How will the decisions of spring work out for the Tigers?

Rookie JaCoby Jones (40) hit a three-run homer in Detroit’s season opening win over Chicago.

Ready or not, Opening Day has arrived, and for most teams, it could not come soon enough. Due to this year’s World Baseball Classic, spring training lasted one week longer than usual, creating an especially antsy feeling for many players, coaches, and managers who simply wanted the regular season to begin. Their wish has been granted.

The Detroit Tigers emerge from spring training looking like no less than a strong contender for a playoff spot, even though their aging roster is one year older. Clearly, the Cleveland Indians have assumed the position of Central Division favorites (that’s what happens when the defending league champions add a player like Edwin Encarnacion and a healthy Michael Brantley), but the rest of the division looks spotty. The Kansas City Royals appear to be nearing the end of their window as a championship contender, while the Minnesota Twins and the Chicago White Sox are rebuilding teams that could vie for the title of “worst team in the American League.” Almost by default, the Tigers look like at least a second-place team in the Central, which may be good enough to bring home one of the two wild card positions.

Addition by subtraction

Now that spring training has come and gone, let’s assess what the Tigers accomplished over the past two months in Lakeland. One of the smartest moves that general manager Al Avila made was to acknowledge a mistake and release journeyman right-hander Mike Pelfrey, despite his large guaranteed price tag of $8 million for 2017. Pelfrey pitched poorly last year, looked even worse in the spring, and had become a major liability starting once every five days. There’s simply no way that a contending club can justify giving the ball to a subpar pitcher like Pelfrey on a regular basis. At this point, Pelfrey’s best option to continue his career is to make the transition to the bullpen, but that will have to happen somewhere else other than Detroit.

Another interesting roster decision emerged out of the bullpen this spring, where Mark Lowe was given his release. Like Pelfrey, Lowe was signed as a free agent prior to 2016, and promptly fell flat pitching in middle relief, where he sported an ERA of 7.11. The Tigers saw little this spring to indicate that Lowe, who’s 33, would bounce back. Once again, Avila cut his losses, swallowing the $5 million balance on Lowe’s contract. It’s a move that looks bad to the economic bottom line, but one that will help the Tigers’ bullpen.

Boyd gets the final rotation spot

With Pelfrey out of the mix, the Tigers wisely chose their five best starters to comprise the rotation. We all knew that Justin Verlander, Michael Fullmer, and Daniel Norris would be a part of the equation. If healthy, Jordan Zimmermann figured to join them. (He is healthy, though he did not look good this spring, as evidenced by an ERA of 9.42) That left the No. 5 spot up for grabs, with Matt Boyd emerging as the winner of the competition. Boyd deserves it over Anibal Sanchez (who did toss the ball well in Florida); Boyd’s a live-armed left-hander who pitched well in the spring, posting an ERA of 2.10, the best mark of all the starters.

Solving center field

In terms of the everyday lineup, the Tigers answered the largest question of the spring by making JaCoby Jones their starting center fielder. That could, however, be just a temporary solution. Mikie Mahtook and Tyler Collins are currently filling in for the injured J.D. Martinez in right field. Once Martinez returns, it’s possible that either Mahtook or Collins could move back to center field, sending Jones back to Triple-A.

The situation really depends on how Jones hits during the early weeks of the season. (His home run on Opening Day is certainly a good sign.) A concern in his game has been his lack of patience at the plate. He has never drawn more than 49 walks in any minor league season, and he tends to strike out too often for a hitter of moderate power. A more patient approach would appear to be needed.

Then again, the organization seems to favor Jones, whom some view as the second coming of Kirk Gibson. As site curator Dan Holmes has pointed out to me, that’s likely an overestimation of Jones’ talents. He might be closer to Chad Curtis or Gabe Kapler in terms of his true ceiling. Is that good enough to be an everyday center fielder for a good team? Maybe, maybe not.

Romine and Machado key to the bench

Another development of the spring was the formation of the team’s bench, always an underrated aspect in today’s game. The Tigers’ Opening Day bench doesn’t have a lot in terms of hitting or pop, which makes me wonder about the decision to expose Steven Moya to waivers before demoting him to Triple-A Toledo. Andrew Romine and Dixon Machado are being carried for their versatility and their ability to cover a lot of positions, not because they can swing the bat with any degree of force. If the Tigers have to play either of them a lot in 2017, that will be a bad sign. In the meantime, backup catcher Alex Avila has a little bit of power, but hasn’t been a strong hitter since his All-Star season of 2011. His history of concussions also remains a concern.

Could Justin’s brother be coming to Detroit?

The lack of bench resources may explain the Tigers’ rumored interest in Melvin Upton, Jr., the brother of Justin Upton, who was released by Toronto at the end of spring training. Upton could be brought in to spell Jones in center field, while also providing another short-term option in right field. He also has the ability to steal bases, a talent that has become rare in Tiger Town. If the Tigers feel that Upton has something left at age 32, that’s fine, but if they’re bringing him in simply to form a happy reunion with Justin, then that’s not a legitimate reason. Upton was simply awful for Toronto last year after being acquired in midseason from San Diego, and there’s reason to believe that his days as a productive major leaguer may be behind him.

All in all, the Tigers had a fairly productive spring and emerged relatively unscathed on the health front, with the exception of the injury to J.D. Martinez. Even after a disjointed offseason in which they changed course from rebuilding to maintaining a veteran presence, they look like a legitimate contender for one of the American League wildcards. One of those wildcards is almost certain to come out of the Eastern Division, leaving a second spot up for grabs.

If a capable center fielder emerges, if the back end of the rotation holds up, and if relative good health can be maintained, then that wildcard will belong to the Tigers.



About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.