LAKELAND, Fla. -- Detroit began its time in Florida with just one relatively minor issue to resolve -- a bullpen riddled with question marks yet not expected to be a major concern.
But the composition of the squad took on at least four facets after Iglesias went out for at least a week on Feb. 28 with a recurrence of shin splints that bothered him all of last season and then when Dirks, a platoon left fielder, learned March 4 that he was scheduled for back surgery that would sideline him at least 12 weeks.
With Dirks opening the season on the disabled list, that meant the Tigers would be searching for a left-handed hitting platoon partner for Rajai Davis, a .250 hitter or worse against right-handed pitching but a .300 batter against southpaws.
Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski indicated that he would search for a solution from within the Tigers' organization. But there is little doubt he will be watching the waiver wire near the end of spring training to see whether he can pick up for minimum wage a big contract some other organization may choose to discard.
And if Iglesias' shin splint problems turn out to be a chronic issue, the organization may have to use that open roster spot for a bona-fide backup shortstop.
Detroit was planning on having utility player Steve Lombardozzi fill in when Iglesias needed an occasional day off. But the switch-hitting Lombardozzi may be part of the plan along with left-handed batting Don Kelly to help cover for the absence of Dirks until he returns in June. That would mean the Tigers would keep Hernan Perez or Danny Worth as the primary backup to Iglesias.
The Tigers have had some redesign done on Iglesias' shoes in the form of inserts they hope will reduce the stress on his shins. They will have the last three weeks of spring training to assess that.
Detroit signed two outfielders with major league experience to minor league contracts during the winter and will be giving the pair, Ezequiel Carrera and Trevor Crowe, an opportunity to show they can be capable fill-ins while Dirks is inactive.
"I talked to Craig Biggio about him and he liked him, called him a solid outfielder who's a switch-hitter, so he gives you a bat from both sides of the plate," Tigers manage Brad Ausmus said.
Carrera, 26, is also familiar to the Tigers as a former Indians player and was described by Ausmus as a "good outfielder who can play anywhere -- left, center or right. He also runs very well, so he brings that speed dynamic -- and he's a left-handed bat."
Crowe is a .240 career hitter in the majors (.241 against right-handers) and Carrera is a lifetime .250 hitter (.255 against right-handers).
Worth is a capable defender at multiple infield spots but is out of options so Detroit either keeps him or designates him for assignment at the end of spring training. Perez could fill the same role, but Detroit might think he is better off getting regular at-bats with Triple-A Toledo at this point in his career.
Of course, a late-spring contract dump by another team could close the door on options A, B and C.
--LF Andy Dirks was scheduled for March 10 back surgery that was predicted to keep him out of action for 12 weeks. "Andy will have three weeks of complete rest, then three weeks of therapy after that," GM Dave Dombrowski said. "He'll resume baseball activities at the six-week point. The other day he said it was bothering him. Then it bothered him more (March 4), so we had him checked out by a specialist. I don't really have a specific incident that caused it, though. He's had twinges there. He says it goes back all the way to high school." Dirks, 28, will have a microdiscectomy that will remove herniated disc material from between his L-4 and L-5 vertebrae. "It just kind of locked up," Dirks said. "It's a good thing it happened now. I can't get down on it. I have to remind myself it could have been a lot worse. It's not like they have to fuse vertebrae together and I can't swing again." Dirks was supposed to have been part of a left-field platoon with right-handed hitting OF Rajai Davis.
--SS Jose Iglesias ran March 5 for the first time since being sidelined at the end of February for a recurrence of a problem with shin splints that bothered him a year ago. Specialists devised a pad for Iglesias' shoes in an effort to redirect the stress points on his shins. "When I ran without the padding, it was really uncomfortable," Iglesias said. "But as soon as I changed orthotics and put on the one the doctor made for me, there was a big difference. There was definitely less stress on the bone and less pain." The Tigers will tinker with the padding through spring training. "The adjustment they made immediately helped relieve pressure in his shins," manager Brad Ausmus said. "They were going to do some more manufacturing, so to speak, of these orthotics and try to make them even more beneficial. It was kind of a good sign." Ausmus said Detroit would be cautious in regards to Iglesias' return. He was expected to miss at least a week at the time of his soreness.
