Niko Goodrum sounded almost resigned in Spring Training when he talked about the value of defense versus hitting in his return to a super-utility role.
“What it boils down to, if we’re speaking facts, is about hitting,” Goodrum said in March. “It’s not about whether I can do the defense. That’s all understood. It’s just — you’ve gotta hit.”
That’s still true, but a couple of moves by the Tigers on Wednesday show there’s still a value placed on defense. The first was manager A.J. Hinch’s lineup card for their series opener against the Pirates, with Goodrum at shortstop and Willi Castro at second base. The second was the move to designate Renato Núñez for assignment, clearing a 40-man roster spot for Spencer Turnbull to return from the injured list for his start in the second game of Wednesday’s doubleheader.
The Tigers called up infielder Zack Short from the taxi squad to fill Núñez’s spot on the 26-man roster.
While Detroit has rotated infielders around other positions, Castro and Jeimer Candelario were a constant on the left side. Hinch has talked about infielders needing a secondary position, but he kept Castro at short in hopes of letting him settle into a position where the Tigers need to figure out his long-term viability.
The move doesn’t mean Castro is no longer a shortstop, but it’s an acknowledgement that Goodrum is the better defensive option there. Castro will still play short when Goodrum isn’t in the lineup, or if Goodrum starts in one of the outfield spots.
“When those two guys are playing up the middle, I want to take a look at that configuration and see what it looks like,” Hinch said Tuesday. “I don’t know if I’m going to stay with it, or if Willi bounces back and forth.”
Even in small sample sizes, the metrics reflect a difference. Castro, who registered at minus-3 on Statcast’s Outs Above Average in his late-season stint in 2019 and minus-4 last year, sits at minus-1 so far this season. He has an 81 percent success rate compared to an estimated 83 percent rate, based on positioning, range, exit velocity and other factors.
Goodrum has only played one game at shortstop this year, having started last Wednesday’s series finale in Houston. He didn’t make any diving stops or acrobatic throws, but he made enough quality, above-average plays with a 100 percent success rate to register plus-1 Outs Above Average. Likewise, he registered plus-1 in Defensive Runs Saved, according to Fangraphs.
“He made arguably the best defensive plays of any position on the road trip,” Hinch said. “You talk about production and talk about putting your best team out there — Niko defensively at shortstop is very, very good, and we need to acknowledge that by giving him some time there. And that means I have to move Willi if I want to play them both.”
It’s not a demotion for Castro, Hinch cautioned, and he said Castro didn’t take it that way. Still, with a class of elite shortstops expected to hit the free-agent market next offseason — including Carlos Correa, who Hinch managed in Houston — it’s a short-term strategic move that could have long-term ramifications.
While the Núñez move created room for Turnbull’s return, the Tigers also made it with Miguel Cabrera’s return looming, possibly this weekend. Detroit opted for positional versatility and a rotation at first base over the limitations of Núñez and Cabrera on the same roster out of Spring Training. With a 14-man pitching staff and just three position players on the bench, one of them a catcher, those limitations are even tougher now.
Núñez played solid defense in three games at first, enough to register at plus-1 Outs Above Average. He had four extra-base hits in 27 at-bats, but those two home runs and two doubles were his lone hits. He walked once and struck out eight times.
Núñez is out of Minor League options, so he had to be designated for assignment. If he clears waivers again, as he did in Spring Training, he could still accept an assignment at Triple-A Toledo.
“The Núñez move was a tough one,” Hinch said, “because he hadn’t really gotten on track, he hadn’t gotten a ton of at-bats, he did help us win a couple games, and he’s a Major League player. If he clears, we would welcome him back with open arms, and he should have an opportunity again at some point — whether it’s how many pitchers we carry or injuries.”