LAKELAND, Fla. -- While Tigers manager Brad Ausmus doesn't have a season-opening rotation order yet, his rotation for the first few games of Spring Training is set. It begins with up-and-coming pitching prospect Drew VerHagen, who will start the team's traditional opening exhibition with Florida Southern College on Tuesday at Joker Marchant Stadium.
The Tigers have often turned to prospects for the Florida Southern game. Former Tigers top pitching prospect Andy Oliver started against the Mocs two years ago, the last time the exhibition led off the Spring Training slate.
From there, the projected Major League rotation begins to slot in. Drew Smyly, back in a starting role, will lead off the Tigers' Grapefruit League schedule against the Braves on Wednesday at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex, followed by Rick Porcello in the back half of the home-and-home set against the Braves on Feb. 27 at Lakeland.
The Tigers' first split-squad day on Feb. 28 will feature the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner and an insurance starter. Max Scherzer will face the Yankees in Lakeland, Fla., while Jose Alvarez makes the trip to Clearwater, Fla., to face the Phillies.
Ausmus had already ruled out Justin Verlander from the first turn through the Spring Training rotation as he builds up his workload following core muscle surgery. Alvarez, who filled in for Anibal Sanchez while Sanchez was on the disabled list last summer, could provide insurance if Verlander suffers a setback and isn't ready for the start of the season.
Ausmus talks three Opening Day starter candidates
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Brad Ausmus was surprised it took this long into Spring Training for him to be asked about an Opening Day starter. It was less surprising that there's no answer yet.
"It could be a tough decision," Ausmus said. "You really have three legitimate Opening Day-starter-type pitchers on the roster. You have a Cy Young/MVP winner who's coming off surgery, but as of right now, looks to be on track. You have the reigning Cy Young winner. And you have an ERA champ. So you could make an argument for any of the three, really.
"To say I hadn't thought about it would be a lie. To say I hadn't discussed it with coaches would be a lie. I have, but we haven't made a final decision yet."
It should not be assumed, Ausmus warned, that Max Scherzer's 2013 success makes him the automatic choice to start the March 31 opener against Kansas City.
"It's possible it could be Max. We just don't know at this point," he said.
The one safe assumption Ausmus provided is that all three candidates -- Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez -- would pitch in the opening series if everyone's healthy. That at least means that Verlander won't be held back until later to give him extra prep time.
Besides the pomp and circumstance of Opening Day, the one tangible difference for that day's starter is he'll be the one pitcher to make two starts in that opening homestand. He'll still get an extra day's rest thanks to the April 1 off-day, though a rainout (or a snowout) on Opening Day would erase that rest day.
After that opening week, the Tigers are off for three of the next eight days amid a five-game West Coast trip to face the Dodgers and Padres. That could lead to Drew Smyly or Rick Porcello being pushed back, Ausmus said.
Cabrera lays down bunts during spring workouts
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Tigers fans have anticipated what sort of fundamental changes Brad Ausmus might bring as a manager. Miguel Cabrera bunting probably wasn't on the list.
It's almost surely not going to happen in a game, but it happened Wednesday afternoon.
The Tigers spent part of Wednesday's workout going through fundamental hitting stations on the back fields at Tigertown. That included rounds of bunting for every hitter on the team.
Yes, that included Cabrera, owner of one sacrifice bunt in the last 10 years and one bunt single in his 11-year career -- both with the Marlins.
"Yeah, Miggy bunted," Ausmus said. "Don't know that you'll ever see Miggy bunt in a game, but yeah. We had everyone bunt today, expose them to that. I did not pay attention to whether Miggy could bunt or not, although my guess is with his hands, he probably bunts pretty well."
His guess was right. Cabrera laid down several slow rollers towards the line, outbunting Alex Avila and Andy Dirks in his group.
That won't earn him any bunt signs from Ausmus anytime soon.
"If he bunts during the season, I'll just get in my car and drive back to San Diego," Ausmus said. "If he bunts during the season, he did it on his own."
Ortega starts spring ready to secure bullpen job
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jose Ortega came out throwing to hitters Tuesday like he was trying to make the Opening Day bullpen in the first days of camp. That wasn't quite his intention, he said Wednesday, but he was trying to make a point.
After short stints in Detroit in each of the past two seasons, Ortega wants to make a push to stick.
The numbers from Ortega suggest he's perfectly capable. The 25-year-old allowed just 28 hits over 48 1/3 innings last year at Triple-A Toledo, striking out 56 batters and posting a meager 1.86 ERA.
The problem was the walks, 33 of them with the Mud Hens to go with six -- one of them intentional -- over 11 2/3 innings with the Tigers. So when he returned to Venezuela to pitch in winter ball, he made command his priority.
"I worked in Venezuela on my location," Ortega said. "I work on that every day -- location, location, location."
He had relative success at that in Venezuela aside from a Nov. 27 outing in which he walked two batters without recording an out. For the winter campaign, he allowed 14 hits and five walks over eight innings, striking out seven.
His first live pitching session reflected the advantage of extra work. His fastball had closer to regular-season velocity, while his slider had enough bite to leave Austin Jackson shaking his head at one pitch. New Tiger Ian Kinsler put the barrel of his bat on one pitch, but that was about it.
In the end, it means little in player evaluation. Still, it reflected Ortega's seriousness about competing for a spot.
• Victor Martinez, who has been catching bullpen sessions this spring in preparation for potential starts behind the plate during Interleague Play, will also get some work at first base this spring.
"Don't read too much into it," Ausmus said.
• Tigers Minor League operations director Dan Lunetta was inducted into the Chautauqua (N.Y.) Sports Hall of Fame last month. Lunetta, a 1973 graduate of Jamestown High School, is beginning his 10th season with Detroit and his 34rd season in professional baseball.