Detroit Tigers’ 26-man Opening Day roster: How each player fits in plans moving forward

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — The Detroit Tigers are ready for Opening Day.

The 26-man roster features five starting pitchers, eight relievers, two catchers, six infielders and five outfielders. The season-opening first pitch, and manager AJ Hinch’s first game since 2019, is scheduled for 1:10 p.m. Thursday against the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park.

“It’s time for us to get to real games,” Hinch said. “Every spring training, whether you’re returning to a team or you’re new to a team, gets very stagnant and old at the end. It’s time for something different. … But it’s been a fun six weeks.”

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In the last six years, the Tigers have finished at the bottom of the American League Central four times, with a 198-345 record (.364 winning percentage) over those seasons.

The organization hopes, with Hinch at the forefront of the team’s big-league development, that postseason contention is only a few years away — possibly as soon as 2023.

Check out the entire 26-man Opening Day roster, with thoughts on the best case scenarios for each play in the 2021 and 2023 seasons as the rebuild unfolds:

Catchers (2)

Wilson Ramos

Age: 33; MLB debut: 2010.

Vitals: 6 feet 1, 245 pounds.

2020 stats: .239 batting average, 5 home runs, 15 RBIs.

Best case for 2021: Ramos believes being an everyday catcher will get him back to his 2019 offensive performance. The Tigers are giving him the chance to start most games, and they should look for him to him hit roughly 15 homers with a .275 batting average.

Best case for 2023: The Tigers won’t have Ramos on the roster, but a different team could take a chance on him as a designated hitter. If he can tap into more power, he might find a role. His years as a catcher, considering his age and lackluster defense, are winding down.

Grayson Greiner

Age: 28; MLB debut: 2018.

Vitals: 6-6, 239.

2020 stats: .118, 3 HR, 8 RBIs.

Best case for 2021: It’s unrealistic to think Greiner is going to pass Ramos for the starting job, so success is defined by competitive at-bats, staying sharp defensively and helping to mold the pitching staff. If Greiner can’t do these things, he will be sent down.

Best case for 2023: Hinch made a reference to finding a long-term backup catcher, and if Greiner improves offensively, he could fit the role. While his defense is questionable at times, he is a smart game planner and gets along with the young pitchers.

Infielders (6)

1B/DH Miguel Cabrera

Age: 37; MLB debut: 2003.

Vitals: 6-4, 249.

2020 stats: .250, 10 HR, 35 RBIs.

Best case for 2021: The return of vintage Cabrera is unlikely but getting back to solid productivity — a .280 batting average and 25 home runs — is a possibility. He is going to play a handful of games at first base and needs to stay healthy.

Best case for 2023: Welcome to the final year of Cabrera’s eight-year, $240 million contract. At this point, Cabrera will be 40 years old and surely within the last few seasons of his playing career. His future is tough to predict, considering his recent injuries and hitting struggles. But he is one of the greatest hitters of his generation.

3B/1B Jeimer Candelario

Age: 27; MLB debut: 2016.

Vitals: 6-1, 221.

2020 stats: .297, 7 HR, 29 RBIs.

Best case for 2021: First, the Tigers need to figure out if Candelario’s 2020 numbers (seven homers and 29 RBIs in 52 games) were a fluke. After all, he had a .203 mark across 94 games in 2019. This is a something-to-prove season, so a solid showing will pencil him in as a formidable big leaguer.

Best case for 2023: Candelario becomes a first-time free agent after the 2023 season, and his situation screams contract extension. If he is still around in 2023, it’s safe to say the organization is at least contemplating keeping him.

SS Willi Castro

Age: 23; MLB debut: 2019.

Vitals: 6-1, 170.

2020 stats: .349, 6 HR, 24 RBIs.

Best case for 2021: Cleaning up his defense and hitting near .300 should be Castro’s priorities this season. In 2020, he owned a minus-7 DRS — a number to show how many runs a player has, or hasn’t, saved on defense — but entered the AL Rookie of the Year conversation because of his bat.

Best case for 2023: Unless Castro, who has the makings of a future All-Star, undergoes a revelation at shortstop, the Tigers must move him to second base. The free agent shortstops on the market after the 2021 season seems indicate the organization could finally get aggressive in the rebuild.

2B/3B Jonathan Schoop

Age: 29; MLB debut: 2013.

Vitals: 6-1, 225.

2020 stats: .278, 8 HR, 23 RBIs.

Best case for 2021: Schoop has never played first base, but he is ready to do so this year. Also, he is going to play second base, third base and shortstop. Succeeding at third base and first base will increase his value entering free agency.

