1. Who will win the starting second base job?
Easily the most common question to be asked and the one that will receive a lion’s share of the attention as position players report and games get under way, who will man the keystone for the club. Will Rhymes and Scott Sizemore are the clear frontrunners, but infielder Danny Worth can’t be ruled out, nor can utility man Ramon Santiago, and when Carlos Guillen is healthy and ready to play in the field, he’ll likely be in the mix as well.
Sizemore likely has the most potential of the group, with a potent line drive bat that has produced at every minor league stop. But his production was far from what was hoped for when he got the chance to start in 2010, and a repeat of that in the spring could drop Sizemore off the radar quickly. Rhymes on the other hand is the classic hard-working, high floor, low ceiling player that gave the team a reliable option last season. Rhymes is very much the antithesis of Sizemore though, as he’s never been a very productive player at the plate throughout his career.
Worth is the obvious darkhorse candidate – a plus player in the field that showed a good ability to hit for average, he also doesn’t have the offensive potential, but could quickly give the team another reliable infield defender, something that would be beneficial for a team that could be looking at a below average defense around the diamond.
PRE SPRING TRAINING PREDICTION: Sizemore
2. Can Phil Coke solidify his spot in the rotation?
A true question mark that has been glossed over by the Tigers, the organization has taken a pitcher with no real starting experience at the big league level and has penciled him into the starting rotation without any proof that the reliable middle reliever can make the transition to starting.
Coke was a good minor league starter, but was converted to the bullpen just as much due to fit as need. As a Yankee, there wasn’t a dire need for a starting pitcher and he was able to contribute to the big league club quickly as a reliever. However, his fastball-slider combo was also better suited to the bullpen.
The front office was split as to whether or not Coke should go into the rotation or the bullpen when he was acquired last winter, and the faction that lobbied for him to start is getting their chance to be proven right. Now it’s up to Coke to prove he’s up to the challenge.
PRE SPRING TRAINING PREDICTION: Yes
3. Is this Jim Leyland’s last year managing the Tigers?
While Leyland has professed that he hopes to be managing for awhile longer, and many insisting that Leyland’s job is not on the line, the fact remains that he does not have a contract beyond the 2011 season, and teams rarely go into a season with a lame duck manager unless there’s a reason for it.
That’s not to say that the Tigers are planning on moving on after this year, it just means that if they were 100% sold he’d be around in 2012 and beyond, an extension would already have been worked out. The fact that it hasn’t is just proof that Leyland needs to see his team perform in 2011.
PRE SPRING TRAINING PREDICTION: Yes
4. Who will win the last spot on the Tigers’ bench?
There are quite a few different trains of thought at this point in time as to who has the inside track on the last spot on the roster. Someone like Clete Thomas is a Leyland favorite that offers defensive versatility and a bat with some pop, while Worth (if he doesn’t win the second base job) could be a plus-defender capable of playing around the diamond. The outside possibility of a third catcher like Max St. Pierre also remains, should Leyland decide he’s not comfortable having his backup catcher in the lineup as the designated hitter on most days.
Having a quality bat on the bench might be the most beneficial thing for the Tigers to have, but Leyland often times skews towards the conservative end of the spectrum, relying on defense for his bench.
Assuming Santiago, Don Kelly and either Thomas or Casper Wells are kept to fill the primary needs, that leaves the final slot as a wild card, up to the needs of Leyland as he sees fit.
PRE SPRING TRAINING PREDICTION: Worth
5. Will the Tigers finally claim the division crown that has eluded them so many times?
The Tigers enter spring training as an improved ball club, adding a quality bat for the middle of the order in Victor Martinez, in addition to a strong setup man in Joaquin Benoit and a hopefully reliable fifth starter in Brad Penny.
The problem is, it’s pretty easy to make the case that the biggest division foes, the White Sox and the Twins, improved as well, and the Tigers still need to work to catch them.
The Tigers have the pieces to compete and take home the division crown, but they’re going to need some things to break right for them for that to happen. The lineup has to hold up and see someone step up at the plate, while the rotation has just as many questions as answers and if things don’t break right the Tigers could struggle to keep the opposition off the scoreboard.
PRE SPRING TRAINING PREDICTION: No