Detroit Tigers’ 2021 Opening Day roster prediction 2.0: Tough decisions emerge

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to the Detroit Tigers‘ spring training facility in Lakeland, Florida, in a little more than a month. 

All signs point to players arriving Feb. 17 and spring training starting on time. The first full-team workout is Feb. 22. Four days later, the Tigers hold an exhibition before a 34-game Grapefruit League slate begins.

Still, there’s plenty for new manager AJ Hinch and general manager Al Avila to iron out before the organization creates its 26-man roster for Opening Day, April 1 against the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park.

TRENDING: Predictions for 2021 Tigers: Cabrera, prospect debuts and clarity on future

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The Tigers plugged holes at first base, second base and catcher in 2020. But with the franchise targeting 2022 for a playoff push, it needs clarity on the development of players, especially after last season’s shortened schedule.

As spring training approaches, here’s a look at how the Tigers should fill their 2021 Opening Day roster:

[ Detroit Tigers’ 2021 Opening Day prediction 1.0: Lots of holes to plug still ]

Catcher: Jake Rogers

Four catchers are ready to compete for the starting and backup jobs in spring training: Jake Rogers, Grayson GreinerDustin Garneau and Eric Haase. As the market freeze continues, the Tigers’ willingness to keep what they have seems to increase.

[ How AJ Hinch plans to rewrite the story on prospect Jake Rogers ]

So far, the only notable free-agent catcher to sign is James McCann (four-year, $40.6 million to New York Mets). J.T. Realmuto will set the value for other players — such as Jason Castro and Alex Avila — but isn’t close to finding a home.

Rogers, 25, hit .125 with four home runs and eight RBIs in 35 games in 2019 and hasn’t returned to the majors. He is the Tigers’ No. 12 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, and had a .250 batting average with 14 homers between Double-A Erie (28 games) and Triple-A Toledo (48 games) before his call-up. At some point, the Tigers need to figure out what Rogers’ role will be.

First base: Jeimer Candelario

The Tigers don’t need a first baseman. Hinch wants to use Miguel Cabrera in the field with limitations, and he has Jeimer Candelario, who played 43 of his 52 games last season at first base.

That should be enough to hold the Tigers over in 2021, with utility man Harold Castro as an occasional substitute. More importantly, it opens third base for Isaac Paredes and — maybe in September — No. 1 prospect Spencer Torkelson. By avoiding another one-year signing and making Candelario the full-time first baseman, the organization gets to shuffle the lineup and experiment.

While Candelario, 27, is a better third baseman, he has already proven he can play both. Moving forward, he will be valued by his bat, which delivered a .297 average, seven home runs and 29 RBIs in 2020.

[ Why Detroit Tigers’ Jeimer Candelario found his swing in August ]

Second base: Free agent

Willi Castro will be the everyday shortstop, leaving Niko Goodrum at second base. Goodrum, 28, is a Gold Glove-caliber defender, but his offense (.184 batting average in 43 games last year) is unreliable. That’s why the Tigers are more likely to sign a free agent at this position rather than catcher and first base. The organization hopes Paredes moves to second base by 2022, depending on how the 21-year-old’s body adjusts. And if Castro doesn’t work defensively at shortstop, he is a top candidate for second base.

[ Detroit Tigers GM Al Avila gives free agency update, considering six-man rotation ]

These unknowns — Goodrum’s bat, Paredes’ fitness and Castro’s defense — won’t be answered until late in 2021. Another short-term signing at second base will allow the Tigers to make conclusions without rushing. Potential free agents include Cesar Hernandez, Jonathan Schoop, Enrique Hernandez, Marwin Gonzalez and Joe Panik. A minor-league deal to Jonathan Villar or Jason Kipnis could work too.

Shortstop: Willi Castro

Based on Avila’s recent comments, Castro is going to be the Opening Day shortstop. The switch-hitter finished fourth in 2020 American League Rookie of the Year voting, hitting .349 with six home runs and 24 RBIs in 36 games. His only blemish was minus-7 defensive runs saved at shortstop, but the Tigers think he can improve.

The 23-year-old finished the season on the injured list with right shoulder soreness. He spent a portion of his offseason rehabbing but is focused on cleaning up his defensive mechanics as spring training looms.

[ Here’s where Detroit Tigers’ Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene may start 2021 ]

He won’t maintain his batting average from last season, yet if he can be a steady hitter near the middle of the order, the Tigers will keep him in the field. And even if shortstop doesn’t work out, he knows how to play second base, third base and the outfield.

Third base: Isaac Paredes

When last season ended, Paredes seemed destined for a Triple-A Toledo assignment to begin 2021. He put together a 10-game hitting streak but totaled a .220 batting average in 34 games. Then he won the batting title (.379) in the Mexican Pacific Winter League and reinforced his advanced plate discipline with 27 walks and 12 strikeouts.

[ Why the Detroit Tigers like the work Isaac Paredes is doing in Mexican winter league ]

If that success carries into the spring, the Tigers may determine they’ve seen enough to make Paredes their everyday third baseman. The team’s No. 6 prospect has promise entering his sophomore season.

By signing a free-agent first baseman, however, this plan won’t work, as Candelario would dominate the playing time. For the organization to get a full assessment of both, Candelario at first base and Paredes at third base in 2021 works best.

Keep in mind, the Tigers won’t hand the Opening Day job to Torkelson. He should begin with High-A West Michigan.