Best case for 2023: Schoop needs to join a contender again. Although a massive payout in free agency isn’t in his future, he can latch on with a playoff-caliber team, fill a need in the infield and grab his first ring. He played in the postseason in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2019. The defensive versatility will help him draw interest, even in his 30s, if his power doesn’t evaporate.

UTIL Niko Goodrum

Age: 29; MLB debut: 2017.

Vitals: 6-3, 198.

2020 stats: .184, 5 HR, 20 RBIs.

Best case for 2021: For a successful year, the switch-hitting Goodrum needs to improve against right-handed pitchers. He strikes out way too much, especially on elevated fastballs. To get better from the left-side, it might be time to sacrifice the power-hungry approach in exchange for simply making contact.

Best case for 2023: Goodrum’s defensive versatility might keep him around in Detroit, but no team wants to carry the burden of a strikeout machine. But maybe Goodrum figures it out, cuts down on strikeouts, increases home runs and sticks with the Tigers. He becomes a free agent after the 2023 season.

UTIL Harold Castro

Age: 27; MLB debut: 2018.

Vitals: 5-10, 151.

2020 stats: .347, 0 HR, 3 RBIs.

Best case for 2021: Castro squeezed onto the roster because of his versatility. He is rarely talked about and played just 125 games in his first three MLB seasons. It’s time for Castro to gain credibility across the league. He has the potential, and Hinch is going to test him.

Best case for 2023: He doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2025 season, so it’s possible Castro — if Goodrum’s offense leads him to flame out — could be Hinch’s new Marwin Gonzalez; a reliable, incredibly versatile utilityman. To get there, Castro must produce in the batter’s box. Still, it’s easy to notice a bit of Gonzalez in Castro’s makeup.

Outfielders (5)

LF/RF Robbie Grossman

Age: 31; MLB debut: 2013.

Vitals: 6-0, 216.

2020 stats: .241, 8 HR, 23 RBIs.

Best case for 2021: The Tigers signed Grossman this offseason to change the culture. Over the last couple of years, the Tigers were one of the worst teams at limiting strikeouts and drawing walks — two things Grossman does well. He hopes to showcase more power, as well.

Best case for 2023: Grossman isn’t an All-Star, but he gets on base and understands what it takes to win. If the Tigers are nearing postseason contention and needing a veteran left fielder — and Grossman displays power in his bat — could he get re-signed for another year? Sure. If not, another team will likely pick him up.

CF/LF JaCoby Jones

Age: 28; MLB debut: 2016.

Vitals: 6-2, 201.

2020 stats: .268, 5 HR, 14 RBIs.

Best case for 2021: Jones needs to stay healthy. His last two seasons were cut short by getting hit by pitches leading to left wrist surgery in 2019 and left hand surgery in 2020. The aggressive outfielder has played just 118 games in the last two seasons. He needs a full season for the team to understand his worth in the rebuild.

Best case for 2023: Although Jones isn’t a free agent until after the 2023 season, he might get shipped away in a trade. The Tigers are awaiting the arrivals of Riley Greene, Daz Cameron, Parker Meadows and Daniel Cabrera, among others, in the outfield. At some point, the roster will run out of room.

RF/LF Nomar Mazara

Age: 25; MLB debut: 2016.

Vitals: 6-4, 215.

2020 stats: .228, 1 HR, 15 RBIs.

Best case for 2021: Because Mazara is on a one-year contract, he has a chance to get paid soon. He averaged 20 homers per season with the Texas Rangers from 2016-19 before hitting one through 42 games in 2020. His only goal should be delivering power comparable to his first four MLB seasons. Then, the rewards will come.

Best case for 2023: It’s unlikely Mazara becomes a consistent All-Star, but with the old punch in his bat, he could snag a selection sometime around the 2023 campaign, especially as he continues to improve his swing. Remember, Mazara is only 25 years old. There’s a lot of untapped potential.

LF/CF/RF Victor Reyes

Age: 26; MLB debut: 2018.

Vitals: 6-5, 194.

2020 stats: .277, 4 HR, 14 RBIs.

Best case for 2021: Reyes is the fourth outfielder, but that doesn’t mean he is a bench player. His ability to play all three outfield positions will keep him on the roster and in the lineup. Hinch loves versatility, and that affection spans beyond the infield.

Best case for 2023: A former Rule 5 draft pick, Reyes has potential to be the long-term fourth outfielder, but it’s unlikely to see him in the starting outfield daily if the Tigers’ prospects turn out. Yet if he swings the bat well, his role could always change.

LF/RF Akil Baddoo

Age: 22; MLB debut: N/A.

Vitals: 6-1, 210.

