Jeimer Candelario has made the leap

Bless You Boys

We don’t often consider extensions to Detroit Tigers players. Nick Castellanos was the last Tiger who really deserved serious consideration, but these are different times for the organization, with several different decision-makers holding the keys. And there are very good reasons why the Tigers may consider trying to convince third baseman Jeimer Candelario to sign on for the long haul this offseason.

It wasn’t too long ago that we wondered if Jeimer Candelario would ever figure it out at the major league level. After he was acquired in a trade from the Chicago Cubs at the 2017 trade deadline he made a strong debut in Detroit. However, in each of the next two seasons, his numbers plummeted, reaching a nadir in 2019 that had many questioning his place in the Tigers’ plans. His plate discipline lent some hope but time was starting to run out. Two years later, Candelario is now one of the team’s most consistent performers and a key part of their rejuvenated winning culture.

During the short 2020 season, Candelario posted a 136 wRC+, a .355 on-base percentage, and lifted seven home runs in 206 plate appearances. The limited amount of action left some skepticism, but in retrospect, Candelario was embarking on a breakout that he’s carried over this season, minus some of the home run power.

Candelario extended his hold on the major league lead in doubles over the weekend to 39 total. He’s also getting on base at an excellent .357 clip. He’s still spraying plenty of line drives, posting a fantastic 26.9 percent line drive rate, fifth in the major leagues, which is driving a sustainable .280 batting average. And finally, he’s cut his strikeout rate down to 21.7 percent, better than league average, while walking at a 10.4 percent clip.

These are all the markers of a very good hitter whose on-base ability helps him generate production even when he’s slumping a bit at the plate. Hitters with very good strikeout-to-walk ratios, who spray a lot of line drives for extra-base hits, are valuable even without league average home run production. That he’s become a tough out, a doubles machine in a park built for them, and a consistent run producer, seems hard to argue with. But is his recent hot streak the sign of an imminent power breakout? Or just a good hitter who underperformed somewhat in the first half finally getting on a real roll?

The Robbie Grossman model

Obviously, doubles are great too, and as he is, Candelario is already a valuable player. But the likelihood that Candelario will ultimately get back to hitting more home runs is something that should be on the mind of the Detroit Tigers’ front office this offseason. In many ways, the Candyman resembles the profile of outfielder Robbie Grossman prior to his breakout over the past two years. Both switch hitters keep relatively balanced splits, post well above average on-base percentages, good strikeout to walk ratios, and spray line drives with authority.

Two years ago, Grossman began working on pulling more balls in the air, particularly as a left-handed hitter, without giving up his plate discipline or his ability to square line drives back to the center of the field. And over the past two seasons, a hitter who was respected around the league but not feared has suddenly added average home run power to his high OBP approach and is having the best season of his career. Recognizing that progress in Grossman’s game and buying into a real bargain this past offseason looks as good for the Tigers as we hoped.

It’s hard not to notice signs that Candelario could follow that same recipe. After a first half where he posted a 101 weighted runs created mark (wRC+), mainly because of a lack of power, Candelario is at 141 wRC+ since the All-Star break. He’s striking out even less than his ever, and the power numbers are through the roof. Just a few more fly balls to the pull field, and the Candyman is a legit 4 WAR player in his prime years.

Prior to 2020, Candelario had never had a hard-hit rate above 34 percent. In 2020, that mark jumped to 47.1 percent, and this season he’s at 39.4 percent. His average exit velocity jumped substantially in 2020, and this year is still higher than his 2018-2019 seasons. In those years, pitchers owned the inside of the strike zone against Candelario when he was batting left-handed. Each of the past two seasons he’s turned inside pitches into more and more of a strength from the left side. The signs here are pretty strong. He may not remain immune to the slumps we saw earlier this season, but overall Candelario looks like a talented, maturing hitter coming into his own.

Jeimer Candelario 2021 Splits

2021 Splits PA wRC+ K% BB% ISO
2021 Splits PA wRC+ K% BB% ISO
1st Half 344 101 23.8 10.8 0.115
2nd Half 183 141 18.0 9.3 0.235

The time is now

The Tigers certainly don’t have to offer Candelario an extension this winter, but if they do not, Candelario is almost certainly bound to test free agency after the 2023 season. Even if he did agree to an extension next year, the Tigers wouldn’t have much leverage with only one year remaining to free agency. They would have to beat his arb 3 season in average annual value to convince him to pass on the open market. That would presumably cost them a minimum of $10M per season for the third baseman. No, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen this offseason.

He’s earning $2.9M this season, his first arbitration year. In 2022, he should make roughly $5M, with his final arb year, the 2023 season, presumably checking in at around $9-10M. So the Tigers are looking at paying him about $14-15M total over the next two seasons. Whether Candelario might be willing to sign on, for say, four or five years at say, $10M a season is roughly the question the Tigers’ front office has before them.

Arguably, Candelario won’t be able to command much more than that in free agency as he is, but if he comes out next season and hits 25 home runs to go with his standard production, the cost would rise substantially. There just aren’t that many high average, high OBP hitters available in free agency in a given offseason, particularly one with average home run totals who could probably play decent, though below average, defense at several infield positions. The Tigers have several very talented prospects bound to reach the major leagues in the next year, but they are going to need several above average veterans in the lineup to make them a competitive threat. You’d be hard pressed to find a better third baseman, in terms of current value, age, experience, and versatility, for this price on the free agent market.

In Detroit, extensions have generally been reserved for the Justin Verlander’s and Miguel Cabrera’s of the world. However teams like the Tampa Bay Rays have made a lot of hay over the years by locking up not just stars, but above average performers they believed in through their prime years at reasonable prices. Not only does this give a team a good performer at an inexpensive rate compared to what they’d command in free agency, it also makes them a cost-controlled asset through their early 30’s — generally, though not always — making them more valuable as trade assets as well.

Now it’s certainly possible that this ship has already sailed. Candelario has made it pretty clear that he’s an above average player with two strong seasons in a row, and there just isn’t as much leverage now as there was last offseason. At this point, there may just not be enough of a discount available to make it worth locking themselves into a longer deal. The possibilities for a new collective bargaining agreement this offseason, along with the possibility of a lockout and/or a strike, also complicate matters.

However, Jeimer Candelario seems exactly the type of player A.J. Hinch covets. He gets on base, switch hits, works counts, can play either corner infield spot, and is clearly one of the leading personalities in the clubhouse. While his defense is a bit sub-par, the versatility helps makes up for it. If he can lift a few more homers in the years to come? All the better. He certainly seems like a great candidate to try and lock up through his early 30’s, but to secure the value of an early extension, the Tigers may already be a year too late.

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