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Time running out to solve shortstop puzzle

Time running out to solve shortstop puzzle

LAKELAND, Fla. -- While Jose Iglesias spent Tuesday meeting with another specialist, this time Dr. Thomas Clanton of the Steadman Clinic, his team continued the process of searching for his replacement.

For Iglesias it was another long day in what could be an equally long healing process. For the Tigers, by contrast, the days are getting short.

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In less than two weeks, the Tigers will open the regular season against the Royals at Comerica Park. And unless Brad Ausmus wants to become the first manager to use an infield shift for an entire game, somebody is going to have to be his starting shortstop.

It's a decision important enough that most of the other choices Ausmus has to make -- from his batting order to his bench spots -- will hinge on it. And yet the choices are murky enough that Ausmus, his coaching staff and the front office are likely to need the rest of Spring Training to decide it.

If choosing between three ace-caliber pitchers for an Opening Day starter was the decision any other manager would envy, this is the flip side. And unlike with that choice, Ausmus has little time to think it over and even less history to use to evaluate what he has.

Welcome to the manager's chair.

"We're in a little bit of a time crunch, because Spring Training's only so long," Ausmus said. "Now we're in a position where we know we have to find somebody to play shortstop. The previous two weeks, we were kind of optimistically hoping that Jose would be back."

It isn't any easier on the team's longtime general manager. While Ausmus and his staff spend the next couple of weeks watching the shortstops they have in camp, Dave Dombrowski will have his scouts and assistants scouring the rest of the league to see who is out there, who's better than what they have and whether one of them might be worth the cost to acquire.

It's not as easy as it sounds. For all the buzz that builds over potential spring trades, there's a reason why so few significant deals are made. Teams generally spend the offseason tailoring their rosters the way they want, and the depth they take into camp is usually for insurance against injuries.

For all the wheeling and dealing Dombrowski has made over the years, he has pulled few Spring Training deals. He signed free agent Johnny Damon early in camp in 2010, sent Nate Robertson to the Marlins at the end of that spring and brought in Josh Anderson from the Braves in 2009. Other than that the Tigers haven't done much in the spring during their run as a contending team.

If they do something in the next couple of weeks, it could be Dombrowski's best spring work to date.

"We will keep a pulse on what's going on outside the organization," Dombrowski said on Sunday. "But at this point, if we had to open internally, we're content there, and we'll just analyze the situation as it rolls on."

When Spring Training began and Iglesias was believed to be healthy, Ausmus had a two-pronged approach to a backup shortstop. For a one-game spell or a day-to-day injury, utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi would shift to short, a position he barely played as a pro until the past few weeks. If Iglesias had to go on the disabled list, they could call up prospects Hernan Perez or Eugenio Suarez, with longtime farmhand Danny Worth another option.

This, obviously, is beyond those scenarios, although the aforementioned three are still the candidates. As Ausmus alluded on Tuesday, now they have to find a fill-in not simply for weeks but potentially months. The job might be more than one player can handle.

"It has nothing to do with a platoon," Ausmus said. "It has to do with whether [one] guy could handle it full-time."

Of the three, Suarez is the least experienced, having never played a day above Double-A. Defensively, however, the 22-year-old Venezuelan is the most talented. He's a gifted athlete, and when his motivation and concentration are highest, he makes highlight-worthy plays. Even before Iglesias' injury, he came to camp looking to prove a point.

"I feel very good," Suarez said earlier this month. "I feel very comfortable, because this is an opportunity."

Defensively, some see him as Major League-ready. It's his offense, a streaky quantity even in the Minors, that is the question. He's 6-for-30 with a double and a triple this spring, and he hit .264 with a .744 OPS in the Minors last year. But with defense clearly the top priority for the Tigers at the position right now, he still has a case.

"I'm not really concerned whether he can handle it defensively. I think he could," Ausmus said. "My only concern would be, if he struggled offensively at the Major League level, would that affect his defense? I think in a perfect world, he'd probably be best to get more at-bats. But this is not a perfect world, and we're in a situation where we need to have a shortstop. As a result, he's in the mix."

Perez, another 22-year-old Venezuelan, is a second-base prospect, but he has more than held his own at shortstop on his way up the organizational ladder, including last April at Double-A Erie. He spent a month last summer helping fill in for Omar Infante in Detroit, then made the postseason roster as a bench player and pinch-runner. He ended last year in line to contend for the starting job at second until the Tigers traded Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler.

Perez's offense is based on doubles power and speed, but he probably provides the most potential of the three.

"He's a baseball player," Ausmus said. "He sees what's going on. He knows what's happening on the field. He's got a good idea. And he can handle the bat."

Worth is in the unusual role of being a veteran candidate who has never spent a full season on a big league roster, at one time optioned back and forth five times in one season. The 28-year-old has spent his entire career in the Tigers organization.

Worth spent the last few Spring Trainings as a utility infielder in waiting, blocked by Ramon Santiago. But just when he seemed in line to make the jump with Santiago a free agent, Lombardozzi's arrival in the Doug Fister trade essentially filled the spot.

When the Tigers removed Worth from the 40-man roster last fall, the sure-handed, strong-armed, reliable fielder seemed fated to be an organizational farmhand. This might be his chance to break out.

"We've liked him in the past," Dombrowski said. "He's been the last guy cut. He's played in the big leagues over two years, he can run a little bit, he's a smart player."

All three options are right-handed hitters, leaving open the possibility that Lombardozzi could start against a tough right-handed pitcher. For now, until and unless they show they can't handle the role, they're the first guys up. Ausmus and Dombrowski have two weeks to make that determination.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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