LAKELAND, Fla. — A.J. Hinch simply wanted to get Eric Haase at-bats in Spring Training a year ago. The Tigers’ skipper wasn’t imagining left field as a way for Haase to ignite his Major League career.
A year later, not only is Haase a hero in his native Michigan, but he’s an established member of the Detroit roster. For the first time in his career, he isn’t fighting for a spot, trying to find a role. Instead of trying to make a roster, he’s focused on finding ways to win games.
“I’m really excited about it,” Haase said last week. “I know exactly what the staff is looking for with me. I know what my role is going to be, and it’s very easy for me to just insert myself in there and do what I have to do.”
Haase is also an example of the value of versatility and why it’s a prevalent theme for the Tigers under Hinch — not only as they put together an Opening Day roster, but as they look to interject prospects into a roster that has established hitters.
While Spring Training is a rehearsal for players to prepare for the upcoming season, it’s also a lab of sorts for Hinch to explore potential additional positions for players. A look around the Tigers’ defensive alignment against the Orioles on Sunday revealed plenty of examples, despite Haase getting a rare day at designated hitter:
• Willi Castro, who spent last Spring Training trying to earn the starting job at shortstop, started in left field. Castro already transitioned to a utility infield role with the arrival of Javier Báez, but the Tigers want to further explore the outfield experiment he began last season.
• Harold Castro, who forged a career in Detroit on the strength of his versatility, started at first base, where he made seven starts and eight late-game appearances last year.
• Isaac Paredes, who could be an option at third base if Jeimer Candelario is injured, started at second, where Hinch began playing him last Spring Training. Paredes left the game after being hit by a pitch on his right hand.
• Ryan Kreidler, who rocketed up the Tigers’ farm system last year as a shortstop, entered the game at second.
• Gage Workman, who played third base at Arizona State before returning to his more natural shortstop position after Detroit drafted him, pinch-ran for Paredes and stayed in the game at third.
• Ryan Lavarnway, a well-traveled catcher who signed a Minor League deal a couple weeks ago, made his second appearance at first base in as many days. It’s not a sign of a position switch, but if he can play there, he can give Triple-A Toledo manager Lloyd McClendon more options if he ends up with the Mud Hens.
Willi Castro is a prime example of additional positions giving a player another shot at a Major League spot. Once his stint at shortstop ended last summer, he was a switch-hitter without a full-time position, and he didn’t have much experience moving around. The Tigers tried him in the outfield on the fly. His Spring Training so far has shown his value as a hitter. If he isn’t going to stick as a regular shortstop, he needs playing time somewhere to get his at-bats.
“It’s unfair to him how we threw him in left field last year,” Hinch said. “But he still has one of the highlight reels from last year when he robbed the home run. He’s athletic enough to do it. He needs reps to do it.”
If Castro ends up back at Toledo, he could be part of a rotating infield. Kreidler, who has already been told he won’t make Detroit’s Opening Day roster, is expected to move around the infield between short, second and third, as will Zack Short. So could Paredes if he doesn’t make the Tigers’ roster. Kody Clemens can play first, second and third base, as well as the corner outfield spots.
With Báez at shortstop in Detroit for at least two seasons and possibly six, Kreidler can’t simply be the shortstop of the future.
“He’s got to be ready to be the answer at multiple positions,” Hinch said. “I don’t know where the spot’s going to open up via injury, hopefully never. But the reality is that he could be a callup at any point at third, second or short. So, we have to move him around the infield enough at Triple-A for him to be comfortable.”
Even Haase is still experimenting. He has spent camp getting some work at first base outside of games. Hinch isn’t looking for him to start games there, not with Spencer Torkelson and Jonathan Schoop available. However, if a couple innings at first base allow Haase and his right-handed power bat to remain in the lineup late in a game after pinch-hitting, then it’s worth exploring.
“Overall, A.J. is just, ‘When you get over there, just be athletic. Anywhere you go on the field, just stay athletic,’” Haase said. “Don’t overthink it. Make sure you know where the ball’s going and just try to make a play.”
The versatility is crucial if Hinch carries three catchers. If Dustin Garneau’s presence allows Haase to pinch-hit more often without the risk of being without a catcher on the bench, the flip side is Haase being able to stay in a game in as many positions as possible.
“That’s what I love about the possibility of carrying three catchers,” Haase said. “If I go in and pinch-hit for somebody playing first base, I can stay at first base now. Or I can go in for Akil [Baddoo] if I pinch-hit, then I can go play left field. It gives you a lot more options off the bench without having to double-switch guys.”