--RHP Justin Verlander saw his first start of the exhibition season rained out March 6 but threw a 45-pitch session indoors with a batter standing at the plate to keep him on track for a possible Opening Day start for the Tigers. Rather than push him back a day, the Tigers elected to have him throw in a batting cage under the guidance of pitching coach Jeff Jones. Verlander may not be manager Brad Ausmus' choice to start the first game of the season on March 31, but choosing this path retained the possibility. Verlander underwent sports hernia surgery in January and now thinks that may have been at the root of his 2013 struggles. "I think I was probably losing strength through my core," Verlander said. "I think my body was adjusting toward it." He was scheduled to make his first start against enemy hitters March 11.
--OF Ezequiel Carrera is one of two primary in-house candidates to replace OF Andy Dirks on Detroit's season-starting roster. Carrera, 26, has played for Cleveland and Philadelphia while compiling a .251 career average with two home runs, 26 RBI and 18 stolen bases. Manager Brad Ausmus described Carrera as a "good outfielder who can play anywhere -- left, center or right. He also runs very well, so he brings that speed dynamic -- and he's a left-handed bat." He would replace Dirks, out at least 12 weeks after back surgery, as the platoon left fielder with OF Rajai Davis. Carrera has a .255 average against right-handed pitching.
--OF Trevor Crowe is one of the two primary candidates Detroit will look at to replace Andy Dirks while the outfielder is out a minimum 12 weeks after he undergoes back surgery. Crowe, 30, has played for Cleveland and Houston, mostly with the Indians, carries a .240 career average that includes a .241 career average against right-handers. Manager Brad Ausmus talked with Houston's Craig Biggio about his observations concerning Crowe last year. "He liked him, called him a solid outfielder who's a switch-hitter, so he gives you a bat from both sides of the plate," Ausmus said. Crowe has four home runs, 68 RBI and 35 stolen bases.
--LHP Blaine Hardy, a non-roster invitee, has made a good initial impression and appears to be the leading candidate should the Tigers elect to go with three lefties in their bullpen or displace veteran LHP Phil Coke or second-year man Ian Krol. His first four spring outings were scoreless with just one hit allowed in five innings. Hardy, 26, was brought into the Detroit organization last year after Kansas City let him go. He turned in a 1.67 ERA in 91 2/3 innings split between Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo, working in relief and starting roles. "It definitely prepared me for any role the Tigers want me to fill," Hardy said. "I greatly appreciate them putting me into a starting role. It's opened more doors for me." Manager Brad Ausmus said, "The pitch that stands out is his curveball. He's got a fastball and cutter to go with it, but when he throws the curveball right, it starts in the zone and breaks out of the zone, you see hitters swing and miss on that a lot."
--UT Steve Lombardozzi will see action in left field as well as shortstop as Detroit seeks to determine whether the utility performer can handle increased action at those positions. Lombardozzi, acquired this winter from Washington, has limited experience at short and little more in left. Shin splint problems by SS Jose Iglesias and back surgery on LF Andy Dirks have made fill-ins at the two positions more important.
--3B Nick Castellanos was one of Detroit's leading hitters through nearly two weeks of spring games, but his rust at third base has been showing. Castellanos was leading the Tigers in RBI through March 6 but was also tops in errors with two plus having had several other plays missed that better fielders would have made. "Most of it was timing, though. He hasn't been this close to the hitter in a couple of years. Things are happening quicker for him," manager Brad Ausmus said. "The most important thing is for him to get repetitions." Castellanos was shifted to the outfield two years ago when Detroit acquired 1B Prince Fielder and moved 1B Miguel Cabrera to third.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have (Steve Lombardozzi) and Donny Kelly. (Ezequiel) Carrera is here. (Trevor) Crowe is here. We think we have some good candidates. We'll play it internally and see how it comes together. We have people who now have a chance to play a bigger role for us." -- GM Dave Dombrowski on how Detroit would try to fill the hole left when LF Andy Dirks hurt his back and was scheduled for surgery that would keep him out of action for at least 12 weeks.
