The tough decisions the Detroit Tigers faced in finalizing their roster have at least one positive side effect: creating a strong opening-day roster for their Triple-A club, the Toledo Mud Hens.
"We had so many good players [in camp], our decisions were tougher to make," said Al Avila, Tigers assistant general manager and architect of the Hens' roster. "This is the place this organization has been striving for since we got here. We have to send guys down, even though they can be major league players who can contribute up here."
The most difficult decisions for the Tigers were in the outfield. Marcus Thames, who hit four home runs and had 14 RBIs in spring training, was sent to Toledo along with Alexis Gomez and Dewayne Wise, two of the three competitors for the back-up position in center field.
That trio will be joined by Curtis Granderson, a player Baseball America magazine ranked as the Tigers' top prospect.
"Those are four guys who have to play a lot," Avila said. "That should be one of the better outfields in the International League."
The Mud Hens infield should display the same combination of experience and potential. Top prospects such as Chris Shelton, Ryan Raburn and Jack Hannahan will battle Triple-A veterans such as Mike Hessman, Kevin Hooper and Gookie Dawkins for playing time.
Avila said Dawkins is a good example of the Tigers' emphasis on stocking the Hens with players who eventually could help at the major league level.
"When we signed him, we could have had an older guy [at shortstop]," Avila said of Dawkins. "But with his age , he still has room to develop. He is a good athlete, but he has more to give. We think he can develop into a guy we can use at the major league level."
Sandy Martinez, who has played parts of eight seasons in the majors, will share the catching duties with Brandon Harper.
The Mud Hens' rotation will feature five right-handers. Kenny Baugh will start Thursday's opener at Durham, followed by Sean Douglass, Nelson Cruz, Andrew Good and Jason Grilli.
"When I signed [Douglass, Cruz, Good and Grilli] as six-year free agents, I knew these guys would compete for major league jobs as a fifth starter or long man," Avila said. "We've liked everything we've seen in all of these guys. We could bring up any one of them to fill a need."
Toledo's bullpen also will benefit from the tough decisions the Tigers faced. Lefties Doug Creek and Vic Darensbourg were among Detroit's final cuts. They will be joined in the Hens' pen by Craig Dingman, John Ennis and Chris Spurling, three right-handers with experience pitching with the Tigers.
Two more right-handers, Jason Karnuth and Mark Woodyard, will fill out the Toledo bullpen.
"We looked at left-handed relievers like Doug Creek and Vic Darensbourg who had major league experience, but we liked our right-handers so much it created a good situation for
Toledo," Avila said.
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