Detroit Tigers’ Nomar Mazara focuses on future, explains what went wrong for him last year

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
 
| Detroit Free Press

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LAKELAND, Fla. — There were plenty of options for Nomar Mazara, a 25-year-old outfielder seeking a bounce-back season, in free agency this winter. But the first team to reach out to him — the Detroit Tigers — caught his eye, and he later signed a one-year, $1.75 million contract.

He was non-tendered by the Chicago White Sox in December, putting him on the open market. From 2016-19, Mazara’s first four seasons in the majors, he solidified the persona of a 20-plus home-run hitter from the left side of the plate.

His production wasn’t the same in the 2020 season.

“It was probably the first year I felt nothing was working for me,” Mazara said Friday. “I was just trying to get going. Baseball is crazy. If it would have been a long season, I would have been like, ‘OK, let me work on this. I’ve got time.’

“But it was on my mind. I was like, ‘There’s no time. I’ve got to get it right now.’ And when I got it right, probably the last five games of the season and the playoffs, it was too late.”

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What went wrong

The harsh reality of a 60-game season — where there wasn’t enough time to make complicated swing changes — made the numbers for every player, good or bad, seem quite exaggerated. For example, the Tigers need to see more of Willi Castro and Jeimer Candelario, two recent standouts, before assessing their long-term value.

Mazara finished the year with a .228 batting average, one home run and 15 RBIs in 42 games.

He missed about two weeks early in the season because he had strep throat, and the White Sox made him go through the COVID-19 protocol process and quarantine.

“I was just sitting at home watching TV,” Mazara said. “I couldn’t do anything — no working out, no hitting. At the end of the day, that affected me. … That’s in the past now. I’m in a good position and my swing feels really, really good. I’m where I’m supposed to be.”

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From 2016-19, for the Texas Rangers, Mazara combined to hit .261 with 79 homers and 308 RBIs. He had 19-plus homers in each of those four campaigns. He finished fifth in 2016 American League Rookie of the Year voting.

“The more that we can give him at-bats with a more narrowed focus on getting the ball in the air, the better,” Hinch said Tuesday. “And we’ll see. When you get the ball in the air, your exit velocity goes up … and the ball can carry, especially when you have the strength he has.”

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Mazara started to “feel good” again at the plate toward the end of last season, going 8-for-30 (.267) with his lone home run and five of his 15 RBIs in a nine-game span from Sept. 18-27.

He went 3-for-6 (.500) with two RBIs in two postseason games.

“At the beginning, there was no pressure at all because I was on track,” Mazara said. “I felt really good. When I took those two weeks off, I’m sitting at home like, ‘When am I going to go back?’ I was watching the games, seeing how good they were doing. That was one of the things that made me only take three days of practice, telling myself I was ready (to return) when I was not.”

Looking ahead

Mazara picked up two key points of emphasis from manager AJ Hinch in their first conversation, upon Mazara’s arrival to the Tigers’ spring training facility in Lakeland after travel and work visa issues caused a lengthy delay — changing the culture and winning baseball games.

“He’s not playing around,” Mazara said. “He is a winning manager.”

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The Tigers have four outfielders locked in to make the roster: Mazara, Robbie Grossman, JaCoby Jones and Victor Reyes. They could add another in Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo, who needs to stay on the active roster for the entire season or get offered back to the Minnesota Twins.

Mazara will primarily play right field.

“I think we need to have an option other than right field in case I want to change something,” Hinch said Friday. “It’s like Robbie playing right yesterday and JaCoby playing left yesterday. I just want to have as many options as possible. … He’s going to mix in at left a little bit.”

Hinch hopes to get Mazara in the lineup for Sunday’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Joker Marchant Stadium.

It’s official: Fulmer is back

Right-hander Michael Fulmer departed from the Tigers spring training facility toward the end of February to be with his wife, Kelsey, in Oklahoma for the birth of their second child. Because of this, he missed Monday’s start against the New York Yankees.

On Thursday, Fulmer threw a bullpen in Lakeland. Hinch saw him Friday morning before he left for the team’s game in Tampa. With Fulmer officially back, and without any hiccups in the travel and COVID-19 intake screening processes, he is set to start Saturday against the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota.

“Michael would go two innings, in a perfect world,” Hinch said.

Left-hander Tarik Skubal will come out of the bullpen Saturday for his first spring training appearance.

Will Perez get in a game?

Right-hander Franklin Perez — one of three prospects sent to the Tigers in the 2017 Justin Verlander trade — battled injuries throughout the 2018 and 2019 seasons, pitching a combined 27 innings across nine games.

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Finally healthy, Perez appeared in last year’s spring training and spent the season at the alternate training site in Toledo. But after a short delay to pitcher-catcher workouts in the middle of February, and following numerous bullpens, Hinch still isn’t sure whether the 23-year-old will pitch in a game this spring.

But he wants to give the team’s former No. 1 prospect a chance.

“Hopefully, we’ll get him in a game,” Hinch said. “The innings are starting to be pulled, but we want to get him in a game in the next few days. I don’t have an exact date yet. I’m going to meet with (pitching coach Chris Fetter) after the game to line up the pitching.”

On Thursday, Perez pitched live batting practice to Mazara.

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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