Porcello plus iffy infield could be trouble


When the Tigers take the field Saturday, it might provide a fascinating test case for a couple of the propositions that -- if not as important as Miggy being Miggy or the front three in the rotation doing their thing -- could be the difference between their winning the AL Central going away, or whether they’ll slip back down below 90 wins and bring the race back within reach of the Royals and Indians.

That’s because we’re going to get to see the first real test of whether or not ground-baller Rick Porcello and the left side of the Tigers’ reconfabulated infield are going to work out very well together. Rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos may not be that much of an improvement on Miguel Cabrera -- he was moved to the outfield corners when he moved up to Double-A in 2012, and the scouting reports on his work at the hot corner have involved terms such as "timid" and "stiff." As a result, it shouldn't surprise people to hear that Miguel Cabrera’s days at third base aren't over, and that he’ll apparently play there some this season (also getting Victor Martinez some reps at first base). I guess if the standard is, “We can survive with Cabrera, so…” then Castellanos will be fine by the Tigers’ standards, but we’ll see if Porcello continues to be the ground-ball guy who pays a particular penalty as a result.

At shortstop, the Tigers are choosing between 37-year-old shortstop Alex Gonzalez -- who hasn’t played the position regularly or well in the majors since 2011 -- and former Angels utilityman Andrew Romine, and you can understand how this might turn out badly. It’ll be interesting to see how manager Brad Ausmus leans on this; if Romine is considered the better defender, will he draw more Porcello game-day starts, considering Porcello’s career 1.7 ground ball/fly ball ratio? Not that I think we could call a Gonzalez-Romine platoon an offense-defense combo -- Gonzalez’s OPS the last five years is .679, which would be hard for him to reach, let alone top -- but we’ve seen other clubs be adaptable with shortstop tandems, particularly the Pirates last season in how they employed defensive specialist Clint Barmes.

Now, I admit, I’ve already made my arguments for why I don’t think Porcello will break out big, but you can understand why folks think he will: his youth and his spiking strikeout rate. We’ll see if Saturday’s start gives us much to mull over on whether Porcello’s finally going to blossom into the quality starter people have expected him to be since he was taken with the 27th overall pick in 2007.

Another fun thing we learned about the Tigers? MLive Tigers reporter James Schmehl confirmed that skipper Brad Ausmus is going to let Victor Martinez catch in a few interleague games this season. For myself, I love it, even if V-Mart doesn’t do well behind the backstop, because a skill unused often becomes a skill lost. If you’re going to employ a full-time DH on your roster, with today’s roster crunch, it’s a lot more useful if he can also pick you up as your backup first baseman and third catcher.

The less-happy takeaway? That Alex Avila’s wonderful 2011 season might sadly go down in history as an echo of Cubs catcher Rick Wilkins’ 1993 breakout, a great year that won’t be repeated.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.