Detroit Tigers’ 2022 Opening Day roster prediction 1.0: Big name could fill shortstop void

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Tigers are focused on taking the next step toward becoming a winning franchise, after making significant process in 2021. The goal is to compete for an American League wild-card berth in 2022.

The Tigers finished 77-85 this season, third place in the AL Central and 15 games out of the wild card. This year’s wild card featured the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, a pair of AL East teams with a 92-70 record.

If the Tigers want to reach their expectations in manager AJ Hinch’s second season, they’ll need to improve the roster. It’s way too early, but here’s a look at how the organization should fill its 26-man 2022 Opening Day roster:

Catcher: Free agent

The Tigers didn’t always need a starting catcher, but plans changed when Jake Rogers underwent Tommy John surgery in September. The devastating injury leaves them searching for a defense-first catcher on a short-term deal, but the free-agent pool is dry.

The best option — for the player and the price — is 10-year MLB veteran Yan Gomes. He made $6 million this year, hitting .252 with 14 home runs and 52 RBIs over 103 games, with five defensive runs saved. Another boost for Gomes’ resume: He has played 22 games in the playoffs.

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The Tigers will evaluate Martin Maldonado, who earned $3.5 million and played for Hinch from 2018-19. He hit just .172 with 12 homers this year, but the 35-year-old played 125 games for the Houston Astros, who reached the ALCS for the fifth straight year. A Gold Glove winner in 2017, Maldonado has caught in the postseason for four years in a row.

Mike Zunino could be another option, but the Tampa Bay Rays would have to decline his $7 million club option. Tucker Barnhart — a two-time Gold Glove winner — is in a similar situation. To become a free agent, the Cincinnati Reds would need to decline his $7.5 million club option. If those catchers aren’t available, the Tigers could look to Manny Pina, an above-average defender who served as Omar Narvaez’s backup with the Milwaukee Brewers.

If the Tigers want to take a cheaper route, Robinson Chirinos — a 37-year-old getting used to life as a journeyman — could get a minor-league deal. He played for Hinch in 2019, hitting .238 with 17 home runs in 114 games. In that season, he caught in 14 playoff games and hit two home runs in the World Series.

Whether it’s Opening Day or a midseason arrival, Torkelson will play for the Tigers in 2022. Drafted No. 1 overall in 2020, the 22-year-old is the organization’s top prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, and the No. 4 prospect in baseball.

Right now, the Tigers have two scenarios in mind: Give Torkelson a month in Triple-A Toledo, or stick him in the big leagues out of spring training. What happens will be determined by Torkelson’s performance. He begins action in the Arizona Fall League this month and camp opens in February.

Torkelson hit .267 with 30 home runs, 91 RBIs, 77 walks and 114 strikeouts over 121 games for High-A West Michigan (31 games), Double-A Erie (50 games) and Triple-A Toledo (50 games). It’s worth noting he slumped at each level before eventually finding his groove, which is another reason why the Tigers aren’t sure about putting him on the Opening Day roster. He slugged 11 of his 30 homers for the Mud Hens but only had a .238 batting average.

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If Torkelson doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, the Tigers will use second baseman Jonathan Schoop and designated hitter Miguel Cabrera at first base — similar to the scheme in 2021 — until the youngster gets called up.

When Torkelson arrives, Schoop will move back second base.

The 29-year-old learned to play first base in 2021 and started 103 of 156 games at that position to fill a void in the infield. But throughout Schoop’s nine-year MLB career, he has started 812 of his 1,002 games as a second baseman.

In early September, Hinch said Schoop has “arguably the best arm at second base,” along with New York Mets star Javier Baez, who transitioned from shortstop to second base after a July trade. Schoop was a Gold Glove finalist at second base in 2020 and signed a two-year contract extension three months ago.

If Schoop and Cabrera share reps at first base to start the year, expect one of the potential utility players — Isaac Paredes, Harold Castro or Willi Castro — to manage second base until Torkelson’s arrival shakes up the infield.

