Detroit Tigers spring training: 10 story lines to watch, including first base and rotation

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press

Despite COVID-19 concerns, the Detroit Tigers are returning to Lakeland, Florida, for spring training. It’s the unofficial start of the 2021 season and the beginning of new manager AJ Hinch’s era.

Pitchers and catchers report Wednesday, followed by the first full-team workout Feb. 22. The Tigers will play Grapefruit League games, along with intrasquad contests, starting with a matchup in Lakeland against the Phillies on Feb. 28..

For home games, the Tigers plan to allow 2,000 fans (20% of capacity) at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland. For those in attendance, there will be pods of two and four seats. Face coverings are required.

Opening Day is set for 1:10 p.m. April 1 against Cleveland at Comerica Park.

FREE AGENTS: Tigers are likely done in free agency. Here’s how their signings impact the rebuild

PREDICTIONS FOR 2021: Miguel Cabrera, prospect debuts and clarity on future

Here are 10 story lines to follow as the Tigers begin camp in Lakeland.

1. Finding a first baseman

The Tigers have five realistic options: Miguel Cabrera, Jeimer Candelario, Niko Goodrum, Jonathan Schoop and Renato Nunez. But none of them are locks for the full-time job. Cabrera’s health is a concern, Candelario is better suited at third base, Goodrum is slated to be a utility player and Schoop has never played the position. Nunez signed a minor-league deal Wednesday and has the power bat — 31 homers in 2019 for the Baltimore Orioles — to crack the big-league roster, but he needs to cut down his strikeouts.

A lover of versatility, Hinch could be left with a revolving door of first basemen this season.

[ Jonathan Schoop will do anything to ‘prove myself’ in 2021 season. Even play 1B ]

2. Developing the prospects

Four of the Tigers’ top prospects made their debuts last season: right-hander Casey Mize, lefty Tarik Skubal, third baseman Isaac Paredes and outfielder Daz Cameron. This year, expect to see right-hander Matt Manning, righty Franklin Perez and, possibly later in the season, esteemed outfielder Riley Greene. The Tigers hope to give catcher Jake Rogers — who hit .125 across 35 big-league games in 2019 — another chance in the majors. For the franchise to escape the rebuild and get back into postseason contention, these prospects need to demonstrate long-term sustainability. Mize and Skubal must improve from their rough MLB introductions last season. As for Spencer Torkelson, the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, he should get his MLB opportunity in 2022.

Torkelson, Greene, catcher Dillon Dingler, second baseman Kody Clemens and right-hander Zack Hess are the most notable prospects who earned non-roster invites to spring training.

[ Jake Rogers has plan to work with AJ Hinch in spring: ‘I hope he gets on me’ ]

3. Welcome to the Tigers

Joining Hinch on the new coaching staff: bench coach George Lombard, hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh, assistant hitting coach Jose Cruz, pitching coach Chris Fetter, assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves, first base coach Ramon Santiago, third base coach Chip Hale and quality control coach Josh Paul.

The new wave of leadership aims to spark development and set the standards for a winning culture. Still, Zoom calls and emails can only do so much. It will be interesting to find out how Hinch and his coaching staff operate throughout spring training, considering they’ll have face-to-face interaction with their players.

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SEIDEL: What I learned about the Tigers: AJ Hinch not just an analytics manager

4. Getting the pitching right (five- or six-man style)

This is Hinch’s mantra. Without a solid rotation, he knows, the rebuild can’t take off. That’s why he brought in the 35-year-old Fetter to provide a healthy blend of new- and old-school teachings. Analytics are his specialty, but Fetter is confident in his ability to connect personally with his pitching staff.

Hinch and Fetter have tossed around the idea of using a six-man rotation to help with the expected innings limits this year. This situation could pull left-handers Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander from the bullpen or include a player on a minor-league deal until Manning arrives from Triple-A Toledo.

[ Why Daniel Norris believes pitching coach Chris Fetter ‘beyond incredible’ ]

5. Paredes’ home

Paredes has little to prove in the minors, considering he has hit well at each level so far. He picked up a 10-game hitting streak and had a .220 batting average across 34 big-league games in his debut season in 2020. The next step is establishing his major-league status. The 21-year-old can already play third base, but if the Tigers move Candelario back, Paredes’ development faces a roadblock. That’s why Hinch wants to test him at second base. It’s unclear if Paredes has the necessary’range and quickness needed to make the transition.

