Monday, February 11, 2013

Tigers' Big Three Questions Heading Into Spring

Heading into spring training, there are three clear questions coming up more than any other. Who is going to be the closer? Who's going to be the fifth starter?  How are they going to handle left field? In my mind, those three questions are in order of importance and I'm going to answer all three in one post. Breaking them into three separate posts might get me more hits, but I'm compressing them to signify my belief that their importance is being blown out of proportion a bit.

Who will close? 

The Tigers' bullpen, assuming good health, is going to consist of Al Alburquerque, Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Bruce Rondon and a couple more pitchers who will address certain needs for the staff. The Tigers seem to like Rondon's chances of stepping in to become the team's closer. A big part of their willingness to do that is the stuff the youngster possesses. It is my belief, though, that some part of the reason behind the experiment is the fact that if Rondon is not the closer, one of these other pitchers will be.

That could cause a problem because while each of these pitchers - to varying degrees of success - could probably hold the role, they are not ideally suited for it. Perhaps a bigger problem for the Tigers is the fact that stretching one of their relievers' capabilities to be a closer may cause other pitchers in the bullpen to take a similar step up in their responsibilities.

For example, if Benoit were chosen to be the closer Dotel might have to step into Benoit's role from last year. Alburquerque might have to slide into Dotel's spot. And all the way down until you get to whatever role they gave Rondon, if he makes the team without being the closer. That could lead to an entire bullpen that's in a slightly more important role than what the Tigers would prefer.

With Rondon as the closer, everybody can essentially hold the role they had last year which was where Leyland felt they belonged based on performance. Rondon's big arm is earning him the shot at closing, but the roster makeup might end up being the reason he's picked for the job.

Who will be the fifth starter? 

Heading into spring training, you do not want to be in a position where two guys are fighting for one spot and whoever performs better in the spring games gets the job. Spring games are a horrible predictor of regular season performance and if that situation arises, the team is basically saying the two players are equal and they're playing the hot hand.

I think the more common situation is a team has their choice pegged for a job and he either holds onto it or plays his way out of it over the course of the spring. According to Dombrowski, the player with the leg up for this job is Porcello and I believe him.

As a more established player, I think the Tigers are less likely to want to try to find a role for him. With Smyly, they can send him to Toledo until they need him or slot him as their long reliever and second bullpen lefty. For Porcello, Toledo isn't really an option and they've only asked him to fill relief duties in the postseason. Ironically, Porcello may end up getting the job because Smyly makes for a better contingency plan.

What will they do about left field?

Barring a roster move, this one is pretty easy. Andy Dirks will play left field. Why? It's pretty simple. Quintin Berry is not a major league starter and Brennan Boesch doesn't appear to be able to do anything well. It's true Dirks is unlikely to live up to his .322/.370/.487 line from last year, but it's also true that he is at least a capable outfielder. That gives him value aside from his bat. When Boesch isn't hitting - which has been the case for more than half of his career at this point - he is the stuff of nightmares.

So unless Nick Castellanos, Avisail Garcia or Brennan Boesch set the world on fire this spring, Dirks is going to be the starting left fielder. But what about a platoon situation? That's the ideal situation, but the Tigers have already said Garcia and Castellanos will not be used for the short end (RHH in a platoon situation get about 25% of the starts) of a platoon. Since there are no other right-handed hitting outfielders on the roster, that's not really an option. That makes the fact that Dirks hasn't been that bad against lefties irrelevant. Even if he was awful against lefty pitchers, I assume the Tigers prefer a guy who's a serviceable big leaguer 75% of the time to guys who fill that bill 0% of the time.


I've said a couple times now each of these issues are being inflated a bit because they're the main issues the Tigers are facing. When a team has few problems heading into the spring, you talk about the ones that are there. People talking about problems over and over can make them seem like bigger issues than they are. The reason I don't think any of these problems are that big of a deal is they are all addressable on the fly. You can tell a lot about a team by what their question marks are. The Tigers' tell me they're going to be a tough opponent in 2013.


  1. Excellent points on the closer situation. I never realized the amount of role switching that would happen if Rondon isn't the ninth inning guy.

  2. Matt,
    As per usual, I enjoyed your insight. I agree with the level of concern we really should have. I have been quietly giddy because of our "issues".

    I know Porcello isn't going to be the next JV, but he is young seasoned vet that will most likely earn his spot. Wouldn't it be nice if he and Anibal had impressive seasons? It will be a sweet thing watching those 5 if this happened. I agree that Smyly does give us a ton of flexibility (number of options unknown).

    I like Neck in left. He is a hustler and if he takes out a catcher at home plate, then I will stop calling him Neck and change it to Johnny. If he stays healthy, it is his spot to lose. To give AD a breather, Q can inject some energy into the game. If Boesch recovers from another episode of General Hospital and starts crushing it, we may see the end of the Q train in the D, but instead here in Toledo.

    Closer issue is #3 for me as Rondon will be given room for error. In fact if he has hiccups they aren't worried about that game, but how he reacts. This should give Rondon something to focus on for career development. Plus having the veterans around will help him (we hope) out a lot. If he can't hold the role, we have some pretty great options behind him. I hope even Al Al can get his shot kissing the 1-3 put out.