minor-league deal with the idea of being the every day second baseman in Toledo. But he’s come to camp after a productive offseason in Venezuela and hasn’t let up. A left-handed hitter, he is hitting .400 in seven games this spring, with two home runs and a double.
►Pete Kozma, 31: He was signed to a minor-league deal with the idea of playing at Toledo and mentoring some of the young middle infield prospects. But he's playing superb baseball and would be a more-than-adequate fill-in if there were injuries to Mercer, Harrison or Candelario.
Rodriguez echoed what the others have said about the battle — just control what is in his power to control.
“I never think about that,” he said. “I am here to compete and give it the best I can on the field. I don’t think about any decisions they have to make. If I have to go to the minor leagues, then I go to the minor leagues. If they send me to the big leagues, then I go to the big leagues.
“The only thing I care about is that I have a uniform.”