Why Detroit Tigers utility infielder Greg Garcia could be ‘glue’ that brings team together

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Detroit Tigers utility infielder Greg Garcia is feeling déjà vu. He recalls playing for the 2019 San Diego Padres, a team that finished at the bottom of the National League West.

One year later, with some noteworthy acquisitions, the Padres surged to the NLDS, snapping a 13-year playoff drought.

The Tigers are in a somewhat similar spot, following three last places finishes in the American League Central in four years. The franchise is nearing the completion of the rebuild but remains a handful of pieces away from contending.

“It’s an exciting time to be a Tiger, and it’s only going to get better,” Garcia said Thursday, after an 8-2 win against the Toronto Blue Jays. “I saw this in San Diego. If you get enough talented players with a mix of veteran guys, a lot of really good things can happen.”

Garcia, 31, hopes to be one of those veteran players for the Tigers in 2021. He signed a minor-league contract in February with an invitation to spring training and is competing with Harold Castro for a bench role.

“I just want to prove to my coaching staff and my teammates that I’m one of 26 guys that will help the Detroit Tigers win,” Garcia said. “If I do that, everything will take care of itself. Basically, I just have to keep competing as hard as I can and showcase myself.”

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Across parts of seven seasons, Garcia played 578 games experience for the St. Louis Cardinals (2014-18) and Padres (2019-20). The left-handed hitter struggled at the plate last season, but he hit .248 with four homers and 31 RBIs in a career-high 134 games in 2019.

Garcia has a lifetime .245 batting average, 14 homers and 99 RBIs, with 166 walks to 270 strikeouts. His 14.2% walk-rate in 2019 — 53 walks in 372 plate appearances — was among the league’s best.

“Really good at-bats, as far as tough at-bats,” manager AJ Hinch said Feb. 27. “That’s not always going to show up in a box score, and it’s not always going to show up in a statistic. Very consistent with his preparation, his approach. He can move around in the field a little bit. He’s been on winning teams.”

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The Padres nontendered Garcia in December, making him a free agent.

Four teams showed interest right away, but the Tigers weren’t on the list. Then, his free agent market went “radio silent” for a couple of months. It was the byproduct of a slow-moving offseason, where players and teams were hesitant to agree to deals.

Then the Tigers — aiming to be opportunistic — jumped into the mix.

“They really wanted me here,” Garcia said. “I felt like it was a good fit for me. I’m just excited to go out there and compete. It’s a younger team with a lot of really talented young players. They’re bringing in some veteran guys who have been on winning teams, with Robbie (Grossman) and some of these other guys.”

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It’s unlikely Garcia — if he makes the 26-man roster — will earn a starting role. The Tigers have a jam-packed middle infield with shortstop Willi Castro and second baseman Jonathan Schoop, accompanied by Niko Goodrum off the bench.

At the corners, the organization will use a combination of Jeimer Candelario, Miguel Cabrera, Isaac Paredes and Renato Nunez. Right now, the notable roster battle is between Paredes (third baseman) and Nunez (first baseman), with the winner determining whether Candelario will get more time at third or first base.

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Depending on if the Tigers carry 13 or 14 pitches, there will be four or three bench spots, respectively. Three of those openings — Goodrum, Victor Reyes and a backup catcher (Jake Rogers or Grayson Greiner) — are locked in.

There could only be one spot remaining.

Garcia, Castro and Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo are the top candidates. Garcia, because of his versatility and veteran mindset, makes a solid case to be added. He has experience at second base (190 games), third base (114), shortstop (81), first base (1) and left field (1).

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“I think he’s going to challenge making our roster because of what he can do to help a team function,” Hinch said. “It’s not always about what numbers you put up. He’s kind of a glue type of guy, so it’s not always about numbers. It’s about how a team functions.”

But Garcia already knows earning recognition as the “glue” of the Tigers’ roster could be one of his strongest contributions in 2021.

That’s if he makes the team.

“Not many people are picking the Tigers to do anything this year, and that could be a scary recipe,” Garcia said. “If you get enough guys pulling the rope the same way, some exciting things can happen. We still have to compete, but the more we come together as a team and build that chemistry and have each other’s backs, we can do anything we put our minds to.”

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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