Hinch puts premium on Tigers’ versatility

Detroit Tigers

LAKELAND, Fla. — Don Kelly last played for the Tigers in 2014. Andrew Romine played all nine positions for Detroit four years ago. The spirit of their versatility appears to be alive and well under new manager A.J. Hinch.

While the Tigers took live batting practice on the workout fields behind Joker Marchant Stadium on Thursday morning, coaches Chip Hale and Ramon Santiago took infielders onto a half-field nearby and had them work on ground balls and throws. Among them was Niko Goodrum, last year’s starting shortstop, fielding throws in the dirt at first base.

“We had almost everybody in camp work out at first base today,” Hinch said, “so that should tell you exactly my thought process on making everybody an option.”

If it wasn’t already clear this offseason that Hinch is putting a premium on versatility, and trying to make sure a lot of players have a secondary position, it’s getting there.

As Hinch tries to improve a struggling offense, he’s hoping to build flexibility so that hitters who are blocked at one position have another spot where they can play. He’s also hoping to increase options late in games to pinch-hit, pinch-run, do whatever could help them win a game. Lastly, he’s hoping to give himself protection in case of injuries with a limited bench while also carrying enough pitchers to cover innings in a transition from last year’s 60-game season to a full 162-game slate this year.

Detroit’s bench is likely to be a big reflection of that, starting with Goodrum.

“At some point, I would guess that Niko is probably going to play every position but pitcher or catcher,” Hinch said. “That would not shock me. Maybe not this spring, but I just know how baseball seasons last. And if he’s healthy, he’s an option every time I have a gap to fill.”

Sounds extreme, but Goodrum has actually done this for his Major League career. He has at least six starts at every defensive position but catcher and pitcher, and he has made five starts at DH. Goodrum had put some of those gloves away last year when he became the starting shortstop to begin the season, but he received a new shipment this spring.

When Hinch compares Goodrum’s potential role to that of Marwin Gonzalez, whom he managed in Houston, that’s the versatility to which he refers. Add in the switch-hitting bat, and Goodrum is a potentially big asset.

“We’ll see what [Hinch] wants to do,” Goodrum said earlier this week. “I’m just here to try to win a championship from the jump. People talk about ‘a few years.’ I’m trying to win. That’s the bottom line for me.”

Likewise, Castro’s 125 Major League games — all in Detroit — include at least three starts everywhere but pitcher and catcher. His left-handed hitting has Hinch pondering the possibility of using him and Goodrum as a dynamic duo to protect every spot from the bench. Garcia doesn’t have quite that track record yet, but expect him to work on it this spring.

The same type of role could eventually present an opportunity for Short, who joined the Tigers’ organization last summer from the Cubs in the Cameron Maybin trade. Short has primarily been a shortstop for his pro career, but he has seen time at second and third.

The versatility kick has become so well-known, even Jonathan Schoop mentioned it when he re-signed Feb. 5, though he’ll likely be an insurance option at best at third in addition to his starting role at second.

How much outfield time some of these players see this spring could say a lot about Hinch’s plans going into the season. If the Tigers decide to carry Rule 5 Draft pick Akil Baddoo, the former Twins prospect would most likely be a fifth outfielder with no infield capabilities. He could head north at the expense of a second utility player, but it would be a challenge.

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