Detroit Tigers’ 2021 Opening Day roster prediction 4.0: Akil Baddoo, Michael Fulmer in?

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Welcome to the beginning of spring training’s end.

The Detroit Tigers, led by manager AJ Hinch, are bracing for tough decisions about numerous players with only nine days remaining in camp.

With Opening Day scheduled for April 1 against the Cleveland Indians in Comerica Park, there isn’t much time left to sort out the 26-man roster. The Tigers are expected to start with a five-man rotation before transitioning to a six-man crew after a few weeks.

Choices made in the coming days will reveal the answers to unknowns: four or five outfielders, 13 or 14 pitchers, one or two utility players, lefty relievers, backup catcher and slugger or prospect. Some cuts could be difficult to comprehend.

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

ROSTER 3.0: Let the (spring training) games begin

As spring training enters its final stretch, here’s a look at how the Tigers should fill their 2021 Opening Day roster:

The Tigers signed Ramos to a one-year, $2 million contract this winter, so he is guaranteed to be the everyday starter. He is a two-time All-Star and offense-first catcher. In the 2019 season, he hit .288 with 14 home runs and 73 RBIs, with 44 walks to 69 strikeouts, across 141 games. Although his defensive is concerning, the 33-year-old’s bat makes him a mainstay in the lineup.

[ Developing Wilson Ramos: Inside former Tigers catcher Pudge Rodriguez’s mentorship ]

Where Candelario, 27, takes the field depends on the status of slugger Renato Nunez. The 26-year-old has hit .247 with 43 homers and 121 RBIs in 203 games since the beginning of the 2019 season. He was released by the Baltimore Orioles in November, and the Tigers picked him up on a minor-league contract.

Hinch knows Nunez will deliver needed firepower to the lineup, but if he can’t handle first base well enough, he won’t make the team. So far, Nunez hasn’t showcased enough defensively to warrant a guaranteed roster spot — back to Candelario at first base.

[ Why Tigers’ Renato Nunez wants to take his cue from Miguel Cabrera ]

This could change by the end of spring training. If Nunez makes the team, he earns $1.3 million. More importantly, it means Candelario will play third base. Either way, Candelario is going be in the lineup after hitting .297 with seven homers in 2020.

This is another spot without competition. The Tigers re-signed Schoop this offseason to a one-year, $4.5 million contract. Last season, Schoop hit .278 with eight homers and 23 RBIs in 44 games. He could benefit from being more selective and controlling the strike zone to maximize walks and cut down on strikeouts.

While the 29-year-old is penciled in at second base, don’t be surprised to see him make a handful of starts at shortstop and third base. Maybe first base, as well, if Nunez doesn’t make the roster. This spring, Schoop played third for the first time since 2014.

[ How Tigers’ Jonathan Schoop stayed ready despite spring training delay ]

The Tigers promised Castro the everyday shortstop gig for the 2021 season. Based on last year’s results — hitting .349 with six homers and 24 RBIs in 36 games — he deserves it. He continues to display a strong presence in the batter’s box, but his defense has mixed reviews. The 23-year-old made a couple of ugly errors, yet his athleticism has benefited him with a few strong plays.

These results in camp aren’t surprising. Last season, 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). He is going to play shortstop in 2021, but he must improve to avoid getting moved to second base in the future.

Paredes controls his own destiny, but Nunez is a factor here, too. If Nunez makes the roster, thus bumping Candelario back to third base, the pathway for Paredes is eliminated. Essentially, the Tigers need to pick between Paredes and Nunez. 

Right now, Paredes is the answer. He added second base to his defensive arsenal this spring, and Hinch loves his framework. After hitting at every level of his professional career, it’s unlikely Paredes will develop much more in Triple-A Toledo. He is ready for a big-league challenge.

[ Tigers’ AJ Hinch sees ‘swagger’ in Isaac Paredes. What’s his path to playing time? ]

This offseason, Paredes won the Mexican Pacific Winter League batting title with a .379 average in 42 regular season games. He played 34 games and hit .220 for the Tigers last year in his debut campaign.

