Detroit Tigers’ 2021 Opening Day roster prediction 3.0: Let the games begin

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Manager AJ Hinch penciled in his lineup for the Detroit Tigers‘ spring training opener, but he wouldn’t make it public until Sunday morning — just hours before Grapefruit League competition started at 1:05 p.m. against the Philadelphia Phillies at Joker Marchant Stadium.

Let the games begin.

Sunday’s opener only lasted seven innings, as will most of the early spring training games in the 29-game slate. Hinch hopes to play a nine-inning contest at least once before the team’s first off day on March 8.

“There’s a discussion going on between the two organizations as the schedule is being mapped out,” Hinch said. “We’ve touched base with each organization and know where they’re at. It’s always subject to change based on anything from COVID-19 to people being available.”

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The Tigers have a couple of key position battles, most notably at backup catcherand for spots in the back end of the rotation. Also, third baseman Isaac Paredes and first baseman Renato Nunez appear to be fighting for a single roster spot.

It’s unlikely both Paredes and Nunez make the team, and which player breaks camp will determine if Jeimer Candelario is used more at first or third base.

Hinch wants to get a solid grasp on these uncertainties — and decide if he will keep 13 or 14 pitches on the roster, thus locking in a five- or six-man rotation — by March 18, the team’s second and final off day of camp.

“I’m going to probably have some big meetings around that time with Al (Avila, general manager), the front office, coaches,” Hinch said, “and start to hone in on what we’re doing.”

HOW WE GOT HERE:

ROSTER 1.0: Lots of holes to plug still in the lineup

ROSTER 2.0: Tough decisions emerge for many positions

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

There is no competition here.

The Tigers brought in Ramos on a one-year, $2 million contract this winter, choosing him over ex-Tiger Alex Avila, the GM’s son. Hinch wanted a significant offensive boost, and he believes Ramos is a better defensive catcher than the metrics suggest.

The 33-year-old had 14 home runs and five homers with the New York Mets, in 2019 and 2020, respectively. In 2019, he chipped in a .288 batting average and 73 RBIs.

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Since the start of the 2019 season, Nunez has hit .247 with  43 homers and 121 RBIs in 203 games for the Baltimore Orioles. Stuck as the designated hitter, due to defensive struggles, he was released in November.

And, of course, the Tigers swooped in with a minor-league contract and an invitation to spring training.

“His ability to play first base is going to be key,” Hinch said. “We know he can hit the ball out of the park. We know he can impact a lineup. In a perfect world, they all play great, and I’m miserable the last night of spring training trying to figure out how to break camp.”

Making Nunez the first baseman should send Paredes to Triple-A Toledo, considering he doesn’t have the skills to fill a utility roleoff the bench.

One of the first things Schoop mentioned upon signing a one-year, $4.5 million deal was defensive versatility. This means second base (his primary position), shortstop and third base. It’s unlikely the Tigers use him at first base, which some saw as a potential fit.

Last season, the 29-year-old hit .278 with eight home runs and 23 RBIs in 44 games as the Tigers’ everyday second baseman. Schoop’s spring training status remains in limbo, as he did not report to camp on time because of travel issues. Still, he’ll have a roster spot, whenever he arrives.

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Two questions about Willi Castro that need to be answered: Can he improve defensively, and how does he hit over a full season?

Last year, Castro struggled with the glove, posting a minus-seven Defensive Runs Saved (a metric that attempts to measure how many runs a player has, or hasn’t, saved on defense). But he was excellent with the bat, boasting a .349 batting average in 36 games.

“We’ve got to make sure we don’t make him too mechanical,” Hinch said. “Defensively, he’s got the attributes to be an everyday shortstop and be consistent. We have to give him time and experience for him to develop that.”

Despite the small sample, the Tigers are guaranteeing the 23-year-old daily starts at shortstop until further notice — because they believe he is an up-the-middle player. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him shift to second base, especially if the franchise lands a big-ticket free agent at shortstop next winter.

OBSERVATIONS: Spencer Torkelson, deemed a third baseman, takes ground balls at first base

If Nunez makes the team, expect Candelario to return to his natural spot at third base. If Paredes earns a spot, though, the Tigers will need to move Candelario to first base more often.

Either way, Candelario is going to be in the lineup.

This year is important for him, too, as it should help Avila determine whether he is merely a short-term piece or a candidate for a contract extension, though he won’t be eligible for free agency until  after the 2024 season.

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Two new outfielders will roam the greens of Comerica Park alongside center fielder JaCoby Jones: Left fielder Robbie Grossman (two years, $10 million) and right fielder Nomar Mazara (one year, $1.75 million) both signed contracts this offseason.

Bank on Grossman and Jones as outfield locks. Mazara likely ends up in a platoon role with Victor Reyes, the team’s fourth outfielder, but he should have an early lead on playing time — just check his track record prior to 2020.

Reyes is worth keeping as a switch-hitter who can play all three outfield positions. He hit .304 in 2019 (69 games) and .277 in 2020 (57 games).

Yes, the veteran entering his 19th season will be the designated hitter more often than not.

Once or twice per week, Hinch plans to use him at first. That will allow Hinch to shuffle the infield and give other hitters a partial rest. Last year, Cabrera led the Tigers in home runs (10) and RBIs (35), but hit just .250.

“My plan for him is to make an opportunity for him to be a little more of a complete player, and not just fall in the DH category,” Hinch said. “Part of that is for Miguel … but part of it is also for the rest of the team.”

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Goodrum and Reyes shouldn’t have trouble making the roster, but the last two bench spots are wide open.

Four catchers are hoping to earn the backup job: Jake Rogers, Grayson Greiner, Dustin Garneau and Eric Haase. The Tigers need to know if Rogers, 25, is a viable major leaguer. Keeping him in Triple-A Toledo won’t provide an answer.

With the outfield packed with vets, it will be tough for the Tigers to keep Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo, as infield versatility may be more important in allowing for maximum lineup flexibility.

Greg Garcia, 31, is on a minor-league contract and pushing Harold Castro for the final bench spot.

“Really good at-bats,” Hinch said of Garcia. “That’s not always going to show up in the box score. Very consistent with his preparation, his approach. He can move around the field a little bit.”

“He’s going to challenge making our roster because of what he can do to help a team function. It’s not always about what numbers you put up. He’s a glue type of guy. It’s not only about numbers.”

The most notable conflict comes down to right-handers Teheran and Michael Fulmer. While Urena could eventually slide to the bullpen, the Tigers will take a chance on a bounce-back year.

Even with a six-man rotation, it will be difficult for both Teheran and Fulmer to make the roster unless the team goes with 14 pitches and sends one of the pair to the bullpen.

Teheran, a two-time All-Star, is trying to rebound from a miserable 2020, in which he finished with a 10.05 ERA, 20 strikeouts and 16 walks in 31⅓ innings. Similarly, Fulmer had an 8.78 ERA, 20 strikeouts and 12 walks in 27⅔ innings, though he was limited to three innings per start in his first season back from Tommy John surgery.

Mize and Skubal should be ready to finish their development in the majors after rough debuts in 2020.

Hinch wants his relievers to pitch multiple innings and thinks Farmer could pull that off exceptionally well. He isn’t ready to name a closer, but the top candidates seem to be Soto, Garcia and Jimenez. He views lefty Daniel Norris as a multi-tool weapon, considering his background as a starter.

Essentially, this is the same crew from last season.

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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