Detroit — The Tigers have invited 26 non-roster players to spring training this year, and, realistically, only a few are likely to see action, let alone make an impact, in a Detroit uniform this season.
So, what’s the point? Fair question.
There is a method to this activity. Non-roster invitees generally fall into four categories — prospects, veterans who were enticed to sign minor-league deals for the opportunity to compete and be seen at a big-league camp, extra camp bodies and those legitimately auditioning for a roster spot.
There are five players safely in the latter category.
1. Jorge Bonifacio, outfielder
There is a good chance the former Royal ends up as the Tigers starting right fielder. In fact, as general manager Al Avila told the story during the winter meetings last month, Bonifacio told him when he agreed to the minor-league deal that he would, in fact, be his starting right fielder this year.
“He told us he had the best winter he’s ever had,” Avila said. “He said, ‘I’m coming in and I’m going to be the right fielder. I’m going to be the guy.' ”
He broke out with the Royals in 2017, hitting 17 home runs and posting a .255 batting average. But early in 2018 he was suspended for using performance enhancing drugs and his production fell off dramatically. He also fell out of favor in Kansas City.
Although he hit 20 home runs at Triple-A Omaha last season, he only played in five games for the Royals.
The Tigers liked what they saw of him this winter, where he hit .330 with a .548 slugging percentage and a .938 OPS in the Dominican league.
Bonifacio, a right-handed hitter, will be competing with Victor Reyes, Travis Demeritte, Derek Hill and Troy Stokes Jr., for the right-field spot. There is a chance, too, that Bonifacio could end up in left field, splitting time with left-handed hitting Christin Stewart.
2. Alex Wilson, right-handed pitcher
Things did not go well for Wilson last year. In his first year away after four solid seasons in the Tigers bullpen Wilson spent most of 2019 at Triple-A with the Brewers and Cubs. And it wasn’t like he pitched horribly. More like he had one horrid outing and never got a second chance.
Of the 12 runs he gave up in 13 games with the Brewers, six came in one game, in one-third of an inning. But he pitched effectively at San Antonio and was miffed he didn’t get a second call-up.
Wilson, now 33, has a good chance to not only regain the multi-role reliever spot he had before, but also be the veteran leader of what looks to be a very young bullpen.
As it stands entering camp, only closer Joe Jimenez and set-up man Buck Farmer are locks. Rule 5 draftee Rony Garcia, lefty Gregory Soto and hard-throwing right-handers Bryan Garcia, David McKay and Jose Cisnero might have a leg-up based on last season’s performance.
That leaves Wilson to battle with John Schreiber, Anthony Castro and non-roster lefty Nick Ramirez for the final spot. Lefty Tyler Alexander, who will come to camp fighting for a rotation spot, could also end up in a bullpen role.
3. Zack Godley, right-handed pitcher
The Tigers signed veteran Ivan Nova last week, presumably rounding out their starting rotation with Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, Jordan Zimmermann and Daniel Norris.
Anybody who has watched this team the last bunch of years knows, however, that nothing is ever etched in stone, especially not the starting rotation. And the Tigers believe there is a bounce-back year in Godley.
He won 15 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2018, making 32 starts and throwing 178 innings. That year he also lost 11 games, had an ERA of 4.74 and led the National League in hit batsmen and wild pitches.
So, the signs of the drop-off he endured last season were present.
But, he’s a four-pitch guy who when he’s right has a devastating curve ball. In 2018, opponents hit .191 off it with a 40% whiff rate. It wasn’t as effective last year, nor was his sinker, mainly because hitters started laying off those pitches.
If he can establish another pitch in the strike zone — he had some success with a cutter last year — he can start getting swings (and misses) with his bread-and-butter pitches.
The Tigers will give him a long look this spring, too. He can opt out of his $1.5 million deal at the end of spring training if he doesn’t make the team.
4. Nick Ramirez, left-handed pitcher
Ramirez, a converted first baseman, pitched 79 2/3 innings out of the Tigers bullpen last season. He won five games and had a 4.07 ERA. Opponents hit .247 against him. But he has an elite change-up (.193 opponent average, 42.5% whiff rate) and his cutter improved as the season wore on.
He was effective as a starter at Triple-A Toledo and with a five-pitch repertoire, so you wonder if the Tigers’ might stretch him out this spring.
Whether he makes the roster out of camp or not, it is highly likely he will be back with the Tigers at some point this season.