2020 stats: N/A.

Best case for 2021: Meet the fifth of five outfielders and 26th of 26 players. The Tigers selected Baddoo in the Rule 5 draft this December from the Minnesota Twins. He has one goal: Produce enough to stick with the team for the entire season, thus avoiding a return to his old club.

Best case for 2023: An everyday player? It’s too soon to tell, considering Baddoo hasn’t played above High-A in the minor leagues. But there’s so much potential in his outfield and base running instincts. His power is raw, but if it develops, then he could start in either corner spot. If he develops as a contact hitter, center field isn’t out of the picture.

Starting pitchers (5)

LHP Matthew Boyd

Age: 30; MLB debut: 2015.

Vitals: 6-3, 234.

2020 stats: 3-7, 6.71 ERA.

Best case for 2021: Boyd was one of the most coveted pitchers at the 2019 trade deadline, and even into the offseason, but the Tigers decided to hang onto him. A bounce-back season at the top of the rotation is necessary to consider him anything more than an innings eater.

Best case for 2023: Boyd becomes a free agent after the 2022 season; he might not be with the Tigers much longer. With a surplus of young pitching on the rise, Hinch could use a veteran in the rotation, but Boyd — unless his numbers improve — probably isn’t the first option. He should fall into the category of a third, fourth or fifth starter elsewhere.

RHP Julio Teheran

Age: 30; MLB debut: 2011.

Vitals: 6-2, 205.

2020 stats: 0-4, 10.05 ERA.

Best case for 2021: From 2013-19 with the Atlanta Braves, Teheran averaged 191 innings per season. He pitched a ton and, for the most part, was efficient. The Tigers will lean on him to get into the sixth and seventh innings each start. He is a free agent again this winter.

Best case for 2023: If Teheran proves he isn’t the 2020 version of himself, he should be able to pitch for another five years in the back of someone’s rotation. His fastball velocity is back up to 92 mph, and his wipeout slider bites again. Remaining with the Tigers is unlikely, but another team should enjoy his veteran presence.

LHP Tarik Skubal

Age: 24; MLB debut: 2020.

Vitals: 6-3, 215.

2020 stats: 1-4, 5.63 ERA.

Best case for 2021: This season is about growth for Skubal, entering his second year in the majors. He gets to work with pitching coach Chris Fetter and become a premier game planner. He should end the campaign having done enough to where he shouldn’t need to compete for a job next spring.

Best case for 2023: Skubal has a chance to become the future ace, maybe more so than any of the other prospects. He needs to develop his pitch sequencing and improve his fastball command, but the tools — an upper-90s fastball, sharp slider and filthy splitter — are there to lead a starting rotation into the playoffs.

RHP Jose Urena

Age: 29; MLB debut: 2015.

Vitals: 6-2, 208.

2020 stats: 0-3, 5.40 ERA.

Best case for 2021: While Urena is labeled a starting pitcher, he might be better in the bullpen. Once the Tigers call up prospect Matt Manning, they’ll have seven starting pitchers (plus Michael Fulmer) in the majors for a six-man rotation. Someone will need to shift roles.

Best case for 2023: If Urena moves into the bullpen, he could reinvent himself as a career closer. The Tigers think he has the mindset to end games, so it’s realistic to see the bullpen become a key part of his future. And he might be pretty good at it, too. Of course, there’s always a chance he pitches well as a starter.

RHP Casey Mize

Age: 23; MLB debut: 2020.

Vitals: 6-3, 220.

2020 stats: 0-3, 6.99 ERA.

Best case for 2021: Like Skubal, the 2021 season is going to be a learning experience. The Tigers want Mize to continue pounding the strike zone. They need him to be methodical in his approach to win the race to two strikes. He shouldn’t need to compete for a job next spring, either, if he performs as expected.

Best case for 2023: Another future ace? Imagine a one-two-three punch of Skubal, Mize and Manning at the top of the rotation, guiding the Tigers into the playoffs with authority. Mize is a former No. 1 overall pick, so he needs to be at the top of the rotation to justify his draft status.

Bullpen (8)

LHP Gregory Soto

Age: 26; MLB debut: 2019.

Vitals: 6-1, 236.

2020 stats: 0-1, 4.30 ERA.

Best case for 2021: The Tigers are without a closer, which means Soto is in position to grab the coveted role. To do so, he must throw strikes with his 100 mph fastball and wipeout slider. He owns the ingredients, but strike-throwing is crucial.

Best case for 2023: Expect Soto to earn the closer role (and keep it). He doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2025 season, and the Tigers haven’t had a strong closer in a long time. Consistency, or lack thereof, will write the narrative of Soto’s career.

