Questions surround Tigers in spring training

New acquisition Leonys Martin is the favorite to win the center field job with the Detroit Tigers.

One of spring training’s great attributes is this: even for a bad team, the spring offers intrigue, speculation, trade rumors, and even hope. It’s a fascinating time of the year, even for clubs who have no chance of contending for a spot in the October crapshoot.

The Detroit Tigers of 2018 are no exception to this rule of spring training. Exhibition games have been underway for 10 days now, and already there are a number of points of interests worth exploring. None of these storylines will make the Tigers a contender this spring and summer, but they do figure to make the team more interesting, while having a long-term impact on the team’s rebuilding process.

Candelario has taken control of third base

Of all the bright spots we’ve seen so far, none has been brighter than the play of young third baseman Jeimer Candelario. The early performance of the switch-hitting prospect is justifying the Tigers’ decision to make Nicholas Castellanos a fulltime outfielder. Acquired from the Chicago Cubs last season as part of the deal for Alex Avila and Justin Wilson, Candelario already figured to be a step up over Castellanos defensively. Now he needs to prove that he can hit enough to play every day in the major leagues. Over a seven-year minor league career, Candelario has compiled only a .270 batting average with nominal power numbers, but he’s still only 23 and has shown signs of developing power as he gains more experience. At this point, he looks like the Tigers’ best option at what has been a troublesome position.

Center field is still wide open

Center field offers intrigue, too. The favorite is Leonys Martin, who signed a free agent contract with the Tigers during the winter. He has a reputation for being a strong and rangy center fielder, which is an absolute must at a venue like Comerica Park. If Martin flops, then JaCoby Jones stands to benefit. If Jones ends up in center field, that will be a bad sign. He was awful in 2017, failing to hit both in Detroit and at Toledo. He is simply not the prospect that the Tigers seem to think; the past comparisons to Kirk Gibson now seem particularly inaccurate.

Injuries muddy bullpen picture

As with most teams in spring training, injuries have affected the Tigers. Last week, free agent pickup Travis Wood suffered a major injury to his left knee. Wood tore both his ACL and the medial meniscus, requiring season-ending surgery. This was only the latest setback for the veteran reliever, who during the winter suffered a broken right hand as the result of a crossbow incident. But that injury didn’t figure to have much of a long-term impact on his ability to pitch. The Tigers had been hoping that Wood, likely to fill a role in a revamped bullpen, would benefit from a reunion with his former pitching coach in Chicago, Chris Bosio. Early signs had been good for Wood, but then he hurt his knee while trying to help out on a rundown play. To make matters more frustrating, the injury occurred as Wood registered the final out of his first spring training appearance with the team.

Now the Tigers will have to turn elsewhere in their search for left-handed relief help. Daniel Stumpf, one of the holdovers from last year’s wretched bullpen, will take one of those jobs. Francisco Liriano, a late free agent signing, could fill another, but only if he does not win a spot in the starting rotation. Also in the mix are Blaine Hardy, who was dreadful in 35 appearances last season, and Chad Bell, who was even worse in 28 games. Neither Bell nor Hardy inspire much confidence, which makes the decision to expose former prospect Jairo Labourt to waivers all the more hard to understand. Labourt, who was claimed by Cincinnati, was rated among the Tigers’ top 15 prospects and seemed worthy of a shot to make the Tigers’ roster, or at least land a spot at Triple-A Toledo.

Greene is the closer for now

Prior to spring training, the Tigers made another bullpen role clearer with the news that Shane Greene would serve as the team’s primary closer. I’ve long been a fan of Greene, dating back to his days in the New York Yankees’ system, and I think he’ll become an above-average closer for the Tigers in 2018. But even with that, a little temperance needs to be added to the equation. For a bad team, a closer is window dressing; Greene simply won’t have as many games to close as a Craig Kimbrel or an Aroldis Chapman.

Also, Greene is 29. By the time the Tigers become a contender again, Greene figures to be in his early thirties. If Greene pitches well over the first half of the season, he needs to become a primary trade piece. Contending teams are always on the lookout for a live-armed reliever and figure to bid nicely on a pitcher like Greene. If Greene is still with the Tigers come September, that will be an indication that he is having a bad season and that his trade value is low, or simply an indictment of GM Al Avila’s ability to understand the art of trading.

Who will emerge as the fifth starter?

While Greene figures to be a good short-term solution to the closer role, there remains mystery to the starting rotation. Specifically, who will be the fifth starter? Will Liriano be able to win a spot? And what about Alex Wilson, who is trying to make the difficult transition to the rotation after life as a reliever? If Wilson can show improvement with his newly added change-up, a pitch that he simply needs to have as a starter, he might be able to win a starting role.

Another contender is perennial prospect Daniel Norris, who remains the most talented pitcher among the candidates for the back end of the rotation. But Norris is also something of an enigma, having been set back by injuries and inconsistency. After showing so much promise in 2015 and ’16, Norris saw his ERA rise to 5.31 in 2017. At his best, Norris has the stuff to be an ace, but up until now, he hasn’t proven that he can be even a dependable fifth starter on a subpar pitching staff. As much as any current Tiger, Norris needs to fulfill some of that enormous potential in 2018.

Controversial catcher in camp

While positional and roster battles remain of high interest, spring training in Lakeland has not proceeded without some controversy. The Tigers have drawn criticism for their decision to invite journeyman backup catcher Derek Norris ((no relation to Daniel) to camp on a make-good basis. Norris came under fire last year when Major League Baseball suspended him for allegations of assault against his ex-fiancée, Kristen Eck. Under the ruling, Norris also forfeited $100,000 in termination pay. Even though no formal criminal charges had been filed against Norris, he chose not to appeal MLB’s decision.

Strangely, the Tigers never asked Norris to address the allegations of abuse during his negotiations with the team. Given that, it’s worth asking whether the Tigers should have signed Norris. He’s nothing special as a player, having hit .201 and .186 over the last two seasons, but does have above-average power for a catcher, and decent catchers are hard to find. Some within the game believe that baseball should develop a zero tolerance policy for players who have committed domestic or sexual abuse. But what about the absence of a non-zero tolerance policy for players who have used cocaine or steroids, or have committed other crimes of a violent nature? Is it fair to give drug abusers, steroid cheats, and other criminal violators second or third chances, while giving no second chance to a domestic abuser?

I don’t think so. Consistency should be part of the equation. I have no particular interest in Norris and his career, but I think it’s fair to give him a second chance (though I don’t understand the Tigers’ decision not to question him about the allegation of abuse). Hopefully, he has shown, at least in private, some remorse to the Tigers for what he has done. But if Norris becomes involved in another incident, then it’s time to put forgiveness aside and give him the heave-ho for good.

At this point, Norris looks like he could break camp as the No. 2 catcher behind James McCann. Norris’ presence in camp is just one of numerous storylines to follow with the Tigers this spring. Positional battles, waiver wire pickups, and trade rumors all figure to garner headlines. For a team looking to create a new identity under a new manager, spring training of 2018 figures to be even more eventful than usual.



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.