The Tigers bring a new look to the outfield in Detroit with Grossman (two years, $10 million) and Mazara (one year, $1.75 million) signing contracts this offseason. Jones is expected to continue his reign in center field but should see a bit of action in left field.

[ How new Tigers OF Robbie Grossman reinvented his swing and added power ]

Mazara seeks to bounce back after hitting .228 with one homer and 15 RBIs for the Chicago White Sox in 2020. In his first four MLB seasons, from 2016-19 with the Texas Rangers, he recorded a .261 batting average, 79 home runs and 308 RBIs across 537 games.

Grossman has already put his leadership on display this spring, helping to emphasize a selective but aggressive approach offensively. He should end up leading off in the batting order, with Candelario close behind.

Cabrera enters his 19th season in the majors and will be used as the primary designated hitter. Once or twice per week, Hinch is going to put him at first base. Last year, Cabrera led the Tigers in home runs (10) and RBIs (35) but only logged a .250 batting average. By shifting Cabrera to first base, Hinch can shuffle the infield configuration with an open DH spot.

[ Why Miguel Cabrera’s goals with 2021 Tigers stretch beyond reaching 500 home runs ]

Goodrum is promised a spot on the bench because of his defensive versatility across his four-year MLB career: second base (105 games), shortstop (81), first base (55), left field (31), right field (14), third base (11) and center field (eight).

The biggest question is Baddoo, a Rule 5 draft pick from the Minnesota Twins. For the organization to keep him, the 22-year-old — without experience above High-A in the minor leagues — needs to stay on the active roster for the entire season, or he must be offered back to the Twins. This spring, he has showcased power, contact and athleticism.

[ If Akil Baddoo keeps raking, Tigers’ AJ Hinch won’t rule out five outfielders ]

If the Tigers don’t keep five outfielders but want Baddoo on the team, Reyes could be sent to Triple-A Toledo because he has two option years. Still, that probably won’t happen; he is a switch-hitter and can play all three outfield positions. Mazara already has five years of MLB service time, so he must consent to a minor-league assignment. That won’t happen, either.

The other bench question is the backup catcher, which is a toss-up between Rogers and Grayson Greiner. This decision doesn’t impact anything else, so it might be the last choice Hinch makes. The Tigers are giving Rogers every opportunity to make the roster, but he continues to scuffle offensively with uncomfortable strikeouts. In 2019, Rogers made his MLB debut but did not get called back to the majors last season. Meanwhile, Greiner has a .194 batting average in 106 games across parts of three MLB seasons.

[ Tigers stock watch: Breaking down the race for backup catcher ]

Turnbull, Boyd and Urena are locked into the rotation. (Though Urena seems better equipped for the bullpen.) (Hint: A change in Urena’s role could occur later this season.) Skubal is all but officially in the rotation after a dominant spring training.

[ How Tigers’ Tarik Skubal proved he is ready for the major league rotation ]

Teheran, currently on a minor-league deal, should manage to cash in on $3 million for making the majors. His fastball velocity is back up to 92 mph and his slider bites like it did in his 2016 All-Star season.

Mize is fighting a command problem, but he would greatly benefit from being in the big-league clubhouse and around pitching coach Chris Fetter. Sitting at the alternate training site in Toledo through April and pitching Triple-A games in May won’t boost his development. He needs MLB trials to become a complete pitcher.

For the most part, this is the same crew from last season.

Barring sudden significant improvements, Fulmer isn’t ready to join the starting rotation. The Tigers are paying him $3.1 million this season, making it difficult to justify wasting the investment and sending him to the minors. Once May rolls around, he will reach five years of MLB service, meaning the organization will need to get his agreement to drop him from the active roster.

[ Tigers may have a decision to make on Michael Fulmer, ‘a different pitcher’ ]

If the Tigers cut Fulmer, two pitchers will be next in line to join the bullpen: Derek Holland and Tyler Alexander. Holland is embracing his full-time reliever role, reaching 95 mph with his fastball and generating strikeouts. Alexander continues his efficient pitch-to-contact approach.

Jimenez is owed $1.5 million in 2021, but he is struggling this spring. Continued woes in camp could put him on the outside looking in, considering he has two option years remaining, allowing Holland or Alexander to slide into the mix.

The closer remains unknown.

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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