By: Will Burchfield
In spring training baseball, every team sees a few under-the-radar players jump off the page. Asked who those players have been this year for the Tigers, manager Brad Ausmus pointed to a veteran infielder and three right-handed pitchers.
“Believe it or not, Omar Infante has swung the bat really well,” Ausmus told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket. “He’s a veteran guy, but he’s got life in his body, he looks like he did five or six years ago.”
Infante, 35, signed a minor-league deal with the Tigers in December, reuniting with the organization where he spent the first six seasons of his career. The second baseman is 8/20 (.400) in spring training, with four doubles, four RBI and three runs scored.
“He has swung the bat extremely well,” Ausmus said on Monday, via Jason Beck. “He’s played second very well. He’s a professional by all accounts.”
But Beck suggests Infante will have a hard time making the Tigers roster, with Andrew Romine and Dixon Machado likely in line for the reserve infield spots.
In limited action last year with the Royals, Infante hit .239 with a .600 OPS. His strongest season in recent years came in 2013 with the Tigers when he batted .318 with a .795 OPS over 118 games.
There were rumblings earlier this spring that Infante could enter the competition for the centerfield job, but that seems like a long shot at best. He hasn’t logged time in the outfield since 2010 and hasn’t played in center since 2009.
But as Ausmus added on Sunday, “He certainly has the ability to still play baseball at the Major League level.”
Ausmus told the Jamie and Stoney show that “there’s been a number of guys who have opened some eyes” from a pitching perspective.
“One of them’s a guy, Arcenio Leon, who wasn’t even in big-league camp and came up from Minor League camp when we needed some pitching help,” Ausmus said. “He’s performed very well, mid-90’s fastball.”
Leon, a journeyman reliever who has yet to crack the big leagues over a 12-year career, was signed by the Tigers to a minor-league contract last October. The 30-year-old was coming off a strong season in the Mexican League, where he posted a 3.30 ERA and 36 saves over 62.2 innings and was named the Reliever of the Year.
In 3.1 innings this spring for the Tigers, Leon has yet to allow a baserunner and has four strikeouts. He was originally signed by the Astros as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela.
Next, Ausmus singled out Sandy Baez.
“He’s in the mid-to-upper 90’s, a real good splitter. He’s impressed,” said Ausmus.
Baez, 23, has allowed one run, one hit, one walk and racked up seven strikeouts over five innings this spring for the Tigers. He spent last season with the Detroit’s Single-A affiliate, the West Michigan Whitecaps, posting a 3.15 ERA and a 7-9 record over 113.1 innings.
He was signed by the Tigers in 2011 out of the Dominican Republic.
“And lastly, a guy named Ruben Alaniz, who was in Double-A and Triple-A with us last year,” Ausmus said. “He’s got real good movement on his fastball, it rides in on right-handed hitters. His stuff gives me reason for optimism.”
The big righty, measuring in at 6’4, 220 lbs., excelled last season with both Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo. Over 73.2 innings, he posted a 2.69 ERA and 74 strikeouts. He has picked up where he left off in spring training, allowing three hits and recording six strikeouts over 4.2 innings.
Of the aforementioned four players, it seems Alaniz is the closest to making an impact with the Tigers. He was actually better in Triple-A last season than Double-A and looks to have the kind of strikeout stuff Detroit could use in its bullpen.
The 25-year-old has yet to pitch at the Major League level since signing a min0r-league contract with the Astros in 2010, but he’s young enough still that a breakthrough could be on the horizon. And it may come at the Tigers’ benefit.
Detroit signed Baez to a minor-league deal in 2015.
“So I think really those three pitchers and Omar Infante have been the biggest eye-openers,” Ausmus said.