DETROIT – It almost doesn’t seem real, but one week from Friday is the start of what could be the strangest Detroit Tigers season ever.
There are still hurdles to overcome. The coronavirus (COVID-19) could spike at any minute while teams do their final preparations at summer camp. Then they’ll scrimmage other teams for a few days before the meaningful games begin.
Even then, the virus will be in the back of everyone’s minds throughout the 66-day schedule. One wrong move end the season for a play, a team or even the entire league.
We can’t really predict what’s going to happen with the coronavirus. But we can try to predict a situation that seems similarly fluid: the Tigers’ Opening Day roster.
Predicting the roster for a team like the Tigers -- with so many unproven players fighting for jobs -- is tricky even in a normal year. But add in the fact that rosters are expanding for 2020, and we really don’t even know how many pitchers and hitters the team wants to bring to Cincinnati.
MLB expanded rosters by one spot before the pandemic, allowing teams to carry 26 players. Now, they’ll be able to roster 30 players for the first two weeks. That means half of the 60-man Club Player Pool will be either sent to Toledo for intrasquad work or placed on the taxi squad as a potential MLB reserve.
The Tigers appear to be mostly locked in across the board in terms of starting spots, but the bench and bullpen are still both very much up in the air.
At the start of spring training, the Tigers’ rotation seemed very straightforward.
Matt Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and Daniel Norris were locks because they were the team’s three best performers in 2019. Jordan Zimmermann would be included as an innings eater because of his massive contract. Ivan Nova was signed to solidify the final spot.
But Norris still hasn’t reported to camp because of a positive COVID-19 test, and the uncertainty of pitchers’ buildup routines raises questions about whether teams would want to go with a six-man rotation.
Even if the Tigers stick with five starters, it doesn’t look like Norris will be one of them since he hasn’t gotten to play in any intrasquad games and just eight days separate him from the opener.
That leaves one spot alongside Boyd, Turnbull, Zimmermann and Nova.
Michael Fulmer appears to be the most obvious choice, and he’s gotten into some of the Tigers’ intrasquad games this summer. The team can easily pair him up with a long reliever, such as Tyler Alexander, since the bullpen will be expanded.
When Norris returns, he’ll likely have every chance to get back into the rotation. Until then, it looks like the Tigers will start with the obvious five.
Prediction: Matt Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, Jordan Zimmermann, Ivan Nova, Michael Fulmer
Other possibilities: Daniel Norris, Tyler Alexander, Shao-Ching Chiang
How many pitchers will the Tigers take for their bullpen? In the past, with a normal 25-man roster teams would generally carry seven or eight relievers in addition to their five starters, for a total of 12 or 13 pitchers.
But now that teams have four extra spots -- and five more than a year ago -- I’ll predict about half of the roster goes toward pitching, especially since teams will be trying to make up for starters who might not be all the way stretched out the first few times through the rotation.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Tigers finish near the bottom half of the league in terms of relief pitching, but it’s also not out of the question that this bullpen could be at least average.
The team appears to have seven locks in terms of relief pitchers. Joe Jimenez will be the closer and Buck Farmer will be the setup man. That was the case last year and the Tigers don’t have any reason to change it.
As mentioned above, Tyler Alexander will also have a role, either as a piggyback option behind Fulmer or simply the top long relief option every day.
Gregory Soto and Jose Cisnero had their moments last season and will make the team if no other reason than they have overpowering fastballs and the ability to get swings and misses.
Bryan Garcia should make the team because he’s the organizations top bullpen prospect and he has nothing left to prove in the minors.
No. 1 Rule 5 draft pick Rony Garcia will make the team because if he doesn’t, the Tigers have to send him back to the New York Yankees.
There are a bunch of players vying for however many spots remain, but as of now, we’ll go with three more relievers: Nolan Blackwood, Shao-Ching Chiang and David McKay.
Blackwood has been praised by manager Ron Gardenhire because he offers a different look with his sidearm delivery. With more bullpen spots to play with, the Tigers can afford to give him a shot and add that weapon to the mix.
