Truth be told, Tigers manager A.J. Hinch was thinking about a rotation at first base long before Detroit had questions about Renato Núñez’s defense there this spring. The Tigers manager was thinking about it long before the club signed Núñez.
It really dates back to the start of the offseason as Detroit looked over its options to bolster the lineup.
“We were going to have a position at some place on the field that was not identified as an everyday position,” Hinch said Sunday morning. “Had we signed a first baseman, it probably would be second base, and you’d be talking about Harold [Castro] and you’d talk about Niko [Goodrum] and you’d talk about [Isaac] Paredes and other names. In the outfield, it’s the same way if we hadn’t signed Nomar [Mazara].”
The Tigers’ splurge of signings just before Spring Training — including Núñez on a non-roster invite — temporarily put an end to that talk. But visa issues and a delayed arrival for Núñez allowed Hinch to try out the idea of rotating players at first base when Grapefruit League games began. Even after Núñez rolled into camp and caught up to game speed, the mix continued; Núñez made just five starts at first in Grapefruit League play, the same number as Miguel Cabrera and one more than Goodrum and Castro. Núñez entered as a substitute four other times.
In the end, Hinch decided the benefits of roster flexibility outweighed the stability of a Núñez/Cabrera platoon at first.
“Núñez at first base, I think could be his own if given more reps and continuing to work that way,” Hinch said. “But the flexibility of the roster was impacted if we went that direction and him only be a first baseman/DH, and I have Miggy as a first base/DH, and I have [Wilson] Ramos only as a catcher and I’m trying to carry five outfielders. It was all sort of tied together.”
Five players on the Tigers’ projected Opening Day roster have played at first base this spring. All five are likely to likely to see time there this season. It’s neither a platoon nor a timeshare; it’s truly an open position. Even for Hinch, who has extolled the value of positional flexibility, this is somewhat new territory.
“I’m in the same boat as you guys; I haven’t had this many guys at first base in my managerial career. But I don’t think it’s a big deal. I think our guys are pretty well-versed.”
Here’s a look at the five Tigers who have played first this spring and how they could fit there once the season begins:
Detroit sounded like it was simply keeping Miggy happy at the end of last season when it entertained his wishes to play some games first base. Now, he’s likely the Tigers’ Opening Day first baseman and their strongest option there for the season.
“He’s arguably the best first baseman we have,” Hinch said after Cabrera ran across the infield and executed a rundown between third and home on Wednesday against the Phillies.
The Tigers love Cabrera’s natural instincts and awareness there after a decade at the position, and the energy he brings to the field. Plus, every game Cabrera starts in the field is a game Detroit can plug in Ramos at DH to ease his wear and tear while keeping his productive bat in the lineup. But the Tigers have to weigh the risk of playing Cabrera so much in the field that he wears down and tweaks his knee or back, or struggles to produce the impactful swing Detroit needs from him. The compromise for now is to play Cabrera at first twice a week at the outset.
“I’ve got a plan in place,” Hinch said. “I don’t really want to commit to anything until we get into the season and see how it’s going and how other guys are doing, quite honestly. There’s more than just a pre-planned schedule for him to be able to get out there.”
Hinch’s predecessor, Ron Gardenhire, turned to Candelario at first base last summer after C.J. Cron sustained a season-ending right knee injury. Candelario handled the move across the infield well, registering 1 out above average at first according to Statcast, and three defensive runs saved there according to Fangraphs. But the Tigers plugged in Paredes at third base for much of that home stretch last season while Candelario settled in at first, and Paredes didn’t make the Opening Day roster this season. So essentially, on days when Cabrera isn’t at first, Detroit has to decide which corner it wants to Candelario to play and which one corner it wants another infielder to handle.
“He’s always been a primary third baseman. I don’t think he’s anything else but that,” Hinch said. “But I think his ability to go over to first is still going to be utilized depending on how I play the various infielders. But I’ve always kind of viewed him as a primary third baseman, so that’s where he’ll get most of his reps.”
How often does an American League Gold Glove Award finalist at shortstop move to first base the next season? Goodrum was already bumped from short when the Tigers committed to Willi Castro in the offseason. Hinch talked going into Spring Training about finding regular at-bats for Goodrum in the same way he did for Marwin Gonzalez in Houston, playing him a little bit in several spots. But Hinch was impressed this spring at how well Goodrum handled first base with little preparation. At 6-foot-3, Goodrum provides a good-sized target for infielders and a good range to corral throws. With two utility infielders on the roster, Hinch has more flexibility to start Goodrum at a position like first.
Castro won over Hinch for a roster spot, much like he won over Gardenhire before him, with his ability to play several positions reasonably well this spring while providing respectable left-handed at-bat. He’s far from a prototypical first baseman, but he makes plays and reliably corrals throws.
“I think we need to get him more reps at first base,” Hinch said Saturday, “because I can see him being utilized there a little bit more as either a late-game addition, or maybe he pinch-runs or pinch-hits and I keep him in the game.”
How often does a Gold Glove finalist at second base move to first base the next season? OK, Schoop is still the Tigers’ primary second baseman, but Hinch said he had some potential time at first base in mind for him when they talked about versatility prior to him re-signing with Detroit last month.
“He talked about being a little bit more versatile,” Hinch said. “I was talking about first base. He was talking about shortstop and outfield. So I joked with him.”
Their communication is clear now. Schoop will likely see some occasional work at third when Candelario plays at first, but Schoop could also move over to first.
How the Tigers choose who to play at first base on a given day will be interesting to watch. It won’t be a lefty-righty platoon, because Cabrera’s splits don’t vary significantly, and Candelario and Goodrum switch-hit. Hinch has talked this spring about positioning his infielders on occasion according to the opposing lineup as well as the Tigers’ starting pitcher, whether he’s a ground-ball pitcher or more prone to fly balls.