The Tigers begin Spring Training on Feb. 14 as a bit of a mystery. In the big picture, everyone is trying to figure out whether this young, talented roster is ready to not only make the jump from last year’s 78-win campaign and post Detroit’s first winning season since 2016, but vault into contention in a division that doesn’t have a clear-cut dominant leader.
Within the club’s fortunes are plenty of individual questions around players without a lot of track records. Just six players on Detroit’s 40-man roster are 30 years or older, and just 10 have recorded three years of Major League service time. Just three players are on guaranteed contracts beyond this season, and one of them hasn’t played in the Major Leagues yet. Add in an outfield mix being sorted out, a lineup that just lost a future Hall of Famer and a rotation in flux, and there’s plenty to sort out.
There is also plenty of reason to keep an eye on this Spring Training camp beyond the Florida sunshine. Here are three key storylines to follow.
1. What impact can Colt Keith make in Detroit’s lineup?
Keith’s six-year contract reduced the suspense about whether he would make the Tigers’ Opening Day roster, though the Tigers say he still has to earn the starting nod at second base. But we still don’t know yet how the Tigers will slot him into the lineup and what they expect from him early on. Manager A.J. Hinch and his staff have recent experience with this, having put Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene and Parker Meadows in fairly big roles upon their arrival a couple of years ago while bringing along Kerry Carpenter more slowly.
Keith’s combination of impact power and plate discipline should find a prominent place in the Tigers’ batting order, but we don’t know how quickly. Part of that might depend not only on Keith, but on whether shortstop Javier Baez can be a productive hitter in the middle of the lineup. The process will likely stretch into the regular season, but Spring Training should give us some clues.
2. Who fills out the rotation?
The Tigers wanted competition for rotation spots and they got it. By adding free agents Kenta Maeda and Jack Flaherty to a young core led by Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Casey Mize, along with the up-and-coming Reese Olson and Sawyer Gipson-Long, Detroit has seven viable starters for what is expected to be a five-man rotation.
The group is expected to change frequently over the course of the season, with so many starters having their innings regulated. Mize will pitch in game action for the first time in two years as he completes his comeback from Tommy John surgery, a big part of this spring. Skubal and Manning made 15 starts each last year in injury-shortened seasons. Even Maeda hasn’t topped 107 innings or 21 starts in a season since 2019. Still, the Tigers have to pick five starters to begin the season. Spring Training performance, while not a dominant factor, will be at least some consideration.
3. Who starts at third?
No. 4 prospect Jace Jung is seen as the future at third base. He’ll be in Spring Training as a non-roster invite for his first big league camp, and he is expected to make his Major League debut at some point this year. But somebody has to hold down the hot corner until he arrives. Hinch told MLB Network’s Jon Heyman and Joel Sherman on a recent podcast that he envisions a timeshare starting out. With Matt Vierling, Zach McKinstry and Andy Ibañez returning, he has the players to assemble a lefty-righty platoon. Still, Vierling had fairly even splits last year and had a solid stretch run, posting an .873 OPS, eight doubles, three homers and 14 RBIs over the final month. Ibañez, too, finished strong with an .885 OPS and 15 RBIs from Sept. 1 on.
There’s plenty of opportunity for a surprise here. Though No. 9 prospect Justyn-Henry Malloy moved from third base to the outfield down the stretch at Toledo last year, the Tigers like his offensive potential, and a hot spring could force the team to get creative to get him into the lineup. And Jung, who has yet to play above Double-A, is a highly motivated player with a history of winning over skeptics.