Outfield: Robbie Grossman (LF), JaCoby Jones (CF), Victor Reyes (RF)

The Tigers signed Robbie Grossman to a two-year, $10 million contract, so they won’t make further additions in the outfield. The 31-year-old is a lock to take over one of the corner positions, most likely left field, while Victor Reyes, 26, fills the other. 

JaCoby Jones suffered a season-ending broken left hand in early September but is healthy again. The 28-year-old will start in center field. Jones finished with a .268 batting average, five home runs and 14 RBIs in 30 games last year. 

[ Tigers’ JaCoby Jones wants ‘to make pitchers pay’ after latest hand fracture ]

Although No. 7 prospect Daz Cameron made his MLB debut in 2020, he hit .193 with two walks and 19 strikeouts in 17 games. This winter, he played two games in the Puerto Rican Winter League — going 0-for-7 with four strikeouts — before a right arm injury forced his early return to the U.S.

But Cameron is going to return to the majors at some point. Not far behind him is Riley Greene (No. 4 prospect). That means Reyes is at the highest risk of losing his job. If he struggles, it won’t be long before Cameron ascends.

Designated hitter: Miguel Cabrera

As much as Hinch wants to get Cabrera reps at first base, the 37-year-old is the primary designated hitter. The former two-time MVP has three seasons remaining on his contract, and the Tigers want to get the most out of him. They don’t want to risk injury in the field if they don’t have to.

Last season, Cabrera went 51-for-204 (.250) and led the team with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs in 57 games. 

Bench: Niko Goodrum, Harold Castro, Akil Baddoo, Dustin Garneau

The days of Christin Stewart — who owns a .225 batting average, 15 home runs and 146 strikeouts in 157 games across three seasons — might be over. The competition for the fourth outfield spot should come down to Stewart, Cameron and Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo.

[ Why Christin Stewart’s struggles with Detroit Tigers is a sign of a bigger problem ]

If the Tigers don’t carry Baddoo on the active roster for the entire season, they have to offer him back to the Minnesota Twins. Keeping him nearly eliminates the likelihood of Stewart’s presence. For now, Cameron could use more time in the minors.

Goodrum and Castro can play infield and outfield positions, giving the Tigers more flexibility to keep Baddoo, the team’s No. 25 prospect, on the roster. Meanwhile, Garneau and Griener will duel in spring training for the backup catcher job, assuming Rogers is the starter.

[ Detroit Tigers catcher Dustin Garneau preparing for any role he can get in the majors ]

Starting rotation: Spencer Turnbull, Matthew Boyd, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Jose Urena

Bank on the Tigers adding another pitcher for eight possible starters: right-handers Spencer Turnbull, Casey Mize, Jose Urena, Michael Fulmer and Matt Manning, lefties Matthew Boyd and Tarik Skubal and a newcomer from free agency.

With help from long-relievers Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander, the team should have more than enough to survive the inning limits. Boyd and Turnbull will return to their 2019 innings and build up, but the younger pitchers — and Fulmer (in his second year back from elbow surgery) — aren’t guaranteed to pitch a full season.

That’s why the Tigers added Urena on a one-year, $3.25 million contract. The 29-year-old faced injury troubles in the last two seasons for the Miami Marlins, but he can eat innings when healthy. He pitched to a 3.90 ERA in 343⅔ innings across 65 games (59 starts) in the 2017 and 2018 seasons. 

[ Detroit Tigers sign Jose Urena, but their short-term pitching plan hasn’t worked recently ]

Another starter will help, but the Tigers might wait until the spring to make a move. Potential free agents include Taijuan Walker, Jon Lester, J.A. Happ, Rick Porcello, Carlos Rodon, Garrett Richards, Julio Teheran and Corey Kluber.

Bullpen: Bryan Garcia (closer), Buck Farmer (setup), Jose Cisnero, Gregory Soto, Joe Jimenez, Daniel Norris, Tyler Alexander, Drew Carlton

There’s plenty of upside in the Tigers’ bullpen, despite a 4.94 ERA in 2020. Right-hander Bryan Garcia and hard-throwing lefty Gregory Soto, both 25 years old, are on the brink of breakthroughs. Buck Farmer has been reliable for the last two seasons, and Norris and Alexander are solid in long-relief roles.

[ How the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen will change under AJ Hinch ]

Right-hander Joe Jimenez, once the closer of the future, spiraled downward in 2020 with a 7.15 ERA. In four seasons, he hasn’t registered better than a 4.31 ERA, so the 26-year-old will be on a tight leash until he rewrites the narrative.

The dark horse for the final spot in the bullpen is right-hander Drew Carlton. The 25-year-old isn’t flashy and won’t overpower his opponents, but his control and command are dominant. In the minors, he had a 1.08 ERA in 2017, 2.26 ERA in 2018 and 1.46 ERA in 2019. Carlton logged a 0.63 ERA, 0.698 WHIP, 11 strikeouts and one walk in 14⅓ innings this winter in the Dominican Winter League.

[ Detroit Tigers’ Drew Carlton ‘keeps having success’ as MLB journey stops in Dominican Republic ]

Righties Kyle Funkhouser and Beau Burrows — both debuting last year — should find their way back to the majors at some point, as will right-hander John Schreiber, who has a 6.28 ERA in 28⅔ innings across two seasons.

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

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