Saturday, March 22, 2014
Tigers searching for answers
By Jayson Stark
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The latest blow was Bruce Rondon, now headed for a Tommy John surgery operating room near you and done for the season.
Before that was Jose Iglesias and those pesky stress fractures in both shins, which have put his 2014 season in peril.
And lest we forget, even before that was left fielder Andy Dirks, out for several months following back surgery last month.
Down they’ve all gone this spring for those injury-ravaged Detroit Tigers, one after another, all before their new manager, Brad Ausmus, got to manage a single game that counts.
It’s left the Tigers calling around, hunting for last-minute reinforcements at all three spots. And it’s creating doubts around the sport about the Tigers’ seemingly perennial status as favorites in the AL Central.
But one thing it hasn’t done, in case you’re wondering, is cause the manager to wonder why he thought taking this managing job was such a great idea last winter.
Reliever Bruce Rondon (Tommy John surgery) is the latest significant injury for the Tigers.
"No. No. No. Not at all," Ausmus said Saturday. "It’s part of the game. You’ve got to roll with the punches a little bit. If I bury my head in my hands, it’s not going to make Rondon or Iglesias come back any sooner. We’ve got to find a way to get through it. And, hopefully, we find some guys who step up and fill the voids."
That’s what any manager would say at a time like this, of course, but finding actual answers to these questions is the hard part. And even with the season nine days away, Ausmus admits this is still a team that doesn’t have those answers. So how big a concern are these latest injuries? Let’s take a look:
Bottom of the order: Two years ago, Alex Avila was the Tigers’ primary No. 8 hitter. Jhonny Peralta was their most frequent No. 7 hitter. But the days when this team had that sort of lineup depth are over -- at least for now.
Barring a late trade or free-agent addition, the Tigers appear to be looking at a lower half of the order that includes some combination of Avila and Austin Jackson in the 5-6 slots, rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos in the No. 7 hole, followed by their left fielder (likely a Rajai Davis/Don Kelly/Tyler Collins combo plate for the moment) and the shortstop (tentatively looking like a hodgepodge of just acquired Andrew Romine, splitting time with either Danny Worth or Hernan Perez).
While Ausmus says that injuries haven’t had a major impact on that lineup depth, "because Iglesias was going to hit ninth anyway," lineup depth "could be" a concern, he admitted.
Asked if he’d at least settled on Jackson and Avila mostly hitting fifth and sixth in some order, Ausmus replied: "That area of the lineup is probably the most in flux, really. There may be a situation where it changes, depending on who the opponent starter is. I would prefer that be a situation where someone hits in that spot, or those spots, and excels and we can leave them there. But they’re not etched in stone."
Jackson has had a big spring (.442/.478/.767, with only four strikeouts in 46 plate appearances), but it’s Avila (.263/.364/.316) whom Ausmus singled out as being a pivotal figure in the construction of this lineup.
"We’d like to see Alex bounce back," the manager said. "I think he’s a much better hitter than he showed last year. He’s had some good at-bats [this spring]. He’s had some normal spring training at-bats. He’s had some good at-bats against left-handed hitters, which is good to see. I’m hoping that Alex bounces back."
One bright spot in that mix is Castellanos, who has hit. 373, with seven doubles and two home runs in 51 at-bats, and has had scouts raving all spring about his quick bat and polished approach. The hope was that the Tigers could hit him down in the order and keep the pressure off him offensively. But it wouldn’t be a shock if they rewrote that script in a hurry if Castellanos keeps hitting.
The bullpen: The Tigers were already poking around for bullpen help --– particularly an upgrade on Phil Coke as the primary situational left-hander -- even before Rondon went down. But other teams say they’ve stepped up that hunt in recent days, since Rondon blew out his elbow ligament with no warning whatsoever.
For the moment, the seventh and eighth innings would now appear to fall into the hands of Al Alburquerque (11 strikeouts and just one run in six innings this spring) and that ghost of Yankees past, Joba Chamberlain (3.00 ERA, but with a 1.83 WHIP and still-diminished velocity) this spring. But Ausmus says that will be a work in progress early on.
"You just deal with it," the manager said. "You can’t dwell on it. You’ve got to find another solution. And the truth is, we’re going to need someone to step up to fill the role, and we’re not sure who that person is going to be. It’s like the 5- or 6-hole in the lineup: I hope someone grabs it and runs with it."
One name to watch: 28-year-old right-hander Evan Reed, claimed off waivers from the Miami Marlins last April, who has hit 97 miles per hour and racked up 12 strikeouts, while allowing just three hits in 11⅓ innings this spring.
But the real good news has come from Joe Nathan, who hasn’t allowed a run all spring and is being depended on more than ever to put an end to the Tigers’ ninth-inning dramatics of the past couple of seasons.
So at least this team isn’t looking for a closer anymore. But they’re as likely to make some other addition -- a left-handed-hitting outfielder, another bullpen arm and possibly even shortstop Stephen Drew -- as any contender in baseball over this last week of spring training.