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Before spring training began last season, most Tigers followers thought Matt Tuiasosopo would spend the year in Toledo.
Detroit signed Tuiasosopo as a six-year minor-league free agent, but the veteran outfielder used a strong spring training to win a job with the Tigers. Then a strong start with the bat kept him in Detroit, and the only two games he played with the Mud Hens were part of an injury rehab.
That’s the danger of trying to predict who will be on the Mud Hens roster when the team opens the season at Fifth Third Field on Friday, April 4. Detroit’s pitchers and catchers don’t report to the team’s spring training home in Lakeland, Fla., until Feb. 13, so there’s plenty of time for prospects and veterans to earn a spot with the Tigers.
Still, the Mud Hens’ Opening Day roster should include some interesting players.
Take the rotation, which likely will include two of Detroit’s better prospects in left-handers Robbie Ray and Kyle Lobstein. Ray, who was part of the trade that sent Doug Fister to Washington, ranks as the Tigers’ fourth-best prospect by Baseball America.
Lobstein joined the Hens in midseason in 2013 and was 6-3 with a 3.48 ERA in 13 starts.
“We think Robbie Ray is a high-quality prospect who will pitch in the big leagues in the not-too-distant future,” said Al Avila, Detroit’s assistant general manager. “Lobstein has more experience, so he could help us out in Detroit — as a starter or in the bullpen.”
If Jose Alvarez doesn’t earn a spot in the Tigers’ bullpen, he should return to the Toledo rotation after posting a 2.80 ERA in 21 games here. And veterans such as Derek Hankins, who had a 3.03 ERA with the Hens before signing with a Korean team last season, and Britton, Mich., native Duane Below, who had a 3.13 ERA in Toledo in 2011, have had success at Triple-A.
The makeup of the Mud Hens bullpen depends largely on which pitchers do not earn spots in Detroit.
Jose Ortega, who had four saves and a 1.86 ERA for Toledo in 2013, will compete with fellow right-handers Evan Reed (2.54 ERA), Luke Putkonen (1.91 ERA), and Justin Miller, who the Tigers signed as a free agent before adding him to the 40-man roster.
Lefty Casey Crosby, whose 2013 season was cut short by injury, will move to the bullpen.
“We feel Casey has a chance to be more effective [in the bullpen],” Avila said. “We hope that he will be able to put together his power stuff more consistently if he pitches for one or two innings every few days.”
Among the six-year free agents who also will compete for jobs in Detroit are right-handers Jhan Marinez and Eduardo Sanchez.
Toledo’s everyday catcher is expected to be James McCann, a 23-year-old who is considered one of the Tigers’ better prospects. Last year McCann hit .277 with eight homers and 54 RBIs for Double-A Erie, helping the SeaWolves earn an Eastern League playoff berth.
His backup probably will be Luis Exposito, who spent part of 2012 with Baltimore.
“McCann hit very well before he tapered off at the end of the season,” Avila said. “We are excited about his performance, especially with the way he caught and threw and managed the pitching staff.
“And Exposito is a younger guy who has some upside, too.”
The infield should have some recognizable faces, led by Jordan Lennerton at field base. Last season Lennerton hit .278 with 17 homers and 57 RBIs as well as a .382 on-base percentage. This winter he was named MVP of the Puerto Rico Winter League after ranking among the league leaders with a .340 batting average, five homers, and 21 RBIs.
Another familiar face will be Mike Hessman, the Mud Hens’ all-time home run leader who has not played for the Hens since 2009. Last year Hessman tied for fourth in the International League with 25 home runs while with Louisville.
“We are excited about Lennerton, who had a good season in Toledo and a great winter,” Avila said. “And Hessman is a veteran bat who can still hit the ball out of the ballpark.”
Middle infielders such as Hernan Perez (.299 in 16 games for Toledo), Kevin Russo (.213 in 103 games), and Danny Worth (.223 in 82 games) will compete for jobs in Detroit this spring, and they likely will return to the Mud Hens if unsuccessful.
In the outfield, the Mud Hens are likely to have mix of veterans such as former Indians Trevor Crowe and Ezequiel Carrera, as well as Ben Guez (18 home runs for Toledo in ’13) and prospects such as Daniel Fields and Tyler Collins.
Fields, the son of former Mud Hens manager Bruce Fields, hit .284 with 24 stolen bases for Erie, while Collins batted .240 with 21 home runs for the SeaWolves.
“Fields is a young player with a lot of ability,” Avila said. “If he reaches his potential, he’s a guy who could become a five-tool player.
“And while Collins needs to cut down on his strikeouts, he’s a good hitter with a nice swing and a lot of ability.”