Opening Day is a mere four days away and the final red slips have been doled out -- the Tigers' Opening Day roster is officially set and we're ready for the first pitch of meaningful games. Before we get into the previews and predictions and Opening Day holiday festivities, let's go back 40 days to a time when the Tigers' roster situation wasn't so clear. A time when there were five roster battles up in the air and look at how those played out over the course of the Grapefruit schedule.
5. The Injury Battle
I said that the Tigers' two biggest injury concerns were Carlos Guillen and Joel Zumaya. Sure enough, those are the two that will begin the season in quarantine on the 15-day disabled list.
As it turned out, Guillen's knee recovery never really made him a candidate to be ready by Opening Day, and there have been rumblings recently that he may never play in a Tigers uniform again. Guillen insists he'll be back, but I'm not convinced that's a certainty.
As for Zumaya, he lasted one outing at the end of February before getting shelved with broken scar tissue and tenderness in his elbow. After a series of precautionary tests and instructions to not throw until the pain subsided, Zumaya is ready to start throwing again here soon. However, it's anyone's guess how long it'll be before his next injury.
Luckily for the Tigers, that's been the extent of the injuries this early spring. Magglio Ordonez had a bout with a sore hammy, but that only kept him out a couple of days (and it's encouraging there have been zero signs of him having trouble with his surgically repaired ankle). My other concern was Brad Penny's shoulder, but he's been rock solid, throwing every scheduled start and due to make his final ST start today.
4. Rounding Out The Pitchers
My predictions for the seven bullpen spots were Valverde, Benoit, Perry, Zumaya, Schlereth, Thomas, and Weinhardt. And, had Zumaya stayed healthy, it looked early on as if this was going to be an accurate prediction.
Much to my chagrin, though, the Tigers assigned Weinhardt to the minors early last week. After finishing strong in 2010, I figured all he had to do was show up and throw quality innings and he'd be a lock, especially with Zumaya's injury opening up an extra spot. In 9.2 spring innings, he did just that, allowing three runs (2.79 ERA) and walking just one (1.03 WHIP). However, the Tigers opted to go with a couple of K-guys -- Miguel Cabrera's ugly brother Enrique Gonzalez and another Venezuelan Brayan Villarreal. If Weinhardt had some Venezuelan in his blood and wasn't from Chicago, I bet Leyland would feel differently about him.
Gonzalez and Villarreal earned their way into Leyland's good graces, though. Gonzalez had a 3.81 ERA with the Tigers in 26 games last season and put up surprisingly great ST numbers as a non-roster invitee this year (0.00 ERA in 9.1 IP with eight K's). While Gonzalez is capable of tossing multiple innings (he did it seven times last year), Villarreal will more likely be the long-relief role guy, as he's a starter by trade (24 starts in the minors last year). Villarreal has had a couple of really poor outings this ST (like his four walks in 1.2 IP two days ago), but overall has been solid while striking out 10 batters in 11.2 innings.
3. Left Field
This turned out to be the most interesting roster battle because of a couple of surprises, Casper Wells and Andy Dirks, who put the pressure on Ryan Raburn and Brennan Boesch.
As of today, Raburn leads the team in home runs this spring with four and is hitting .314/.375/.983, leaving no doubt in the minds of the Tigers coaching staff who their every day left fielder should be. While he will at least be the starting left fielder on Opening Day (against Yankees lefty CC Sabathia), Brennan Boesch did earn his ABs against righties by hitting .297/.375/.797 and two mammoth home runs. Boesch's power and a late 5-28 slump from surprise lefty Andy Dirks (.333/.397/.958 and a team-high three triples otherwise) is probably what gave Boesch the edge as the lefty bat.
Should Raburn regress, Casper Wells will be nipping at his heels. He hit .273/.418/.895 and two home runs this spring, allowing him to make the team as the Tigers' fifth outfielder (or starting right fielder against lefties when Martinez catches and Ordonez fills the DH spot).
2. Second Base
I thought a fully healthy Scott Sizemore would re-capture what was handed to him last season, but that simply was not the case. While he displayed the power everyone knows he has (.432 slugging), he hit just .243 with a .300 OBP. Thus, he was rightly demoted last Tuesday and now leaves fans wondering if the "prospect" will ever pan out.
I also said to watch out for dark horse Danny Worth to emerge as a favorite for the second base position should he have a strong ST at the plate. His defense is better than both Sizemore and Rhymes and, in the past, his hitting has been the only thing holding him back from being an every day big league infielder. Well, he hit .333/.390/.946 in 36 spring ABs, but that apparently wasn't good enough to earn him a spot. Ramon Santiago, who was a lock to make the team from the start as a defensive replacement and switchy bat off the bench, also turned some heads with his strong spring (.333/.417/.884 in 30 ABs). Ultimately, Leyland chose Will Rhymes (.273/.311/.656), citing last year's success (.304/.350/.764 in 213 plate appearances).
My best guess is that nobody really wow'd the Tigers' staff, so they bagged the competition aspect and went with the guy who did well in the games that mattered last year. Rhymes also makes sense at the two-spot in the lineup because he gives a different look with his lefty bat and can drag a mean bunt. [Insert scrappy player comment here.]
1. Remaining Bench Spots
I guessed Santiago, Don Kelly, Boesch, and Worth (accurately predicting Guillen wouldn't be ready to start the season). While I believe Worth got shafted a little bit, the Tigers decided an extra outfielder was more important than another infielder. Wells put up a nice spring, which will keep the pressure on Raburn to continue hitting well. Expect to see the Tigers shuffling guys in and out as the season goes on, though.
So, the Tigers' Opening Day 25-man roster:
Starters: Justin Verlander Max Scherzer Rick Porcello Brad Penny Phil Coke
Relievers: Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Ryan Perry, Daniel Schlereth, Brad Thomas, Enrique Gonzalez, Brayan Villarreal
Catchers: Alex Avila, Victor Martinez
Infielders: Miguel Cabrera, Will Rhymes, Brandon Inge, Jhonny Peralta, Ramon Santiago
Outfielders: Ryan Raburn, Austin Jackson, Magglio Ordonez, Don Kelly, Brennan Boesch, Casper Wells