6. Cabrera’s health

It’s unrealistic to ask the 37-year-old to win another American League MVP award, but for the Tigers to be successful, he must show glimpses of his greatness. Despite a .250 batting average, he led the team with 10 homers and 35 RBIs last season. Getting back to .300, finding consistent gap-to-gap power, limiting strikeouts and staying healthy need to be Cabrera’s top priorities this year. He remains under contract with the Tigers through the 2023 season.

Hinch wants to use him at first base, and Cabrera is eager to return to the infield for the first time since June 26, 2019. Yet Cabrera’s health will ultimately determine how often he ditches the DH tag.

[ Miguel Cabrera trains at first base after spending 2020 as full-time DH ]

7. Find the closer

The Tigers went into 2020 with Joe Jimenez as the closer, and they concluded the campaign with Bryan Garcia in the role. With a new regime, that status quo isn’t guaranteed. Still, the team has plenty of options: Garcia, Jimenez, Gregory Soto, Buck Farmer, Jose Cisnero and Norris. If right-hander Jose Urena — after signing for one year, $3.25 million this winter — isn’t impactful as a starter, he could transition to this role.

“I’m not afraid of the designated closer role, but someone’s got to earn it,” Hinch said Jan. 26. “I think there’s going to be a competition for any of these leverage innings. We often build the appeal from the back. The ninth inning is a super-sexy role that everybody covets, but you have to do a lot to get there in the sixth, the seventh and the eighth.”

8. Position battles

Other than the uncertainty at first base, the Tigers seem set with their infield and outfield. The bench spots, however, are undefined. Pencil Goodrum in for one of those openings, along with whoever loses out on the starting job in right field (Victor Reyes or Nomar Mazara). But the other two spots need competition. Utility player Harold Castro, a left-handed bat, doesn’t get talked about much but should be considered a frontrunner.

“I’m very open to any configuration for us to handle right-handed pitching better,” Hinch said. “If that includes Harold Castro, then he’s going to nudge his way into the lineup more. He’s had success at the plate, puts up a pretty tough at-bat and has gotten his fair share of hits. All things that I’ve noticed.”

Other outfielders searching for jobs are Cameron, Christin Stewart, Derek Hill and Akil Baddoo (Rule 5 pick).

At catcher, Rogers will vie for the backup role, as will Grayson Greiner, Dustin Garneau and Eric Haase. If Rogers displays mental toughness, especially with an improved approach at the plate, he should find himself on the roster.

[ Why Christin Stewart is inspired by Willie Horton amid uncertain future ]

9. Any minor-league surprises?

The Tigers signed five MLB free agents this offseason: Urena, Schoop, Mazara outfielder Robbie Grossman and catcher Wilson Ramos. So far, they have added six on minor-league deals with invitations to spring training: Nunez, Garneau, infielder Greg Garcia, left-hander Derek Holland, right-hander Erasmo Ramirez and lefty Ian Krol.

Of this group, Nunez, Holland and Garneau have the best chances to break camp with the Tigers. Holland, 34, has 12 years in the majors, logging a career 4.61 ERA in 307 games. He is expected to pitch out of the bullpen moving forward.

If Rogers isn’t ready to be the backup catcher, Garneau could easily edge Greiner and Haase for the job. The 33-year-old owns a career .202 batting average in 140 games across parts of six seasons.

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

Nunez, 26, might be the steal of the offseason, as the Tigers picked him up on a minor-league deal. He racked up 43 homers and 121 RBIs in 203 games, to go with a .247 batting average, over the 2019 and 2020 seasons. He is under team control through 2024.

10. Opening Day predictions

Lineup: Robbie Grossman (LF), Jonathan Schoop (2B), Miguel Cabrera (DH), Jeimer Candelario (1B), Willi Castro (SS), Wilson Ramos (C), Isaac Paredes (3B), Victor Reyes (RF), JaCoby Jones (CF).

Bench: Niko Goodrum (UTIL), Harold Castro (UTIL), Jake Rogers (C), Nomar Mazara (OF).

Starting rotation: Spencer Turnbull (RHP), Tarik Skubal (LHP), Casey Mize (RHP), Jose Urena (RHP), Matthew Boyd (LHP).

Bullpen: Bryan Garcia (closer, RHP), Buck Farmer (set-up, RHP), Gregory Soto (LHP), Jose Cisnero (RHP), Joe Jimenez (RHP), Daniel Norris (LHP), Tyler Alexander (LHP), Drew Carlton (RHP).

SPRING TRAINING: AJ Hinch breaks down position battles, closer, prospects

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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