RHP Justin Verlander
RHP Max Scherzer
RHP Anibal Sanchez
RHP Rick Porcello
LHP Drew Smyly
Verlander is tasked with making sure he is healthy enough to open the season after undergoing winter surgery for a sports hernia involving the groin muscles in both legs. He will not be rushed.
Scherzer's task is to show his Cy Young Award season last year was no one-time thing. Sanchez looked worthy of his five-year deal in 2013 while Porcello took a step forward last year, enough to let Detroit feel secure enough to trade RHP Doug Fister.
Smyly re-enters the rotation after going through a season in the bullpen that saw him progress from long man to late-inning reliability.
The only concern with the rotation is injury; there is nobody in the minors ready to step up near the level of the pitcher they would replace entering the season.
RHP Joe Nathan
RHP Bruce Rondon
RHP Joba Chamberlain
RHP Al Alburquerque
LHP Ian Krol
LHP Phil Coke
RHP Luke Putkonen
The bullpen was a season-long problem in 2013 and it will be so again because of the number of question marks associated with it.
Non-roster LHP Blaine Hardy was making a solid early spring impression to push himself to possibly challenge Putkonen for a spot or replace either Coke or Krol should they falter.
Nathan is effective but aging -- with a history of poor postseason performances, Rondon ended last year injured, Chamberlain has not been solid for nearly five years, Alburquerque needs to get his reliable fastball back, Krol ended last season poorly, Coke had a bad 2013 and Putkonen is untested.
The Tigers have some promising relievers in the minors boasting the power arms the organization prizes, but the best of the group might not be ready until mid-year at the earliest.
1. 2B Ian Kinsler or CF Austin Jackson
2. RF Torii Hunter
3. 1B Miguel Cabrera
4. DH Victor Martinez
5. C Alex Avila
6. CF Austin Jackson or 2B Ian Kinsler
7. 3B Nick Castellanos
8. LF Rajai Davis
9. SS Jose Iglesias
New manager Brad Ausmus is not ready to commit to a batting order until he goes through spring training and has a chance to see his team in action. It would seem the rookie skipper is leaning toward having Kinsler lead off and Jackson hit sixth.
The loss of LF Andy Dirks for 12 weeks with lower back surgery slated for March 10 meant the Tigers would be searching for a new platoon partner for Davis. UTs Don Kelly and Steve Lombardozzi were the leading candidates, but no-roster invitee OFs Trevor Crowe and Ezequiel Carrera were also in the mix.
There is no established No. 5 hitter in the order, but Avila might bat there by default despite his struggles during the past two seasons; he did heat up until the last two months of last year.
Ausmus needs to pick who will bat first and second in his lineup. The choices are incumbent Jackson, Kinsler, who led off for Texas, and Torii Hunter. One of them could also hit sixth or fifth.
TOP ROOKIES: 3B Nick Castellanos (.278 in 18 Detroit at-bats; .276 with 18 home runs, 76 RBIs with Triple-A Toledo) has to flop badly for him not to be the Tigers' Opening Day third baseman. RHP Corey Knebel (1st round supplemental pick in last June's draft, 2-1 with 15 saves and an 0.87 ERA in 31 games for low Class A West Michigan) should open the season with high Class A Lakeland but his fastball (up to 98 mph) and hammer curve make him the best bet if the Tigers need late-inning bullpen help a month or two into the season. 2B/SS Hernan Perez (.197 in 34 games for Detroit last summer, .301 for Double-A Erie and .299 with Triple-A Toledo) is the top candidate to replace a middle infielder in case of an injury. C James McCann (.277-6-54 for Double-A Erie) is first in line if the Tigers need help at catcher.
--RHP Justin Verlander (January groin muscle surgery on both legs) has been throwing without problems since spring training began, but Detroit continues to be cautious with its franchise starter. He is scheduled for four starts (one rained out) and is on track to be ready to start Opening Day if nominated.
--LF Andy Dirks (back) was scheduled for March 10 surgery to repair his lower back between the L-4 and L-5 vertebrae with an expectation of being out of action for 12 weeks.
--SS Jose Iglesias (shin splints) was being fitted with shoe inserts after being was removed from Detroit's second exhibition game Feb. 27 due to a recurrence of the problem that bothered him all of last season.
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- Brad Ausmus
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