Detroit Tigers banking on infield flexibility, debating a move at catcher

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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Detroit Tigers infielders Jeimer Candelario and Willi Castro worked out together in early December at Fortuna Training Facility in Plant City, Florida, 15 miles away from the Tigers’ spring training hub in Lakeland.

Since then, they have gone their separate ways. But the pair of young, gritty infielders will reunite in about two months for spring training with a crucial request from new manager AJ Hinch to showcase their defensive versatility. This would give the Tigers flexibility — both on the field and when searching the free-agent and trade markets for upgrades.

“In talking to AJ, he likes flexibility,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said Friday. “Ideally, probably, third base might be the best thing for (Candelario). I think, also, the ability to play first base is good for him, too.”

MLB scouts project future for Tigers’ Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo ]

It’s no different than Spencer Torkelson, the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, managing third base and first base. Or Castro handling shortstop and second base. Also, Niko Goodrum can play anywhere in the infield and outfield.

“I played three years of college at first, so I was a 10 out of 10 there,” Torkelson said, grading himself in October. “At third base, I’m probably eight out of 10 right now, but I’m working hard to be 10 out of 10.”

This concept aided the squad last season, when first baseman C.J. Cron, now a free agent, went down with a season-ending knee injury in Game 14. That’s when Candelario switched from third base to first base. In his five-year MLB career, he has accumulated 258 games at third and 64 games at first — achieving a .967 fielding percentage at third and a .992 fielding percentage at the opposite corner spot.

[ How Jeimer Candelario went from a concern to carrying the Tigers ]

In November, Candelario said wherever he takes the field for Toros del Este in the Dominican Winter League will foreshadow his defensive future with the Tigers. Through three games, the 27-year-old is the team’s starting third baseman.

But Candelario’s position really comes down to what free agent moves the Tigers make — or don’t make — to fill out the roster. “Where Candy ends up playing, it’ll be determined by how it all finishes out in spring training,” Avila said.

Castro’s situation is similar, but he needs to develop his versatility. Last year, the Tigers had Jonathan Schoop at second base on a one-year contract. As Castro pounded the ball, finishing with a .349 batting average in 36 games, the Tigers made room for him as the everyday shortstop.

[ Tigers’ Willi Castro hasn’t heard if he will play shortstop in 2021 ]

Yet his defense, especially his accuracy, lacked. The 23-year-old made five errors in 85 chances at shortstop (.941 fielding percentage) and one error in 16 chances at third base (.938 fielding percentage). It seems Castro would be better suited at second base, where his arm strength and accuracy won’t be tested as much.

“That’s going to be determined by how he does,” Avila said. “Last year, he actually made some good strides defensively, and then he had a setback. Also, I think part of it was he had some arm difficulties. He had some pain.”

Castro went on the 10-day injured list with right shoulder soreness before the final game of the season. The pain lingered for two months. He recently departed from Lakeland and will continue the rehabilitation process at home.

[ Tigers’ Willi Castro misses cut for AL Rookie of Year finalist ]

“But he’s been in Lakeland working on the arm and strengthening himself,” Avila said. “I think he’ll be much better defensively as we move forward.”

Jake Rogers or free agent?

There’s a distinct order of importance for the Tigers this offseason: Starting pitcher (or two), impact bat, catcher, middle infielder and first baseman. If Avila signs two starting pitchers and an impact bat, such as a corner outfielder, he might not want to spend the cash needed for a starting catcher.

“There’s a possibility we can bring in a catcher,” Avila said. “But, again, I couldn’t tell you right now where we’re at with that. But that is a possibility.”

The team isn’t projected to make the playoffs, so the Tigers might allow their three internal candidates — Jake Rogers, Grayson Greiner and Eric Haase — to split opportunities and avoid purchasing an upgrade. Plus, they would finally learn if Rogers is MLB-ready.

The Tigers have given Greiner 106 games to prove he can hit at the major-league level. He owns a career .194 batting average with eight homers and 39 RBIs. Haase has 26 games across three seasons (two with the Cleveland Indians); his batting average is .122 with one homer and six RBIs.

Rogers was acquired from the Houston Astros in the 2017 Justin Verlander trade. He is the Tigers’ No. 12 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. The 25-year-old debuted in 2019, hitting .125 (14-for-112) with four home runs and eight RBIs in 35 games.

He didn’t return to the majors in 2020.

“Just because we didn’t bring him up for the last two or three weeks doesn’t mean anything to me,” Avila said in October. “Because, those at-bats, he could have gone 0-for-20 or hit .400. Those at-bats were not going to determine what he’s going to do at this point.”

[ Tigers GM believes in prospects from Justin Verlander trade ]

Of the three catchers on the 40-man roster, Rogers is the best defensively. Hinch is set on transforming his offensive approach, and Avila seems to be holding out in case he produces. If he doesn’t, it won’t be long before Dillon Dingler — a 2020 second-round pick and already the organization’s No. 8 prospect — gets his opportunity.

“We are happy with the defense, but we’d like to have an upgrade on the offensive side,” Avila said. “And we’re hopeful Jake is that guy. … I think he’ll have a chance to make the team out of spring training.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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