Chiang not only throws in the upper 90s, but he can also go multiple innings if the Tigers need him in an emergency.
McKay struck out 29 batters in 19.1 innings last season. He gave up way too many runs, but he’s looked better in both spring training segments.
Prediction: Joe Jimenez, Buck Farmer, Tyler Alexander, Gregory Soto, Jose Cisnero, Bryan Garcia, Rony Garcia, Nolan Blackwood, Shao-Ching Chiang, David McKay
Other possibilities: Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, Nick Ramirez, John Schreiber, Beau Burrows, Kyle Funkhouser, Anthony Castro, Hector Santiago, Tim Adleman, Dario Agrazal
This is probably the most straightforward group to predict, with one exception.
Here are the players who are locked into starting jobs, as long as they stay healthy:
- Catcher: Austin Romine
- First base: C.J. Cron
- Second base: Jonathan Schoop
- Shortstop: Niko Goodrum
- Center field: JaCoby Jones
- Right field: Cameron Maybin
- Designated hitter: Miguel Cabrera
In addition to those seven locks, Jeimer Candelario figures to be in very good position to win the starting third base job, despite a terrible 2019 season that saw him sent down to the minor leagues.
That leaves left field, which should be a battle between Christin Stewart and Victor Reyes.
Reyes was much better than Stewart during spring training in March, when the latter struggled to make any solid contact. But since the restart, Stewart has been the team’s hottest hitter, showing good extra-base power as well as plate discipline.
Even though he had a better 2019 and probably deserves to play most days this season, Reyes looks more likely to be the odd man out as long as Stewart continues to hit over the next week.
Prediction: RF Cameron Maybin, SS Niko Goodrum, DH Miguel Cabrera, 1B C.J. Cron, 2B Jonathan Schoop, LF Christin Stewart, C Austin Romine, 3B Jeimer Candelario, CF JaCoby Jones
Other possibilities: Victor Reyes, Dawel Lugo, Harold Castro
With five starting pitchers, 10 relievers and nine starting position players, there are six additional spots on the 30-man roster.
Assuming the starting lineup is the one predicted above, there are three absolute locks to make the roster as backups: Victor Reyes, Harold Castro and Grayson Greiner.
Reyes and Castro could end up playing nearly as often as some of the regulars listed above. It’s debatable whether Greiner should be the No. 2 or even No. 3 catcher, but the Tigers seem adamant about starting him in that role.
Based on comments Gardenhire has made about catchers in the past, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Tigers keep a third on the roster due to the extra space. While Jake Rogers has looked much better during spring training than he did in the majors last season, we’ll give the nod to Eric Haase.
Haase is a perfect third catcher because in addition to being available in an emergency situation behind the plate, he could also provide some true power off the bench. He slugged 28 home runs and 12 doubles in Triple-A last season and has 130 for his minor league career.
The last two predictions might come as a bit of a surprise, but we’re going with Willi Castro and Derek Hill.
Both Willi Castro and Hill have gotten a ton of playing time during summer camp, and there are very different reasons for both to be chosen over other options.
For Willi Castro, he makes more sense than Jordy Mercer simply because he’s already on the 40-man roster and the Tigers would have to move several pieces around to make the change. On top of that, Castro is one of the team’s top prospects and has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues.
Hill is a bit of a leap over Travis Demeritte, who has been dealing with injury lately but made a strong case for a spot in March.
The difference is Hill provides the Tigers something they’re otherwise lacking in the outfield: speed and elite defense. Stewart, Reyes and Maybin can give the Tigers better offense, but Hill is the best defensive outfielder in the organization and could be used late in games as a defensive replacement or pinch runner.
He’s been one of the talks of camp thanks to his defensive gems in center field, and the amount he’s playing in intrasquad games suggests he’s got a great chance.
Prediction: Harold Castro, Victor Reyes, Grayson Greiner, Eric Haase, Willi Castro, Derek Hill
Other possibilities: Jake Rodgers, Jordy Mercer, Travis Demeritte, Dawel Lugo, Brady Policelli, Brandon Dixon, Frank Schwindel, Jorge Bonifacio