By signing outfielder Justin Upton to a six-year deal worth $132.75 million, owner Mike Ilitch and general manager Al Avila gave the Detroit Tigers offense “more than a tweak.” Upton fills the last glaring hole on a team that last year finished more than 20 games behind the American League Central Division champions. But the move also increased the flexibility Avila has to fine-tune his club’s recalibrated roster even further.
As things stand, the Tigers have clear frontrunners to start at every position except center field, where Cameron Maybin and Anthony Gose likely will split the workload. That means 10 position players are relative locks heading into spring training, leaving three spots on the bench—assuming Detroit sticks with a traditional construction. To compete for those places, the Tigers have eight players on their 40-man roster.
Two are catchers. Conventional wisdom says Jarrod Saltalamacchia will be the backup on opening day. He has played in 538 major league games over the past five years, while Bryan Holaday has just 282 career plate appearances. Holaday, like starter James McCann and most of Detroit’s lineup, bats right-handed, while Saltalamacchia is a switch-hitter with power and has limited experience as a first baseman in case the club gets into a pinch. That leaves no room for Holaday, who would be an asset for the Toledo Mud Hens but is out of minor league options and would thus need to clear waivers to get there. Expect the Tigers to hold onto him for a bit, as 30-year-old catchers like Saltalamacchia can be susceptible to injuries. But if Holaday impresses in Lakeland, it could be worthwhile for Avila to shop him to other teams.
Three more in the mix are infielders—Mike Aviles, Andrew Romine, and Dixon Machado—at least one of whom Detroit will need to carry. And the other three are outfielders: Tyler Collins, Steven Moya, and Wynton Bernard. Bernard, Moya, and Machado are prospects who would have to light Grapefruit League competition absolutely on fire to earn a place in the big leagues. That leaves Aviles, Romine, and Collins for the final two roster spots. Collins, despite his promising left-handed bat, is the only one of that trio who has minor league options and the only one who really only plays one position—one the Tigers just spent more than an eighth of a billion dollars filling.
Since he has options and would not need to clear waivers to go to the minor leagues, Collins’ situation has an extra layer of complexity. Detroit could simply hold on to him and let him play in Toledo for a third season. But this is a guy who played two years in college and has amassed 2,514 plate appearances as a professional, including 1,999 in the minors. (Check out this article that demonstrates decreased MLB production when a college player gets more than 2,500 plate appearances at the MiLB level.) He played fairly well in significant playing time for the Tigers last season after they traded Yoenis Cespedes and was expected to play an equally large role this year.
Collins might not be more than a fourth outfielder, but his potential will never be realized if he doesn’t find a spot in the major leagues—and fast. Detroit likely cannot offer him that spot, so it might be mutually beneficial for Avila to send him somewhere with a more spacious outfield. The first-year general manager has said he would “still like to have more depth in pitching.” One argument for holding onto Collins is the injury history of Victor Martinez, who would leave a huge hole in the lineup if he misses significant time again. But in that case, the Tigers could still turn to Moya or even Dean Green.
Holaday and Collins would not bring back anything overly impressive on the trade market, but they are both redundant pieces on Detroit’s roster and could enjoy much better opportunities elsewhere.