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Position battles in Detroit will affect Hens

02/20/2017, 12:20am EST

Tigers must answer questions in bullpen, center field

For a roster that changed little in the offseason, there are a surprising number of questions surrounding the Detroit Tigers as they prepare for the 2017 season.

The ways the Tigers answer those questions will go a long way toward shaping the opening day roster for the Mud Hens, according to Dave Littlefield, Detroit’s vice president of player development.

“It’s hard to say how all of the players we’ve signed will fit in. There is six weeks of spring training to go, and we haven’t played any [exhibition] games,” he said in a phone interview from Lakeland, Fla. “But it’s well-known by agents and six-year free agents that we have opportunities in the bullpen and in center field.

“We have signed a fair number of players over the winter to potentially fill those roles, so we’ll have to see how everything plays out.”

The bullpen has been an issue for the Tigers in recent seasons, and the team signed a number of potential free agents to compete for jobs there. Right-handers Logan Kensing, Dustin Molleken, Jeff Ferrell, and Angel Nesbitt re-signed with Detroit, while veterans with major-league experience such as right-handers A.J. Achter and Edward Mujica and left-hander Mike Zagursky are among the newcomers who signed to fight for jobs in the Tigers bullpen.

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The numbers are such that those who lose the battle and pitch in Toledo should give the Hens the ingredients for a talented bullpen.

“You also have to remember that some pitchers who may be starters for Toledo are pitching to try and win bullpen jobs in Detroit,” Littlefield said.

That means the battle for spots in the Tigers’ five-man rotation also bears watching. Veterans Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey, who struggled last season, will need to fend off challenges by young starters Matthew Boyd, Daniel Norris, and Drew VerHagen, who Littlefield said will move back to a starting role this spring.

“Currently, we have more starting pitching options than we have spots in the rotation, so it’s obvious some things need to be sorted out,” Littlefield said. “Guys like VerHagen, [Warwick] Saupold, and [Buck] Farmer could pitch out of the bullpen if they make the roster in Detroit, but they could start if they pitch for Toledo.

“The reason for that is that making them starters gives them so many more innings to work on things like sharpening their pitches, learning to pitch out of trouble, and just learning lessons that will make them better pitchers in the majors.”

The same holds true for young pitchers such as Chad Bell and Myles Jaye, who will battle for bullpen jobs in Detroit but, if that effort fails, likely will fill spots in Toledo’s rotation.

The other major position battle the Tigers will monitor this spring is in center field. Detroit does not lack for candidates to fill the position, including JaCoby Jones, who manned the position for Toledo in 2016; Mikie Mahtook, who came to the Tigers from Tampa Bay in a trade; Tyler Collins, who is out of options and must pass through waivers before he could be sent to Toledo; Anthony Gose, who started last season as the starter there but found himself at Double-A Erie at season’s end; and six-year free-agent signees such as Alex Presley and Juan Perez.

“It will be interesting to see how that plays out this spring,” Littlefield said. “We have a lot of interesting talent at that position, and the fun part is that we expect lots of good competition for that job.”

Most of the rest of the Tigers roster is set, particularly the starting positions. But Detroit signed a number of other six-year free agents who serve at least two purposes: one, those free agents will provide competition for reserve roles in Detroit; and two, those free agents increase the depth at Toledo and Erie.

“When you trade prospects, one of the after-effects is that there generally aren’t as many prospects in the upper level of your organization,” Littlefield explained. “We may have been a little more aggressive this year, but we think that’s good because that will give us more competition in the big-league camp and in the upper levels of the minors.

“We’re trying to create assets, players who eventually can fill a role and help the Tigers be successful — even if they don’t begin the year in Detroit.

“And we are determined to field a competitive team in Toledo. We think it helps the development of prospects if they play in a winning atmosphere, and the administration in Toledo has done their part to create that atmosphere. We are trying to do our part.”  

Contact John Wagner at:, 419-724-6481 or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.

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Right-hander Logan Kensing will compete for a job in Detroit’s bullpen this spring. But if he doesn’t win a job, Kensing will be a candidate for the Mud Hens’ pitching staff. ASSOCIATED PRESS

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