Spring Training Battles

As the Tigers head into Spring Training, they are in an unusual situation, as the entire lineup and most of the rotation is set, even before camp begins. However, there are a number of roster spots that have yet to be decided and will be battled for over the next month.

The entire starting lineup is virtually set, and OF Craig Monroe figures to make the squad as the fourth Outfielder. However, a few backup roles are still up for grabs as far as the position players are concerned.

CATCHER
The frontrunner: Mike DiFelice
Others in the Running: Brandon Inge
Sleeper Pick: none
This figures to be an interesting battle this spring between the youngster and the veteran. DiFelice was signed this offseason to back up Inge, but with the signing of Ivan Rodriguez, Inge lost his starting job. Bobby Estalella had signed a minor league contract with the Tigers and had hopes of possibly pushing Inge for the starting spot, but the signing of Rodriguez squashed those hopes, and he asked to be released from his contract. The Tigers will try and move Inge around to see if he could possibly become some type of utility player, but it could be hard to keep him around when his bat has always been his biggest deficiency. Inge is a front office favorite, but the Tigers might be forced to move him before camp breaks.
Predicted Winner: DiFelice – Experience wins out this battle, who knows where Inge will end up

UTILITY INFIELDER
The frontrunner: To Be Determined
Others in the Running: Danny Klassen, Warren Morris, Greg Norton, Pablo Ozuna, Omar Infante
Sleeper Pick: Don Kelly
This is easily the most open of all the battles heading into Spring Training. Sometimes teams will carry two backup Infielders, however, with Dmitri Young able to play both corner positions, and Carlos Guillen also able to slide over to Third if necessary, the Tigers will more than likely concentrate their efforts on someone who can fill in up the middle. Warren Morris was a solid Second Baseman for the Tigers last year, however, his inability to play other positions will probably eliminate him from contention. Greg Norton would be an excellent backup for Eric Munson at the hot corner, but he also can't swing around to other positions on the diamond. The Tigers figure to want to keep Omar Infante in AAA for seasoning, so this battle figures to boil down to Pablo Ozuna and Danny Klassen. Klassen was with the Tigers last year, Ozuna was signed as a minor league free agent. This will be a battle down to the wire.
Predicted Winner: Ozuna – He's quicker up the middle and can potentially fill in at CF.

FIFTH OUTFIELDER
The Frontrunner: To Be Determined
Others in the Running: Andres Torres, Ben Petrick, Brandon Inge, ?
Sleeper Pick: Cody Ross
While the backup Infield position has plenty of people in contention, the same cannot be said for the Outfield. The Tigers currently only have five Outfielders on the 40-man roster (White, Sanchez, Higginson, Young and Monroe), and all five will be on the squad. Unfortunately, that still leaves the Tigers without a legitimate backup in Center. Torres and Petrick both have experience there, but neither was overly impressive last season. Inge will audition for the spot, but don't expect any miracles. Cody Ross has made a remarkable return from his torn ACL in September, but he doesn't have much experience in Centerfield either, plus the Tigers would prefer he play everyday for Toledo this season. So, where does that leave the Tigers? Good question. If neither Torres or Petrick steps up, they'll probably be looking to swing some type of trade to acquire a backup – possibly using Inge as trade bait.
Predicted Winner: Torres – Unless a trade is made, Torres wins the job on speed and defense.

Onto the pitchers, four of the five rotation spots figured to be set, and 5 relievers have guaranteed contracts, so they also figure to make the squad. However, that still leaves the Tigers one starter and at least one reliever short.

FIFTH STARTER
The Frontrunner: LHP Nate Robertson
Others in the Running: RHP Gary Knotts, RHP Esteban Yan, RHP Shane Loux, free agent
Sleeper Pick: LHP Rob Henkel
While the Tigers are pretty set with RHP's Jason Johnson, Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Cornejo and LHP Mike Maroth in the rotation, they are still without a fifth starter. Right now, Robertson appears to have the inside track, as he held the spot for the last six weeks of last season – with inconsistent results. Knotts was a starter for the beginning of last season, but he fell out favor with Manager Alan Trammell quickly and spent much of the season in Toledo. Yan was signed as an undrafted free agent, but hasn't started in years and wasn't even overly impressive as a reliever last year. Loux has yet to prove he can be successful at the major league level, and could become destined to be a career minor leaguer as he is running out of opportunities. The Tigers are still on the market for a free agent starter like RHP Pedro Astacio, but there's no telling if anything will happen with that. Henkel has an outside chance, but look for him to spend the year in AAA Toledo refining his skills and trying to figure out how to stay healthy for an entire season.
Predicted Winner: Robertson, unless Astacio or another free agent is signed, Robertson is the best of the group and would give the Tigers a second lefty in the rotation.

RELIEVER
The Frontrunner: RHP Chris Spurling
Others in the Running: RHP Franklyn German, RHP Chris Mears, RHP Gary Knotts, LHP Eric Eckenstahler, LHP Mike Bumatay, RHP Shane Loux
Sleeper Pick: RHP Lino Urdaneta
The Tigers middle relief appears to be solid this season with Fernando Rodney closing, and Danny Patterson, Matt Anderson, Al Levine and Jamie Walker all working setup. However, that still leaves the Tigers without a legitimate long reliever and one or two openings in the bullpen. Spurling was a rule-5 selection last year and held his own as a middle reliever, which is where he projects to be long term. However, German still has potential closer stuff, as long as he can keep under control. Mears was serviceable last season, but doesn't have anything exciting that will entice the Tigers to keep him. Knotts and Loux could both fulfill the role as a long reliever, but neither has ever worked out of the bullpen before for an extensive period of time. If Trammell decides he wants two lefties in the pen, then Eckenstahler and Bumatay should have a heated competition – Eckenstahler has a great curve but doesn't have great control, Bumatay has yet to prove anything beyond AA as a rule-5 pick. Urdaneta is another rule-5 selection, but is extremely raw and the Tigers more than likely only view him as a potential player down the road and would carry him only for the future.
Predicted Winner: German – Call it a gut feeling, or maybe just blind faith, but German has a nasty arsenal that could make him virtually unhittable at the end of games.

This altogether brings the Tigers to 24 players, still one short of the allowed 25. This last spot will be left open for whatever Trammell feels his team is still missing. He may decide to spend the spot on Rule-5 selection Chris Shelton, a great hitter without a true position. Or, Trammell may want another arm in the bullpen and take two of the noted relievers above. The possibility also exists that the Tigers will keep Inge around, even if he doesn't win the job as backup Catcher, in which case he'd probably be in addition to everyone else. Or, it could be a player not even mentioned, maybe not even starting camp with the Tigers. So, the possibilities are endless. But when reviewing the roster, for the first time in a while, one gets a feeling of reassurance, as there are no real question marks – no worries as to whether or not Ramon Santiago or Omar Infante can step up and be the full time Shortstop, no worries of who on earth the Tigers are going to have coming out of the bullpen. For the first time in a while, the Tigers have major league ballplayers.

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