February 11, 2017
Tigers pitchers and catchers set
to report to Lakeland; Hail spring!
By KEITH GAVE
Tilt your head a certain way, take a deep breath and you just might catch a scent of linseed oil. Cock your ear and listen closely; if you’re lucky you’ll hear that unmistakable, glorious sound of horsehide pummeled by a Louisville Slugger – the crack of the bat.
If that doesn’t work, check the calendar. Spring arrives, unofficially but close enough for most of is diehards, on Monday when pitchers and catchers report to Joker Marchant Stadium on Al Kaline Drive in Lakeland, Florida. Which in this part of paradise means we’re well on the right side of winter. Warmer days are coming.
And surprise, surprise. After this winter of discontent filled with unsettling trade rumors involving names like Verlander, Cabrera, Kinsler and Martinez, the Tigers remain pretty much the team same team that battled for a playoff berth right down the final week of the season last fall. The only regular missing is Cameron Maybin, and his absence leads us to the lead storyline of the spring: Who will succeed him as Detroit’s every-day centerfielder?
Two former LSU teammates are the leading contenders for the job – Mikie Mahtook, acquired from Tampa Bay in the off-season, and JaCoby Jones, a shortstop whose athleticism and potential at the plate are impossible to ignore. Tyler Collins, most likely to make the team as a fourth outfielder, will be in the mix as well. Same for Anthony Gose, last year’s Open Day centerfielder whose tantrums led to a series of demotions and, ultimately, his exile from the club’s 40-man roster.
If it’s Mahtook’s job to lose, as it appears, then the Opening Day lineup this spring should look strikingly familiar:
1. Ian Kinsler, 2B
2. Justin Upton, LF
3. Miguel Cabrera, IB
4. Victor Martinez, DH
5. J.D. Martinez, RF
6. Nick Castellanaos, 3B
7. James McCann, C
8. Mikie Mahtook, CF
9. Jose Iglesias, SS
Manager Brad Ausmus a couple of weeks ago confirmed the obvious, that Justin Verlander would be the Opening Day pitcher.
Which brings us to the second major storyline that could overwhelm the first: How will Detroit’s starting rotation shake out?
Assuming that everyone is healthy, the Tigers will may well test the theory that you can never have enough starting pitching. They’ll have seven proven guys – and maybe an eighth bent on something to prove – competing for five spots.
Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann and Michael Fulmer, last year’s American League Rookie of the Year, should put a deadbolt on the top three spots – providing Zimmermann is healthy after missing most of the final four months of last season with neck issues.
That leaves veterans Anibel Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey, both of whom struggled mightily last season, trying to fend off youngsters Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, who performed admirably in the final two months. And spot starter Buck Farmer just might have a say in it all before the club breaks camp. This is going to be interesting. The smart money is on the young guys, with Sanchez and Pelfry available to help sort things out in the bullpen.
And that’s the third over-riding story of this camp. But hey, it’s the Tigers; isn’t the bullpen an intriguing storyline every spring?
The good news is that Francisco (K-Rod) Rodriguez is back for an encore after a strong year as the team’s closer. Other sure bets for the seven-man bullpen are Shane Greene, Bruce Rondon, Alex Wilson and Justin Wilson. That leaves Blaine Hardy and Kyle Ryan the leading contenders to fill the other spot for a left-handed reliever. And a cast of contenders including Farmer, Joe Jimenez, Mark Lowe, Pelfrey, Sanchez and Drew VerHagen fighting for one final spot.
That’s a whole bunch of pretty good arms fighting for a few spots. Isn’t that how it always looks this time of year, before pitchers and catchers even start warming up? When “April in the D” finally arrives, we’ll all be so excited we’ll be planning a World Series parade in the fall.
And by June, of course, we’ll all be wondering where the Tigers can find an arm to get somebody out in the seventh inning.
That day can wait. For now, we take a deep breath – and prepare to celebrate another glorious spring.