Shortstop: Free agent

The Tigers could end up with one of six shortstops in free agency: Baez, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa or, if they don’t want to spend as much money, Andrelton Simmons. Trading for a top-tier shortstop seems unlikely: The Tigers refuse to separate from their top prospects at this point in the building process.

Correa is the primary target.

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The 27-year-old hit .279 with 26 home runs and 92 RBIs over 148 games this season for the Astros. He played most of his six-year MLB career for Hinch — from 2015-19 — and won the 2017 World Series and 2015 AL Rookie of the Year. The relationship between Correa and Hinch could be enough to entice the All-Star to give Detroit a chance.

Here’s the catch: The Tigers won’t spend $300 million to get him. (In late March, Correa said he turned down a six-year, $120 million extension from the Astros. A few days later, Francisco Lindor inked a 10-year, $341 million deal with the Mets.)

Going after Semien — entering his age 31 season — wouldn’t cost as much, allowing the Tigers to feel more comfortable with their spending. He just finished playing for the Toronto Blue Jays on a one-year, $18 million contract, hitting .265 with 45 home runs and 102 RBIs in 162 games. Semien, an All-Star, finished with 6.6 WAR (FanGraphs), better than Correa (5.8), Seager (3.7), Baez (3.6) and Story (3.5).

The Tigers aren’t sure how the rest of the infield will look on Opening Day, but they’re certain about Candelario as the third baseman. The 27-year-old made $2.85 million this season, but he should get around $6 million for 2022 through salary arbitration.

Paying Candelario isn’t a question.

In the past two seasons, there were 24 third basemen with at least 600 plate appearances. Candelario ranked seventh with a 123 wRC+, better than Yandy Diaz (117), Wilmer Flores (115), Yoan Moncada (114), Kris Bryant (113), Gio Urshela (106), Nolan Arenado (105), Kyle Seager (104) and Matt Chapman (104). The league average for wRC+ is adjusted to 100.

Candelario also combined for a .278 batting average and a .356 on-base percentage in his 201 games over the two-year span. He tied for the MLB lead with 42 doubles in 2021.

Like Torkelson, Greene will play for the Tigers in 2022.

The 21-year-old hit .301 with 24 home runs, 63 walks and 153 strikeouts over 124 games for Double-A Erie (84 games) and Triple-A Toledo (40 games). For the Mud Hens, Greene — ranked No. 2 in the farm system and No. 7 in baseball — hit .308 and clubbed eight home runs. The Tigers drafted him No. 5 overall in 2019.

As the Tigers think long and hard about Torkelson’s MLB arrival, Greene is on track to make the Opening Day roster as the starting center fielder. To get there, he needs to confirm he is ready in spring training.

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Grossman is locked in for the last season of his two-year contract, after leading the team with his 23 home runs and .357 on-base percentage in a career-high 156 games. Baddoo — the Rule 5 draft standout — should be the starting lineup, especially against right-handed pitchers, as long as he makes offseason developments.

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There isn’t a competition for this spot. Cabrera plans to finish out the final two years of his lucrative contract — earning $32 million in back-to-back seasons — before retirement.

The 38-year-old and 19-year MLB veteran stayed relevant in 2021 by hitting .256 with 15 home runs, 75 RBIs, 40 walks and 118 strikeouts over 130 games. He is 13 hits away from No, 3,000. As the Tigers start to spend again, thus building a talented roster, the biggest question is whether Hinch will move Cabrera down from the third and fourth spots in the batting order.

Are the Tigers ready to put Haase into the long-term plans? Probably not. But the 28-year-old did enough as a rookie in 2021 to land himself in a favorable spot entering spring training, hitting .231 with 22 home runs, 61 RBIs, 26 walks and 119 strikeouts. For another backup candidate, the Tigers could bring back Dustin Garneau.

