Spring training ("ST") is finally here, as Monday (fittingly Valentine's Day) will mark the first formal workout for pitchers and catchers. Fresh cut grass, buckets of pearly whites, the sounds of the whisking baseballs popping oiled leather, unused fungos lying around and a whole bunch of ass taps supplemented with that-a-boy. It's without question the best time of the year.
And, naturally, with this time of year comes a lot of roster questions for your favorite teams. What will the Opening Day 25-man roster look like? For the Tigers, there aren't as many concerns heading into ST as in years past. Barring injury (or absolutely catastrophic ST performances for some), the rotation is set, the back-end of the bully is set, and seven-to-eighth ninths of the lineup is set. Still, there's enough that's up in the air for us to put together a legitimate top five -- the top five ST battles to look for as the Tigers prep for a championship season that begins March 31 vs. the Jankees. [totally sic'd]
5. The Injury Battle
The biggest injury concerns are with Carlos Guillen and Joel Zumaya. Both are entering what seems to be their ninth lives, Guillen still reviving from his eighth. It'll be interesting to see just how well Guillen progresses because, when healthy, he can be a productive switchy hitter in a lefty deficient order. Unfortunately, Guillen is not expected to be healthy by Opening Day, which could land him on the DL to start the season. Also, his health could directly relate to who else makes the roster, which I get to down there somewhere.
As for Zumaya, he is confident that his elbow is back to 100 percent, but I don't think anyone -- including Zumaya -- is confident he'll stay that way. He's contended he'll be doing more pitching and less radar gun watching this time around, but nobody's sure that was his problem in the first place (and this change in style could mean a sacrifice in productivity, too). He may just be one of the unlucky, oft-injured types and there's nothing he can do about it.
Magglio Ordonez is said to be 100-percent healthy from the ankle surgery that cut short his 2010 season, as is Brad Penny from his shoulder injury a year ago, but astute fans should keep an eye on them, too.
4. Rounding Out The Pitchers
As is the case most years, the Tigers will probably carry 12 pitchers -- five starters and seven relievers. Nine of those spots -- five starters and four relievers -- are unofficially officially on lock down. LHPs Dan Schlereth, who GM Dave Dombrowski believes will be the one to fill the LOOGY role for new rotation man Phil Coke, and Brad Thomas, who had a very strong September and October last season, have an arm up on the competition for two of the spots because the bully needs its lefties. That leaves Robbie Weinhardt, Al Albuquerque, Duane Below, Charles Furbush, Andrew Oliver, Lester Oliveros, Jose Ortega, Brayan Villarreal, and non-roster invitees John Bale, Enrique Gonzalez, Fu-Te Ni, Chis Oxspring, Adam Wilk, and Brandon Wise to battle it out for the final spot. (Might I suggest a fight to the death with a jagged fungo?)
Fu-Te Ni was one of the lefties to make the 25-man roster out of camp last season, but didn't make it through June before being optioned to Toledo and then was outrighted in November. He'll probably have to be near flawless for the Tigers to bring him back aboard now. I also can't see the other two non-roster invites, Adam Wilk or John Bale, impressing enough to warrant a spot.
This, of course, means that the Tigers would be pretty much obligated to take Schlereth and Thomas and fill the final pitcher spot with one of the remaining righties (or make an exterior move). Oliver, Furbush, and Below are each left-handed, but they're also young(ish) starters any of whose development wouldn't benefit from seeing third tier LOOGY innings. Maybe, if one has a particularly strong ST, the Tigers would opt to move said strong performer to the pen, but that's not to be expected. Weinhardt, who pitched very well in July and then left a lasting impression in October, has to be the favorite going into ST.
My Prediction: Valverde, Benoit, Perry, Zumaya, Schlereth, Thomas, and ... Weinhardt.
3. Left Field
If the Tigers could somehow morph Brennan Boesch's 2010 first half with Ryan Raburn's second half, they'd have an All-Star hitting left fielder (and an even more genetically dysfunctional defensive left fielder). Raburn ended last season hitting .358/.566/.971 in his last 100 at bats of the season, which is similar to how Boesch was hitting when he first came on the scene in May/June. Unfortunately, they were the best students in the school of Gerald Laird hitting the rest of the time. Basically, whoever remembers how to hit during ST will likely win the the Opening Day job, but don't be surprised if the Tigers go with a platoon again in 2011. Look out for dark horses Casper Wells, Don Kelly, and even Clete Thomas, too.
My Prediction: reluctantly choosing, but still hopeful of, Ryan Raburn
2. Second Base
Last year was full of surprises at second base. First, Polanco was not offered arbitration and allowed to sign elsewhere to jump start Scott Sizemore's career in D-town, who then struggled mightily. Carlos Guillen was moved to second, but -- no surprise -- he got injured. That then allowed Will Rhymes, the very poor man's Chase Utley -- the hair and scrappiness minus all the power -- to Rudy his way on to the scene and win everybody's hearts by tweeting and hitting .304/.414/.763 in over 200 plate appearances.
Scott Sizemore is probably the in-house favorite to win the job out of ST again this year, but a strong showing from everyone's favorite Twitterer and Will Rhymes could very well be the Opening Day starting second baseman.
According to Leyland, defense will be important, but that's neither's strong suit. Thus, enter Danny Worth as this year's underdog, if he can put up big (Big, BIG) ST numbers at the dish.
My Prediction: Scott Sizemore
1. The Remaining Bench Spots
I left this for No. 1 because it's the trickiest, not necessarily because it's the most important. Whoever loses out in the LF and/or 2B battle could very well be bound for the bus leagues. After the starters and 12 pitchers, there's only room for four bench spots. One is likely occupied by Guillen, assuming he doesn't start the season on the DL. Another belongs to Santiago, who is Leyland's middle infielding Mr. Reliable.
The final two spots could very well belong to the loser in the LF and/or 2B battles, but keep in mind that Leyland also loves Don Kelly, if nothing more than for his ability to play every position and give Leyland crazy options. Kelly will also be playing some catcher in ST -- with Avila's inexperience (and inability to hit last year) and Victor Martinez's age, it's not such a bad idea.
So, assuming Guillen, Santiago, and Kelly are favorites for bench spots, Leyland would more than likely decide to go with another OF (Raburn, Boesch, Wells, Thomas) for the final spot to balance things out a bit. And if that's the case, then Sizemore and Rhymes are competing for their Major League lives.
My Prediction: Santiago, Kelly, Boesch, Worth (Guillen will start the season on the DL)
Happy spring training, Tigers fans. Opening Day is only 44 days away. Plan accordingly.