Detroit Tigers’ Jeimer Candelario still unsure about his position. Here’s why

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Back in November, Detroit Tigers infielder Jeimer Candelario said he didn’t have a clue where he would play defensively in 2021. Two months later — with less than a month until spring training —he still doesn’t know.

Candelario, who turns 28 Sunday, isn’t concerned as long as his bat is in the lineup. The positional uncertainty, however, seems to stem from the free-agent market.

“We haven’t talked about what position I’m going to play, where I’m going to be,” said Candelario on Thursday night on WXYT-FM (97.1) about his conversations with new manager AJ Hinch. “I played winter ball at third base, and I will be able to help the team win, no matter if I’m playing third base or first base.”

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Entering 2020, few were worried about Candelario’s glove. His bat was the big issue, after a .203 average in 94 games in 2019. Still, he was a third baseman to the core, despite spending 20 of those 94 games at first base. 

That all changed Aug. 10, when first baseman C.J. Cron sustained a knee injury requiring season-ending surgery. As a result, Candelario finished the 2020 season with 43 games at first base, allowing prospect Isaac Paredes to make his debut at third base.

This year, there is a new dilemma hindering Candelario from getting a clear answer. Hinch loves versatility and wants to get designated hitter Miguel Cabrera reps at first base. Paredes is coming off a batting title — hitting .379 — in the Mexican Pacific Winter League. Even if the 21-year-old starts in Triple-A Toledo, it likely won’t be long before he forces a return to the majors.

“Ideally, probably, third base might be the best thing for him,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said of Candelario’s future on Dec. 11. “But, I think also, the ability to play first base is good for him. Where Candy ends up playing, it’ll be determined by how it all finishes out in spring training.”

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What further impacts Candelario is that the Tigers are actively seeking a left-handed bat, likely at first base or catcher, in free agency.

“We were 30th in the league against right-handed pitching,” Hinch said Sunday on MLB Network Radio. “We have to do better. We have a lot of switch-hitters, (and) Robbie Grossman will help. There’s probably an opportunity to go out and get another hitter who hits right-handed pitching, either in the field or behind the plate.”

The Tigers are interested in Mitch Moreland. He is a first baseman and designated hitter who crushed 111 homers in 685 games across the last six seasons. Fellow free agent Marwin Gonzalez, a switch-hitting super-utilityman with first base experience, logged 84 homers in 707 games during the same period. Re-signing Cron, a right-handed bat, remains an option.

Another left-handed possibility, albeit not at first base, is former Tigers catcher Alex Avila. Sure, Avila isn’t an offense-first player, but he is a career .240 hitter against righties, provides occasional pop and would fit into a platoon role to aid prospect Jake Rogers‘ development.

On Thursday, catcher Jason Castro — a left-handed hitter and Tigers target — signed a two-year contract with the Houston Astros. The Tigers’ starting catcher last year, Austin Romine, is not being considered for a reunion.

Plenty needs to unfold before Candelario knows where he will play, and it might take until spring training to get clarity. But, again, he isn’t too worried. He will find a home in the infield if his presence in the batter’s box resembles 2020.

He won Tiger of the Year by hitting .297 with 11 doubles, three triples, seven home runs and 29 RBIs in 52 games, with 20 walks and 49 strikeouts.

[ How Detroit Tigers’ Jeimer Candelario plans to build on breakthrough 2020 season ]

His secret?

“Not moving my body too much,” Candelario said. “When I move too much, I could not see the ball the right way. In the big leagues, they throw you any pitch in any count. If you want to be consistent, you don’t want to make too much movement. You want to have time to see the ball.”

Candelario played for Toros del Este in the Dominican Winter League this offseason, hitting .190 with three doubles and four RBIs in 11 regular-season games. He walked four times and had seven strikeouts.

Defensively, he was the team’s primary third baseman.

“If you put the bat there, you’re going to be great, but you have to play defense,” Candelario said. “I put myself in a great position working really hard with (first base coach) Ramon Santiago, really working on my first step (and) putting in a lot of early work.

“I put in a lot of effort. I want to be better defensively but also offensively, and I want to help the team win no matter what spot.”

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

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