Lakeland, Fla. — It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to characterize the Tigers’ last two spring camps as glorified gong show-style auditions. Very few established players, long-term veteran assets or big-league ready prospects. A too-large percentage of players were in camp competing to be placeholders, not fixtures, at their position.
That’s what it looks like when a team is in full teardown mode.
Well, rejoice, rejoice, because those days are over. As general manager Al Avila proclaimed during the winter caravan last month, the process of building the roster back toward respectability and contention starts now.
“We are getting away from tearing down,” he said. “Now it’s time to acquire some players, but also time for the young players to step up and play better at the major-league level. We have a lot of good players who are getting to (Triple-A) Toledo this year.
“So the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter.”
The teardown took essentially three years. The build-up could take just as long. The difference is this phase, though still gradual and at times frustrating, will be pointed and exciting and the progress quantifiable — things those dreadful teardown years lacked.
“It’s time to win and show our fans we’re headed in the right direction,” manager Ron Gardenhire said.
That’s what the signing of free agents C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Ivan Nova and Austin Romine was about this winter. They are all on one-year deals and as such not necessarily pillars of the future. But they are solid, proven veterans who will not only help win games in 2020, but also help establish a more competitive environment for the younger players to grow into.
“We want to hold these players accountable,” Gardenhire said. “No more gimmes. We want our young players to develop, but these guys are going to have to earn their playing time now.”
That’s the backdrop as pitchers and catchers report for spring training on Tuesday and begin workouts Wednesday, ahead of the full-squad workouts, which begin Feb. 17.
Here’s some story lines to follow:
Here come the kids
Nineteen of the club’s top 30 prospects (per MLBPipeline) will be in big-league camp, including 10 of the top 11. This will be the first extended look at what the Tigers believe will be the heart of their next championship-level team — namely, starting pitchers Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal and Alex Faedo.
That quartet is expected to start the season at Triple-A Toledo, though Avila held open the possibility of one or two of them debuting with the Tigers later this season.
“It would be our preference to start them at Toledo,” he said. “At some point during the season we can bring them up so they can get some experience. Then we can go into the (2021) spring training and it’s a whole different ballgame.”
It will be worth watching how the Tigers monitor the innings and pitch counts of these young pitchers. Manning, who threw 133.2 innings last season, should be able to get close to 200 innings. Skubal threw 122.2, Faedo 115.1 and Mize, who dealt with shoulder soreness, threw 109.1.
The Tigers also hope to take long looks at Franklin Perez, the oft-injured right-hander acquired from the Astros in the Justin Verlander trade; Joey Wentz, a left-hander acquired from the Braves in the Shane Greene trade; and right-hander Rony Garcia whom the Tigers selected with the first pick in the Rule 5 draft.
Attending their first camp, too, will be third baseman Isaac Paredes and outfielder and former first-round pick Derek Hill. Paredes, though he will be just 21 (on Feb. 18), has a chance to make his big-league debut this season.
There aren’t as many as you might expect from a team that lost 114 games last season.
The big one is at third base where Jeimer Candelario and Dawel Lugo, both out of minor-league options, are duking it out.
“We have guys that need to step up,” Gardenhire said, naming Candelario. “Candy Man, we want him to do some things. Lugo played pretty well last year, so there’s good competition there. Those guys will have to battle it out and figure out who’s going to earn that job.
“It’s going to be important and fun to watch. That’s what baseball is all about, people earning things.”
Candelario, 26, looked like he was going to be a fixture at third base when he hit 19 home runs in 2018. But, battling wrist and shoulder injuries, his production dipped last season to the point where Lugo replaced him in the everyday lineup.
Candelario was optioned to Toledo three times and when he came back in September, he played first base.
Lugo, who is a year younger than Candelario, didn’t exactly seize the position. He hit .245 with six home runs but walked just eight times in 288 plate appearances and was a minus-6 defensive runs saved at third base.
The rest of the infield seems set, with Cron at first, Schoop at second and Niko Goodrum at shortstop. Willi Castro, who made his debut last season, will compete at short and second, but the Tigers seem intent on getting him regular playing time at Toledo for at least half the season.
Do-it-all Harold Castro seems to have a firm grip on one of the two utility spots.
The outfield, however, is anything but set. As Avila said last month, it’s open competition. JaCoby Jones is probably the closest thing to a lock entering camp.
Christin Stewart will get every chance to hold on to his left-field spot. Right field, though, should be hotly contested between Victor Reyes and former Royal Jorge Bonifacio, who is a non-roster invitee.
Also in the hunt will be Travis Demeritte, who came over from the Braves and started in right field for the last two months last season; Daz Cameron, coming off a down season at Toledo; Troy Stokes, Jr., claimed off waivers from Milwaukee; and utility man Harold Castro.
Avila might not be done adding pieces, either. He said last month he was still shopping for another veteran outfielder.
Behind the plate, the Tigers gave Romine, a career back-up, $4.1 million to be their everyday catcher. Jake Rogers, the organization’s top catching prospect, is expected to spend the bulk of the season at Toledo.
That leaves Grayson Greiner, who performed well after recovering from a back injury, and Dearborn Divine Child graduate Eric Haase, signed after he was released by the Indians, to compete for the back-up role.
