By Jay Winkler
Last Tuesday, after what seemed like an endless winter, Tigers Pitchers and Catchers finally reported to Spring Training in Lakeland, Fla. Questions still remain about who will make the opening day roster. Here, I rank the Tigers based on who’s in, who’s on the bubble and who’s starting their season in Toledo.
The first 15 to 20 people on this list are actually locks, but there are some interesting spring training battles toward the bottom end. This list assumes the Tigers need a starter at each position, five backup position players, five starting pitchers, a true closer and a five-man relief corp.
1. Miguel Cabrera, 3B – Last year’s Triple Crown and MVP winner starts out the list. Was there really any debate here? He won his second straight batting title, and his average wasn’t even as good as in 2011. Maybe this is the year where he finally hit 50 home runs for the Tigers. He was six away in 2012.
2. Justin Verlander, SP – The staff’s Ace easily could have taken the top spot. Maybe this year he will establish a tradition of Verlander and Cabrera trading off the MVP award. Last year, he was the strikeout king for the second straight year, fanning 239. Watch for Verlander to try to bring the Tigers a different kind of triple crown.
3. Prince Fielder, 1B – Prince rocked Detroit in his first year with his dad’s ballclub, hitting 30 home runs and a career-best .313 batting average. Expect him to step it up even more this year. He already has two home runs in spring training.
THE REST OF THE CORE
4. Max Scherzer, SP – On any other team, Scherzer could lead this list. By far the best No. 2 pitcher in the league, Scherzer was second in strikeouts in 2012. I’m confident this year he’ll challenge Verlander’s numbers. Nothing would make me happier than if neither won the Cy Young because voters couldn’t pick which Tiger to give it to.
5. Victor Martinez, DH – Martinez spent the 2012 season out with a knee injury, and the Tigers still made the World Series. The Martinez-Fielder-Cabrera part of the lineup will give pitchers nightmares.
6. Doug Fister, SP – Fister came to Detroit in mid-2011 with a 3-12 record and a 3.33 ERA with Seattle. He finished that season 8-1 and came back in 2012 with a 10-10 season, pitching the best game of the Tigers’ World Series loss.
7. Torii Hunter, RF – The Tigers only big offseason move, Hunter provides the defense Delmon Young couldn’t while putting a steady bat in the lineup. His production has trailed off a little later in his career, but no one loves a comeback quite like Detroiters.
8. Austin Jackson, CF – Like Curtis Granderson, but faster. He has the same skills in the outfield and a reliable leadoff bat. A-Jax hit .300 last year, his best year in the majors.
9. Alex Avila, C – Avila’s biggest improvement over the past year has been his leadership. He spent last year developing into the quarterback the Tigers needed at catcher. I’d like to see his batting average improve from 2012’s .243, but he’s still got a lock on the starting catcher’s job.
10. Phil Coke, RP – Coke looked solid closing after Jose Valverde’s playoff implosion. I expect to see the lefty in long relief this year and to be the leader the Tigers’ bullpen needs.
OPENING DAY ROSTER LOCKS WHO COULD END UP IN MIDSEASON POSITON BATTLES
11. Omar Infante, 2B – Infante was the Tigers’ biggest mid-season move last year, rejoining the team after leaving in 2007. Infante gave the Tigers some much-needed infield stability, but he has to improve his bat if he wants to continue playing every day. There’s plenty of young infielders looking to make the big club.
12. Anibal Sanchez, SP – Sanchez came to Detroit in the Infante trade and is an able fourth starter. His 3.74 ERA in Detroit wasn’t mind blowing, but his postseason numbers proved his value with 18 strikeouts in 20.1 innings.
13. Jhonny Peralta, SS – That name is going to give my copy editor a headache, but Peralta is the most able shortstop in the organization. Peralta’s a very solid fielder, but he might have to improve on that .239 batting average to keep his spot in the lineup. That average looks much better, however, when put up against his 7-for-18 batting performace in the ALCS.
14. Al Albuquerque, RP – The first righty reliever on the list, Al-Al spent most of the 2012 season on the disabled list or rehabbing in the minors before being a situational reliever in the playoffs. He’ll come to Detroit, but he’ll have to prove himself early if he wants to stay there.
15. Quentin Berry, LF – The last starter, QB tore up Detroit after being called up from Toledo in early May. He hit .333 in May, but his production trailed off steeply after that. He was still good enough to stay with the big club, and I expect to see him in left field on opening day. Of course, at the first sign of trouble, his starting spot goes to…
16. Andy Dirks, OF – Ultimately, neither Dirks nor Berry is likely to start more than 90 or 100 games. Leyland will split their time in left, never naming a true starter. I like QB better in the field, and know he has the talent to keep his bat alive, but it’s hard to argue with Dirks’ .322 batting average. This will be one of the most interesting Spring Training battles to watch, even though it probably won’t truly be resolved until mid-September.