RHP Jose Cisnero

Age: 31; MLB debut: 2013.

Vitals: 6-3, 245.

2020 stats: 3-3, 3.03 ERA.

Best case for 2021: Cisnero might be the reliever Hinch trusts early in the season during the ninth inning situations. That’s a testament to Cisnero’s steady mindset, which is why he fits well as a seventh or eighth inning reliever in pressure moments, especially once Soto is ready to close games.

Best case for 2023: Although Cisnero is getting older, he continues to improve. His story is interesting, as he pitched in the majors in 2014 for the Houston Astros but couldn’t get back until 2019 with the Tigers. Expect the Tigers to hold onto him for as long as possible. The 2023 season, however, will be his final year before free agency.

RHP Buck Farmer

Age: 30; MLB debut: 2014.

Vitals: 6-4, 232.

2020 stats: 1-0, 3.80 ERA.

Best case for 2021: Farmer is going to do a little bit of everything for the Tigers, from multiple innings to closing games. Hinch described him as a jack of all trades and explained it’s a waste not to get the most out of Farmer’s skillset.

Best case for 2023: If Farmer indeed handles more than one-inning stints, his value will skyrocket, making him a reliever who could receive a solid paycheck upon becoming a free agent. The Tigers lose control of him after the 2022 campaign, and they’ll have to consider re-signing him.

RHP Bryan Garcia

Age: 25; MLB debut: 2019.

Vitals: 6-1, 215.

2020 stats: 2-1, 1.66 ERA.

Best case for 2021: Last season, Garcia earned the closer role after inconsistent Joe Jimenez squandered his spot in the bullpen. Despite his exceptional ERA, he walked 10 batters and got just 12 strikeouts — not exactly closer-type results. Cutting down his walk rate is of the utmost importance.

Best case for 2023: While Garcia might not be the closer of the future, he most definitely could land in a sixth, seventh or eighth inning spot. He gets a lot of ground balls, meaning home runs won’t be an issue for him. But it comes down to finding the strike zone.

LHP Daniel Norris

Age: 27; MLB debut: 2014.

Vitals: 6-2, 185.

2020 stats: 3-1, 3.25 ERA.

Best case for 2021: This season is key for Norris because it sets him up for free agency next winter. Hinch plans to use him in many roles, possibly even as a spot starter, which will continue to increase his value if he succeeds. If the Tigers don’t move him at the trade deadline, they’ll lose him in the offseason to a paying contender.

Best case for 2023: Norris was coveted at last season’s trade deadline, but the Tigers kept him. His versatility and the possibility of using him as a starter will always keep teams interested. By 2023, Norris should be midway through his contract with his new team, and he might have playoff appearances on his resume.

LHP Derek Holland

Age: 34; MLB debut: 2009.

Vitals: 6-2, 213.

2020 stats: 1-3, 6.86 ERA.

Best case for 2021: The Tigers were impressed with Holland after signing him to a minor-league contract, so he made the team. His fastball velocity jumped to 95 mph, and he fashioned a crisper sinker with movement that caught Hinch’s attention. Winning a high-leverage role would make his story even more fascinating.

Best case for 2023: It’s unclear what may happen to Holland in 2023, let alone after the 2021 season. His next move will be dictated by results. If he pitches well out of the bullpen, there’s no reason why he can’t bounce around the majors on big-league contracts for a few more years.

LHP Tyler Alexander

Age: 26; MLB debut: 2019.

Vitals: 6-2, 200.

2020 stats: 2-3, 3.96 ERA.

Best case for 2021: The ultimate strike thrower, Alexander must challenge himself to pitch outside of the strike zone. He gets burned, often with home runs, by throwing too many strikes. He is another versatile reliever.

Best case for 2023: Alexander doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2025 season, so he should be in Detroit until then. He is valuable as a starter, multiple-inning reliever and a late-inning stopper. He is a key component to the future, even without a speedy fastball.

RHP Michael Fulmer

Age: 28; MLB debut: 2016.

Vitals: 6-3, 246.

2020 stats: 0-2, 8.78 ERA.

Best case for 2021: The Tigers moved Fulmer to the bullpen this spring and saw an immediate uptick in fastball velocity. His slider improved, as well. After knee and elbow surgeries, his future might be as a reliever. He needs to dominate in his new role to avoid being cut.

Best case for 2023: The future is cloudy for Fulmer, who is a free agent after the 2022 season. Unless he returns to frontline-starter status, it’s nearly impossible to think the Tigers will re-sign him. Returning from Tommy John surgery is a lengthy process and tough to predict.

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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