Bonifacio isn’t the only non-roster invitee who could win a spot this spring.
Jordy Mercer, 33, whom the Tigers signed back on a minor-league deal, will compete with Goodrum at shortstop, but seems more likely to make the club as a utility infielder. He showed last season he could play second, first and third.
He would be a stabilizing component, especially considering Goodrum hasn’t played shortstop for a full season in four years.
Three familiar faces are also back on minor-league deals — relievers Alex Wilson and Nick Ramirez, and utility man Brandon Dixon.
Wilson, who spent most of 2019 at Triple A (San Antonio and Iowa), was a fixture in the Tigers’ bullpen from 2015-2018.
Ramirez, a converted first baseman, pitched 79.2 innings last season, the most of any Tigers’ reliever.
Dixon, who played first base, second base, third base and some outfield last season, was the Tigers’ home run leader last season, with 15.
Another pitcher to keep an eye on is lefty Hector Santiago. The Tigers signed the nine-year veteran last month. He will be in minor-league camp, but he will likely plenty of work in Grapefruit League games. An All-Star in 2015, Santiago pitched for the Mets and White Sox last season.
Never enough pitching
The Tigers have a lot to sort out, pitching-wise.
The rotation going into camp is mostly set: Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, Nova, Jordan Zimmermann and Daniel Norris.
Looking to steal a spot are lefty Tyler Alexander, prospects Beau Burrows, Anthony Castro and Kyle Funkhouser and veteran non-roster invitees Dario Agrazal (who has big-league experience with the Pirates), Zack Godley (former Diamondback) and Shao-Ching Chiang (seven years in the Indians system).
If the Tigers are planning on keeping four prospects in the rotation at Toledo, there’s not going to be much room for any of those who don’t make the big-league club.
And that doesn’t include Michael Fulmer, who is coming back from Tommy John surgery and could be back by August.
The Tigers used 24 different relief pitchers last season, not counting Dixon. Though the bullpen likely will be in flux again this season, there seems to be more solid pieces.
Going into camp, Joe Jimenez is set as the closer, with Buck Farmer, Jose Cisnero and lefty Gregory Soto in set-up roles. The Tigers likely will give David McKay and Bryan Garcia every chance to retain their roles from last season.
That would leave two spots for Rony Garcia (Rule 5), John Schreiber, Wilson, Ramirez and Santiago to fight for. Also, it’s possibly the Tigers could move Alexander, Burrows, Funkhouser or another starting pitcher to the bullpen.
Consider this too: Besides Soto, Alexander and Norris would be the only other left-handed bullpen candidates on the 40-man roster. So, if the fifth starter spot came down to those two, the loser may well make the squad as a bullpen piece.
Other points of interest
► Miguel Cabrera is always a story line. This year’s angle: How fit is he and how will that translate to his performance? Cabrera acknowledged at the end of last season that he needed to lose weight to take pressure off his chronically-ailing right knee. Toward that end, he went through the System 8 training program developed by Fort Lauderdale trainer Adam Boily. His posts on Instagram were encouraging, but he did not participate in the caravan. So, we won’t know exactly how he looks until he arrives in Lakeland next week.
► The coaching staff shake-up. Gardenhire fought to retain his coaches, and with the exception of bench coach Steve Liddle, who retired, he kept his guys. But he’s shuffled the deck a bit. Lloyd McClendon, former hitting coach, is now the bench coach. Joe Vavra, formerly the quality control coach, is now the hitting coach.
Vavra, who was a hitting coach in Minnesota from 2005-2012, helped develop players like Justin Morneau, Nick Punto and Michael Cuddyer.
Base coaches Dave Clark and Ramon Santiago have flip-flopped — Clark to first and Santiago to third.
Rick Anderson and Jeff Pico still run things on the pitching side, and the new quality control coach is former Diamondbacks bench coach Josh Paul.
► Riley Greene, the fifth overall pick in 2019, will be doing his work on the minor-league side this spring. He jumped three rungs of the system last year, as an 18-year-old, hitting .351 in rookie ball, .295 in short-season Class-A at Connecticut, then .219 at Low-A West Michigan — which is where he likely will start the 2020 season.
Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Tigers bring him over for a few Grapefruit League games, just to give him a taste of big-league pitching.
► Tuesday: Pitchers and catchers report.
► Wednesday: First official workout for pitchers and catchers.
► Feb. 16: Full squad reports.
► Feb. 17: First official full-squad workout.
► Feb. 21: First exhibition game, vs. Southeastern University, 1:05 p.m.
► Feb. 22: First Grapefruit League game, vs. Phillies at Joker Marchant Stadium, 1:05 p.m.
► Feb. 23: First televised game (Fox Sports Detroit) vs. Braves at the new CoolToday Park in Sarasota County, 1:05 p.m.
► March 7: Tigers-Twins play Grapefruit League game at Juan Marichal Stadium in Dominican Republic.
► March 14: Tigers host World Series champion Nationals, 1:05 p.m.
► March 26: Opening Day vs. Indians at Progressive Field, 1:10 p.m.
► March 30: Home opener at Comerica Park, vs. Royals, 1:10 p.m.