Hill, Victor Reyes and Daz Cameron will compete for the fourth outfielder role. The 25-year-old Hill provides speed on the bases and elite defense in center, so he is a front runner. If he struggles to hit for contact and stay healthy, though, the Tigers won’t hesitate to plug Reyes into the equation. (Cameron would benefit from an everyday role in Triple-A Toledo.)

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There should be two spots for utility players, sparking a battle between Paredes, Harold Castro, Willi Castro, Zack Short, Kody Clemens and any players on minor-league contracts.

Harold Castro should get one of the spots; he can play the infield and outfield and has displayed valuable bat-to-ball skills in crucial situations. The Tigers love Paredes’ defensive instincts at shortstop, second and third. They were encouraged by the 22-year-old’s strike-zone awareness in 2021, as well as his pull-heavy swings in the final week of the season.

The Tigers jumpstarted Willi Castro’s transition to a utility role by giving him opportunities in left field, but his .220 batting average and 39.9% chase rate must improve. The same goes for Short, who excelled defensively at shortstop but hit just .141. Clemens, 25, hit .247 over 97 games in Toledo and is waiting for his MLB debut.

More than shortstop and catcher, the Tigers are prioritizing their starting rotation entering 2022 because of injuries and subsequent surgeries to Spencer Turnbull (Tommy John surgery) and Matthew Boyd (flexor tendon surgery). Turnbull won’t return until 2023, and Boyd — if the Tigers bring him back — is expected to miss some time in 2022.

The Tigers have a strong foundation of pitchers coming off their rookie campaigns: Mize, Skubal and Manning. They are at different points in their developments, but the organization expects them to continue taking steps forward.

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To fill the openings in the rotation, the Tigers plan to sign two or three free agents.

One of them will be a top-tier starting pitcher, such as Eduardo Rodriguez. Other premier options include Robbie Ray and Kevin Gausman, but if they cost too much, Anthony DeSclafani and Marcus Stroman are fine choices. (Do not bank on a reunion with ex-Tiger Justin Verlander, who is looking for a multi-year contract in his return from Tommy John surgery. Astros owner Jim Crane said his team will “probably” extend a qualifying offer to Verlander, which is $18.4 million.)

The Tigers also need a lower-cost pitcher on a short-term contract to eat innings. They should check out Alex WoodDylan Bundy, Zack Davies and Johnny Cueto. Cueto threw 114⅔ innings this year but did not make the San Francisco Giants’ NLDS roster, so the Giants won’t pick up his $22 million club option.

Brining back Wily Peralta would help the rotation’s durability and depth. He impressed with his 3.07 ERA in 93⅔ innings over 19 games (18 starts) in 2021. The 32-year-old is seeking a major-league deal, after inking a minor-league contract last winter. If the Tigers go after him, it might not happen until the final weeks of the offseason.

The bullpen for 2022 appears set, with Soto operating as the closer and Cisnero, Fulmer, Funkhouser and Lange working as high-leverage relievers.

The biggest developments surrounded Fulmer, Funkhouser and Lange. In his second year back from Tommy John surgery, Fulmer moved to the bullpen and posted a 2.53 ERA, 15 walks and 66 strikeouts in 57 innings across 48 relief appearances. Funkhouser went from the first player cut in spring training to a reliable reliever, finishing with a 3.42 ERA, 38 walks and 63 strikeouts in 68⅓ innings. After being summoned from Triple-A Toledo on Aug. 22, Lange finished the season with a 1.45 ERA, six walks and 18 strikeouts in 18⅔ innings.

If Alexander doesn’t end up in the starting rotation, Hinch will keep him around as a long reliever who can make spot starts. The Tigers are still trying to understand Jimenez, who flashes moments of brilliance but carries the weight of a 5.72 ERA over his five-year MLB career. Meanwhile, Foley is primed for a breakout year in 2022.

Adding MLB-ready relievers via free agency this offseason isn’t a top priority, but the Tigers will surely snag more bullpen arms — either to tryout for the big-league roster or to serve as depth in Toledo — on minor-league deals.

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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