Each year baseball fans everywhere mark a random day in mid-February down on their calendars as one of the best days of the year: the day pitchers and catchers report, aka, the unofficial start of the Major League season. For many players, particularly veterans and All-Stars, Spring Training offers a chance to reconnect with old teammates while meeting new ones and to work the body into shape for the long grind of 162 games. But for many other players, rookies, guys on the fringe, or the 40-year-old looking for one last shot at glory, the start of spring represents the start of the season. These players are fighting for their big league lives, the last spot on the roster, or maybe even a starting position.
The defending American League champion Detroit Tigers are well-primed to defend their hard-earned pennant. They resigned Anibal Sanchez, reloaded with Torii Hunter, and will regain Victor Martinez to cover up one of the team’s only trouble spots a year ago, DH. They also play in the easiest division in baseball, one that took just 88 wins to capture a year ago, and they return the best hitter (Miguel Cabrera) and the best pitcher (Justin Verlander) on the planet.
The only real question mark the Tigers have as they begin the pennant defense is in left field. Luckily for the Tigers, even that question mark is a relatively small one compared to the issues plaguing the rest of the AL Central. Brennan Boesch, Andy Dirks, Avasail Garcia, and Quintin Berry all saw time in the outfield for Detroit a season ago, and each player has his own qualifications for the starting job. Let’s go over the candidates:
Berry is a slightly different animal than the rest of the group. He provides a dose of speed a defense that the rest of the candidates for left field simply don’t possess, which means he may be able to find a role on in Detroit regardless of whether or not he wins the starting job. One year ago Berry was a perfect 21 of 21 in steals, which means he’s perfect off the bench on an aging team with very few speed options outside of Austin Jackson. Detroit stole just 59 bases, one more than last place Baltimore, and without Berry on the roster, the Tigers would have been strictly a station-to-station team.
Jim Leyland is a smart manager. I can’t imagine he would let his crop of positional players get any more one-dimensional, even if that one dimension (power) is the best one to have so I expect Berry on the roster.
Boesch has been a full-time player for Detroit in each of the past 3 seasons, racking up about 500 plate appearances each year, and we basically know what to expect out of Boesch at this point. He’s going to hit somewhere between .250 and .270 with around 15 homers and 55-60 RBI. For a mediocre defender, those numbers just aren’t good enough.
Boesch, a left-handed hitter, has also shown some rather odd platoon splits over the course of his career. He actually hits lefties better than righties, which means a traditional platoon situation is probably out of the picture as well. Boesch’s presence on the 2013 Tigers just feels like an odd fit. He’s not quite good enough to be the everyday left fielder on a team with legitimate World Series aspirations so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Detroit move the outfielder sometime before Opening Day.
The 27-year-old Dirks has been a bit of a late bloomer in his career. He didn’t reach the big leagues until he was already 25, which is ancient in an era of 20-year-old superstars, and he finally broke out a year ago. Dirks hit .322/.370/.487 in just under 100 games a year ago while exhibiting good gap-to-gap power at the plate.
Dirks also doesn’t have much of a platoon-split to deal with, although he has taken a majority of his big league at-bats against righties thus far. He also isn’t afraid of a little competition, saying
“There’s always a battle for every spot. If you don’t play well, somebody else is going to play. That’s just the way baseball is.”
“I’ve done it my whole career, trying to make teams and not being a superstar-type player that’s got the big contract. You know you’re going to battle the other good players that we have. We’re all teammates. We all just want to go out and play baseball and try to have some fun.”
One September/October ago, Garcia exploded onto the national scene. He was drawing Miguel Cabrera comparisons every 10.2 seconds from Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, because both are big players and both are Venezuelan. Those comparisons started in the ALCS against the Yankees when the 21-year-old showed no fear of the big stage, rapping out 5 hits with 3 RBI in the 4-game sweep.
Unfortunately, manager Jim Leyland is already on the record with saying “Obviously he’s not going to be the everyday left fielder,” about Garcia. The 21-year-old is far and away the most talented candidate of all the Tigers outfielders, but unfortunately for his Major League chances, he’s also the greenest under the collar. Tigers manager Jim Leyland has already expressed some desire to keep Garcia in the Minors so he can get everyday at-bats, rather than platoon with the winner of the Dirks-Boesch battle, so expect the talented youngster to start the year in Triple-A Toledo.
The Tigers have one of the most stable rosters in baseball, with most of the starting positions already locked up. (I mean c’mon, who’s going to unseat Justin Verlander or Prince Fielder?) They should also be a bit better on offense no matter what happens, thanks to the return of DH Victor Martinez, so really they are just playing around with the margins. This is going to be a playoff team no matter which player is chosen.
That being said, I have a feeling that only 2 of these 4 players will make the team. I think Andy Dirks will get the bulk of the innings in left with Quentin Berry in tow as a pinch-runner defensive specialist. I personally would like to see Berry on the field a little bit more, especially in the latter innings. A Berry-Jackson-Hunter outfield trio would gobble up hits in spacious Comerica Park, which could improve a woebegone Detroit defense to the point of respectability. They’d also be one hell of an entertaining, highlight-filled outfield.