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 »This Week in History
Detroit Tigers
INSIDE PITCH

  Inside Pitch | Notes, Quotes | Roster Report | Player News

Staying healthy to remain a contender was the Detroit Tigers' winter mantra heading into the 2017 season.

Then midway through spring training, right fielder J.D. Martinez suffered a sprain to the Lisfranc ligament in his right ankle that will sideline him 3-to-4 weeks dating from March 24. And it could be longer for him to work his way back into baseball shape.

So much for an injury-free season.

"No question our lineup is better with J.D. Martinez's bat in it," manager Brad Ausmus said. "But we will deal with it. When you think about it, it's three to four weeks from (March 24) and 10 days of that are while we're still in spring training.

"So if it goes four weeks, that's only 2 1/2, three weeks of missed time in season."

Couple that with uncertainty in center field and Detroit will open the season April 3 in Chicago against the White Sox having big question marks in two of the three outfield positions.

The Martinez injury could prompt the club to hand the center field job to rookie JaCoby Jones, although it would prefer he show at Toledo he has learned the strike zone and can lay off slow stuff away from the plate.

The club entered the last week of spring training not fixed on whether a platoon of left-handed hitting Tyler Collins and right-hander Mikie Mahtook would work.

One other candidate, 2015 regular Anthony Gose, was returned to the minors March 26 and will attempt to convert to pitching while he plays the outfield. Gose threw 97 mph in high school.

Detroit elected to stand pat under a policy of not letting payroll rise after just missing out on the playoffs in 2016. The Tigers want to get younger and more athletic over the next two to three seasons.

One of those ways likely involves letting J.D. Martinez become a free agent with no compensation after this season or trading him at mid-year. Losing Martinez, third baseman Nick Castellanos and starting right-hander Jordan Zimmermann for more than a month each last year hurt Detroit, along with substandard pitching from high-priced Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe, who was released March 25.

Getting rid of center fielder Cameron Maybin, limited to 94 games by injury, saved money but created the current problem at that position.

Zimmermann has a neck condition the Tigers feel is manageable but losing him opened a spot for Michael Fulmer to have a Rookie of the Year career beginning.

Any rotation headed by Justin Verlander can't be downplayed. Fulmer will draw more attention from opponents this season but he's a Verlander disciple and has the pitches to minimize a sophomore falloff.

Sanchez and Pelfrey dropping the ball in 2016 created spots for Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, both of whom have bright futures.

Despite a declaration to "take the 12 best pitchers" out of spring training, a late surge by Sanchez following a mechanical adjustment (getting his arm further away from his head) might induce Detroit to keep him and use Boyd's last option. The Tigers owe Sanchez more than $21 million over the next two years and logically would like to get something back on that instead of releasing him.

"We're in the business of winning baseball games," Ausmus said. "We're going to make decisions that help us win baseball games. It will sort itself out in the next week."

At any rate rotation depth, established depth, is something Detroit will have that was absent a year ago at this time and becomes a strength as the Tigers try to overtake overwhelming AL Central favorite Cleveland while staving off Kansas City.

Spring training was tough on the Tigers in terms of wins because it lost a lot of high-profile players to the World Baseball Classic.

And first baseman Miguel Cabrera came out of the WBC with a sore back, not returning to the lineup until March 26.

Detroit exercised an option on closer Francisco Rodriguez's contract as it waits for either Bruce Rondon, whose velocity was down in the spring, or Joe Jimenez, who will open the season in the minors, to show closer capabilities.

Ausmus will continue to deal with the worst baserunning team in baseball and a station-to-station offense that has base-cloggers Cabrera and Victor Martinez as its 3-4 hitters.

Any lineup featuring those two plus Castellanos, Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton, J.D. Martinez (when he returns) as its top six is going to score runs, though.

Upton has had a big spring and looks ready to build on the strong last two months he had in his first year with the Tigers. Castellanos, probable to replace Maybin as the second-place hitter, appears to have matured into a prime-time bat.

There are questions in the bullpen but for the first time in recent seasons Detroit may have options in the minors who could be ready before June.

"We have a really good baseball team," general manager Al Avila said. "I don't know why people keep saying it's an old club. Yeah, every year we are getting older but J.D. Martinez in right field and Justin Upton in left (both turn 30 in August) are in the prime of their career. If you are 29, that's when you should be at your peak and both are at that point.

"Then you look at the older guys, Kinsler and Cabrera, and look how they produced not like washed-ups. They continue to produce like they are in their prime."

Detroit hopes the fact Cleveland has overshadowed it will be a plus for the Tigers, who got mauled by a 14-4 margin by the Indians in 2016.

"I've never walked into a spring-training locker room and not felt we had a chance to win it," Verlander said. "I don't know if anybody else who has been in the game as long as I have can say that. Pretty special."



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