17. Joaquin Benoit, RP – Benoit anchored the Detroit bullpen at times last season, with a 2.25 first-half ERA. He didn’t pitch as well the second half of the season, but is the best man available as the Tigers second righty.
IN DETROIT BY THE SKIN OF THEIR TEETH
18. Octavio Dotel, RP – The Tigers need a third righty reliever, and Dotel should be the man. The journeyman reliever might finally find a place to settle down in Detroit if he can settle down after giving up 10 earned runs in just 5 innings in the playoffs.
19. Ramon Santiago, INF – In theory, Ramon Santiago is a serious threat to take Peralta’s job at SS. He’s a solid fielder who only gave up 6 errors in his 97 games last year. However, he batted .206 in those games last year, a number that simply can’t stay in the lineup. He’ll make it to Detroit while the Tigers train a proper infield backup in Toledo over the first half of the season.
20. Duane Below, RP – The Tigers need one more lefty, and Duane Below has to be that lefty to start the season. He’ll have to improve his strikeout numbers if he wants to stay with the big club, after fanning only 29 in 46.1 innings. If he wants to continue being a situational reliever, he needs more strikeouts. It’s that simple.
GUYS WHO HAVE SOMETHING TO PROVE IN LAKELAND
21. Danny Worth, INF – I’ll name worth the second infield backup on account of the fact that he’s actually suited up for the big club before. He was never particularly effective, and his resume includes an 0-for-1 postseason. Worth’s the type of player that could find himself in Toledo by May if he’s not careful.
22. Bryan Holaday, C – If there is any chance Victor Martinez is capable of suiting up at catcher, do not be surprised if the Tigers simply don’t carry a second catcher. In 2011, we saw that Alex Avila needs relief, and with the departure of Gerald Laird, and the fact that V-Mart’s injury was knee-related, don’t be surprised if Holaday is that relief.
23. Avisail Garcia, OF – Garcia was more or less a September call-up who fought his way onto the playoff roster with a surprising .319. He started every game in the playoffs, but with Hunter holding down right field, the Tigers have less need for an outfield backup. He’ll make it onto the team, and could fight his way into the Dirks/Berry platoon.
24. Drew Smyly, SP – The last starting pitcher job might be the hardest decision for Leyland to make. Smyly has starter experience, and I’ll take his 3.99 ERA over Porcello’s 4.59 in 2012.
25. Bruce Rondon, Closer – The only true rookie on this list, I think Dave Dombrowski really wants Rondon on the opening day roster. He was excellent in the minors, only losing one game in 52 appearances in 2012 and split his time between Lakeland, Erie and Toledo with 29 saves.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CUT LINE
26. Brennan Boesch, OF – I just don’t think Brennan Boesch is a very good baseball player. He hit .240 in 2012, and I’d rather the Tigers take Garcia back to Detroit. Boesch can use that time in Toledo to gain confidence, and I’m confident we’ll see him in a Tigers uniform at some point in 2013.
27. Luis Marte, RP
28. Luke Putkonen, RP – Both of these men could potentially win the battle to make the bullpen in Lakeland, and Dombrowski and Leyland talked up Putkonen in the offseason. Expect to see them called up if any relievers struggle early.
29. Nick Castellanos, OF – Castellanos is almost certainly the Tigers outfielder of the future. Had we not signed Hunter, I think Castellanos would have gotten looks for the starting spot in right field and could find himself in Detroit if either Garcia or Dirks can’t produce.
30. Casey Crosby, SP – Crosby could definitely fight his way into the rotation, but I think Leyland will go with the devil he knows in Smyly. Crosby won a start for Detroit in June, but could really benefit from another season in Toledo. The question will become if the Tigers have that time to wait.
31. Rick Porcello, SP – I hate Rick Porcello. There, I said it. But seriously, with a 4.59 ERA and a 10-12 record, Porcello failed to prove in 2012 that he deserves to be a Tiger. There were flashes of greatness, including a lights-out September, but this might be the last year that the Tigers can wait on him in Toledo before moving on.
32. Don Kelly, UTIL – OK, so this is a sympathy pick. Kelly’s a non-roster invite at spring training, and I don’t think he’ll make the club. I don’t even know if we’ll sign him as a minor leaguer, but I like Don Kelly and hope the Tigers are giving him a real shot.