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Tigers' roster leaves little to be decided in spring

With most major roles settled, center field the lone lineup battle
February 10, 2017

With Spring Training fast approaching, takes a look at a different aspect of this year's Tigers squad each day this week. Today's topic: Predicting the 25-man roster.DETROIT -- Considering how few moves the Tigers made this offseason, the vast majority of their 25-man roster is fairly easy to predict

With Spring Training fast approaching, takes a look at a different aspect of this year's Tigers squad each day this week. Today's topic: Predicting the 25-man roster.
DETROIT -- Considering how few moves the Tigers made this offseason, the vast majority of their 25-man roster is fairly easy to predict with holdovers from last year. The lineup is set aside from a wide-open competition in center field. The back end of the rotation needs to be sorted out with seven starters for five spots, but performance down the stretch last year should give some indication. The last spots in the bullpen are an annual battle, but the major roles appear largely settled.
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This spring will be as much about tracking returning veterans as evaluating young players on the rise. That said, center field should prove a fascinating competition to watch, both for the importance of the position in spacious Comerica Park and for the candidates in play.
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Here is a breakdown of the projected Opening Day roster:
Catchers:James McCann, Alex Avila
The Tigers were set behind the plate as soon as they signed Avila back with a one-year, $2 million contract just before Christmas, restoring the catcher mix Detroit had in 2015. The only question is the mix of playing time between the young McCann, a right-handed hitter, and the veteran lefty-hitting Avila.
First base:Jose Cabrera
Though general manager Al Avila's talk of entertaining trade interest in veterans raised speculation that Cabrera could go elsewhere, Avila later said he never even listened on him. As chronicled earlier this week, Cabrera remains the star on a star-laden Tigers team, and the most formidable hitter in a daunting lineup. The bigger question will be his backup, whether Victor Martinez ever plays in the field again or Andrew Romine reprises the role.

Second base:Ian Kinsler
No Tigers position player faced more trade speculation than Kinsler, heading into the final guaranteed season of his contract while coming off a season in which he led the team in WAR. At age 34, he shows no signs of slowing down, either in production or playing time: He has played at least 153 games in each of his three seasons in Detroit.
Shortstop:Jose Iglesias
The Tigers found trade interest in Iglesias, but opted to hold onto him rather than deal him and put prospect Dixon Machado at short. At 27, Iglesias is entering his prime. He's coming off the most anemic offensive season of his career, but combined his trademark defensive flair with everyday consistency to become a standout fielder.
Third base:Nick Castellanos
If there's an offensive face to the Tigers' looming youth movement in 2018 and beyond, it's Castellanos, who put together a breakout offensive season last year with 18 home runs, a .285 batting average and an .827 OPS. An August hand injury kept him from loftier numbers and potentially the Tigers from a playoff berth.
Starting outfield:Tyler Collins, Michael Mahtook, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton
Martinez and Upton are set in the corners. The question is in center, where Collins, Mahtook and JaCoby Jones will compete for starts. The Tigers would like to get Jones a little more time at Triple-A Toledo. Add Mahtook's arrival from Tampa Bay with the lack of free-agent signings, and signs point to a platoon between Collins and Mahtook.
DH: Martinez
Now 38, Martinez remains a valued switch-hitter in a lineup heavily weighted toward right-handed hitters. His health is clearly a concern after Al Avila revealed that Martinez played through a hernia injury for much of last season's stretch run, which might explain in part his .241 average in September. But Martinez wants to play as long as he can swing the bat with stability in his legs, and he's going to bat cleanup to interrupt the string of right-handed hitters.

Bench:Andrew Romine, Machado
The Tigers face a decision with the slick-fielding infielder Machado and slugging outfielder Steven Moya. Both are out of Minor League options, neither are likely to clear waivers if designated for assignment, and both play positions where the Tigers could have a void in 2018 (second base for Machado, right field for Moya). The Tigers have traditionally preferred two infielders on their bench and probably will continue to do so, given Iglesias' health concerns, Kinsler's age and subbing Castellanos for defense in late innings. Another factor to consider is whether the Tigers could give Moya enough at-bats to stay fresh when both corner outfielders are everyday players.
Rotation:Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann, Matt Boyd, Daniel Norris
Verlander, Fulmer and Zimmermann are set as long as they're healthy. The competition comes down to Boyd, Norris, Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey for the final two spots. This is where the Tigers' payroll concerns and their eye to the future with younger players collide. Sanchez and Pelfrey will make a combined $24.8 million this season, but the Tigers would not have stayed in contention as long as they did last year without Boyd and Norris pitching well down the stretch. Barring injuries, they deserve a chance to build on that.
Bullpen:Francisco Rodriguez, Bruce Rondon, Justin Wilson, Alex Wilson, Shane Greene, Kyle Ryan, Mark Lowe
The Tigers return the makings of a late-inning trio, though Justin Wilson has drawn trade interest. Though Rondon hasn't had a history of solid Spring Trainings, the hope is that his time in the World Baseball Classic will provide a springboard. While the Tigers might be able to get away with one lefty in their bullpen, Ryan's performance down the stretch last year (opponents hit 6-for-62 against him from Aug. 1 on) warrants a spot. The competition could come down to the final spot or two and veterans on big contracts in Lowe, Sanchez and Pelfrey. Lowe said he feels stronger this offseason after a nightmarish 2016. Sanchez and Pelfrey have yet to show inclination to embrace a relief role. That could leave Al Avila scrambling on the trade market to get what he can.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast.