Detroit Tigers spring training: These six players have the most to prove in Lakeland

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Spring training is officially underway.

Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch hasn’t given his best speech yet, one that brings together the team amid position battles and sets a new tone for the organization.

“I tried to save some of my best material for the whole group,” Hinch said Wednesday, the first day of pitcher-catcher workouts.

The first full-squad workout is Monday, followed by a 29-game Grapefruit League slate, beginning Feb. 28 at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland. Then, it’s Opening Day on April 1 at Comerica Park in Detroit.

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Miguel Cabrera, Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro and a few other position players arrived at camp Saturday, two days before they were required to report.

“Everybody has to do their part to contribute,” Hinch said Saturday. “There’s going to be conflict, there’s going to be people vying for the same position. In the clubhouse, behind the scenes, we all work for the Tigers, and we’re all on the same team.”

Here are six Tigers — and one honorable mention — who have the most to prove in spring training.

Age: 27.

MLB experience: 3 years.

2020 stats: 36 G, .167 AVG, 3 HR, 9 RBI, 5 BB, 30 SO, .224 OBP, .300 SLG.

The buzz: Even if Stewart is lights out this spring, he most likely won’t make the roster, especially with the Tigers adding a fourth outfielder in Nomar Mazara to complement Robbie Grossman, JaCoby Jones and Victor Reyes. Still, this is a crucial camp. Anything equal to or worse than what he showed last season will drop him further on the organizational depth chart. Expect him to start in Triple-A Toledo, but with a solid spring training, the Tigers could be more willing to pull him back to the majors. The next MLB opportunity, if it doesn’t go well, could be his last.

Age: 25.

MLB experience: 1 year.

2020 stats: N/A.

The buzz: The Tigers are asking Rogers to continue making defense his No. 1 priority, but to get back to the majors and stick around, he needs to battle at the plate. Acquired in the 2017 Justin Verlander trade, Rogers played 35 MLB games in 2019, only hitting .125 with four homers and eight RBIs. He hasn’t returned since. Is Rogers better suited for a starting job in Triple-A Toledo or a backup role in the majors? The answer will be determined by his swing — and his defense — this spring. And if he doesn’t break camp on the roster, a strong showing in camp will put him first in line for a call-up if the backup (Grayson Greiner or Dustin Garneau) struggles.

Age: 27.

MLB experience: 4 years.

2020 stats: 10 GS, 0-2, 8.78 ERA, 27⅔ IP, 20 SO, 12 BB, 2.060 WHIP.

The buzz: Fulmer isn’t an absolute lock to make the roster, but he shouldn’t have a problem squeezing in if he stays healthy and boosts his pitch count. His the on-the-field results from his first year after Tommy John surgery was abysmal but Fulmer had to rehab in MLB, with the minors canceled, and didn’t miss any of his 10 starts. This offseason, he added strength in the lower half of his body to get his velocity back. Don’t bet on him rediscovering his 2016 AL Rookie of the Year fastball, but if he excels in pitch selection and location, he could have success again.

Age: 26.

MLB experience: 5 years.

2020 stats: 52 G, .256 AVG, 12 HR, 31 RBI, 17 BB, 64 SO, .324 OBP, .492 SLG.

The buzz: If Nunez had these same results for the Tigers last year, he would have finished first in home runs (ahead of Cabrera’s 10) and second in RBIs (second to Cabrera’s 35). However, he also would have been second-worst in strikeouts, with only five fewer than Niko Goodrum. He also needs to be solid defensively as a first baseman or else and if he’s not, it will be easier to send him to the minors. And if 22-year-old Isaac Paredes makes the team at third base, sliding Candelario to first, it would block another avenue for Nunez.

Age: 22.

MLB experience: N/A.

2020 stats: N/A.

The buzz: The Rule 5 draft pick is always a tough decision. The Tigers managed to keep their picks from 2017 (Victor Reyes) and 2019 (Rony Garcia) by employing them on the big-league roster for the entire season. They face the same dilemma with Baddoo, who hasn’t played above High-A. GM Al Avila called him a “true center fielder” with pop in his bat. Yet the grind of a 162-game season could wear him down, even if he is the least-used bench player. His goal this spring is to prove his value as a defender, baserunner and contact hitter. There’s a lot to like about Baddoo’s long-term potential, but it won’t be simple to keep him around in 2021.

Age: 27.

MLB experience: 3 years.

2020 stats: 22 G, .347 AVG, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 5 BB, 11 SO, .407 OBP, .429 SLG.

The buzz: Castro does a lot of things without getting much recognition. Of course, he has a .298 batting average in 125 games across parts of three seasons. Then, factor in his experience at second base (38 games), center field (32), left field (14), third base (14), right field (11), shortstop (eight) and first base (three). And don’t forget he is a career .314 hitter — with all five of his homers — against right-handed pitching. This winter, Hinch stressed improving against righties, and utilizing Castro off the bench helps him do so. If the Tigers keep Baddoo, it will be tough for Castro to make the team. But if they cut Baddoo, thus offering him back to the Minnesota Twins, it will be interesting to watch how the organization puts together the final pieces of roster.

Honorable mention: Franklin Perez, RHP

The buzz: This year’s camp won’t make or break the 23-year-old Perez unless he gets injured again. He stayed healthy through 2020’s shutdown, pitching at the alternate training site. Now he needs competitive innings. He will probably start the season at Triple-A Toledo. But a solid spring could make him a candidate for a call-up late in 2021 or early in 2022. It will be interesting to see if he will be a starter or reliever.

Hinch said Perez made it to the facility Saturday after a non-injury delay. He is not yet a full participant in camp.

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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