5. Brandon Dixon, utility
Dixon was the Tigers home run leader last season, albeit with just 15. Still, he was designated for assignment late in December after the Tigers signed free agent first baseman C.J. Cron. It was mildly surprising that he was DFA’d, but perhaps more so that he cleared waivers and signed back on a minor league deal.
A lot of things would have to fall into place for Dixon to win a job this spring, and not pleasant things for the club. Injuries, for one. Either to Cron or to Jeimer Candelario, who is projected to be Cron’s back-up. But, as the saying goes, if he hits they will find a place for him.
He can also play corner outfield as well as second and third base.
The Tigers like to use the first few weeks of camp to eyeball and monitor the progress of some of their top prospects. It gives the players a small taste of the big leagues and allows them to see how veterans go about their routines.
More importantly, though, it gives the big-league coaching staff a chance to work with them and get to know them.
That’s why pitchers Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal, the organization’s top three prospects, were invited, even though they are expected to spend at least half the season at Triple-A Toledo. Same is true for Alex Faedo (No. 9-ranked prospect) and Joey Wentz (10).
The Tigers also want a look at some of the lesser-known pitching prospects like Nolan Blackwood (a side-arming right-hander acquired for Mike Fiers two years ago), Gerson Moreno (a once-rising prospect limited to 6 2/3 innings last year coming back from Tommy John surgery) and Wladimir Pinto (he of the triple-digit fastball velocity).
They also invited three outfield prospects, two of whom — Danny Woodrow and Jacob Robson — are entering their sixth season in the organization and running out of chances.
The other outfielder invited, fleet-footed Jose Azocar, is 23, two years younger than both Woodrow and Robson. But he has been in the Tigers system since 2013. The club left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft in December, so he, too, needs to make a strong impression.
Corner infielder Daniel Pinero isn’t technically a prospect — at least he’s not on any prospect list — but he’s clearly a player the Tigers are intrigued by. They drafted him two straight years out of Virginia, finally signing him in 2016.
But last year, in his age 25 season splitting time between Double-A Erie and Toledo, he started hitting home runs. He ended up with 15. His previous high was nine at High-A Lakeland.
Veterans on minor-league deals
It never hurts to look at players who might have been knocking on the big-league door, either in the Tigers’ organization or another. Niko Goodrum, Ronny Rodriguez, Dixon and many others have won jobs this way.
Right-handed pitcher Shao-Ching Chiang fits this mold. The 26-year-old native of Taiwan spent the last eight seasons in the Indians system, the last two at Triple-A where he went 13-14 in 37 starts with a 5.11 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP.
The Tigers will let 25-year-old right-hander Dario Agrazal compete for a rotation spot, as well. He made his debut with the Pirates last season, going 4-5 with a 4.91 ERA in 14 starts.
The Tigers signed 32-year-old right-hander Tim Adleman out of an Independent League last season and he ended up posting a 9-4 record with a 3.32 ERA and 1.1 WHIP at Toledo. He pitched parts of two seasons with the Reds, 2016 and 2017.
It was surprising he didn’t get called up at some point last year.
The Tigers also threw a lifeline to first baseman Frank Schwindel last season. He made his debut with the Royals after seven minor-league seasons early last year, but lasted just six games and was DFA’d.
The Tigers picked him up and he hit 16 home runs in four stops, nine in 28 games at Toledo.
Right-handed reliever Sandy Baez, who had brief stays with the Tigers the last two seasons, is also back on a minor-league deal. The Tigers perhaps rushed him to the big leagues in 2018, promoting him from Double-A Erie.
Last season, before he was DFA’d, he’d pitched at Lakeland, Erie and Toledo, pitching in just one game for the Tigers.
Camp bodies mostly mean extra catchers. Thirty-four pitchers will report for first workouts on Feb. 12. Thus, the Tigers are bringing four minor-league catchers to camp — Kade Scivicque, Brady Policelli, Jhon Nunez and Cooper Johnson — none of whom are expected to get to the big leagues this season. They will join the four that are on the 40-man roster.
And that still won’t be enough. They will still occasionally bring over another catcher or two from the minor-league building to handle all the bullpens and side sessions that take place daily throughout the spring.
In all, there will be 65 players opening camp with the Tigers — pitchers and catchers starting Feb. 12, full squad on Feb. 17.