Digging into decision facing Detroit Tigers and Jeimer Candelario. Here’s what numbers say

Detroit Free Press

SEATTLE — Jeimer Candelario might have played his final game Sunday for the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. He started as the third baseman, which happened just 11 times in September, as the Tigers wrapped up this year’s home schedule with their 10th victory in the past 12 games.

Playing time is running dry, and Candelario is responsible because of his poor performance this season. In mid-September, Candelario and manager A.J. Hinch had their first conversation about cutting into his role as an everyday player. Younger infielders, such as Ryan Kreidler, needed to get their feet wet in the big leagues.

They’ve had more talks since then.

“I’ve been open with him about what’s going on, why it’s going on and where we’re at,” Hinch said. “Eventually, we’ve got to give him a better game plan on what’s ahead for him. But he hasn’t changed his demeanor, his attitude, his preparation. He’s a real pro. I even apologized to him. I’m sorry it has to be this way, but that’s where we’re at with his playing time.”

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Candelario, who turns 29 in November and enters his final year of arbitration eligibility, is batting .211 with 13 home runs and a .628 OPS in 121 games. It’s the worst season of his seven-year career, which began in 2016 with the Chicago Cubs. He looks forward to reflecting on what went wrong in the offseason — only three games and two days away — though his future with the Tigers is cloudy.

The Tigers recently hired Scott Harris, a forward-thinking executive, as the new president of baseball operations. He emphasized domination of the strike zone and promised many changes to the organization in the coming months.

Some players won’t survive the new regime.

Candelario said he can’t worry about decisions out of his control.

“I want to be consistent with the things I can control,” he said, “like working really hard, getting better and expecting to come into 2023 as the best version of Candelario. Like I always do, I will come back.”

What happens next, barring a post-World Series trade, won’t become official until the tender deadline at the beginning of December. That’s when the Tigers will tender 2023 contracts to pre-arbitration and arbitration eligible players on the 40-man roster. If a player doesn’t receive a contract, he automatically becomes a free agent.

“This is Detroit,” Candelario said. “This is the team that gave me the opportunity to grow. I want to do my best in Detroit. … A lot of things will change. It has to change. We have to do better, and we’re going to do better.”

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All signs point to the Tigers forcing Candelario into free agency rather than bringing him back. Candelario, aside from ugly traditional statistics, has career-worst marks in chase rate (36.5%) and walk rate (6.2%), which doesn’t help his case with a new leader stressing plate discipline. His 78 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) ranks last among 27 third basemen with at least 400 plate appearances (100 wRC+ is league average).

In 2020 and 2021, the switch-hitting Candelario profiled as a completely different player. He combined for a 31.7% chase rate and 10.2% walk rate over 201 games, and he was an above-average hitter with a 125 wRC+, sixth-best among third basemen. Both seasons, Candelario won the Tiger of the Year award. Last year, he tied for MLB’s lead with 42 doubles.

Over the past three seasons, Candelario’s overall offensive production compares to San Francisco Giants infielder Wilmer Flores, who agreed to a two-year, $13 million contract extension in September. It was Harris’ final noteworthy move as the Giants’ general manager under president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. What separates Flores, who has 19 home runs this season, is his ability to handle three infield positions; Candelario is a below-average defensive third baseman with limited experience at first base.

“The offseason is a time to reflect and think about what you can do better,” Candelario said. “It’s always exciting for me. I like to get better. I like the challenge. If I want to play every single day, I got to be consistent.”

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It’s unclear what salary Candelario projects to receive in 2023 through the salary arbitration process, but he will be in line for a slight raise from this year’s $5.8 million. Due to his past success, the Tigers could offer to bring him back at a cheaper rate. Candelario, who has been with the Tigers for six seasons, would entertain those conversations.

A similar scenario occurred last offseason.

The Tigers non-tendered left-hander Matthew Boyd (projected for $7.3 million in his final year arbitration), but before that became official in late November, the Tigers offered to sign him for a cheaper rate. Boyd, a Scott Boras client, turned down the suggestion, became a free agent and eventually signed a one-year, $5.2 million deal with the Giants.

If Candelario isn’t around for 2023, the Tigers will be forced to look elsewhere for an everyday third baseman.

Kreidler, a 24-year-old batting .185 in 24 MLB games, is an internal option but looks like a future utility player. The impending free-agent market for third basemen is weak, and the Tigers have holes at several other positions to sort out ahead of next season. By 2024, a handful of homegrown prospects, including 21-year-old Colt Keith, could be in the mix for an everyday role at third base.

A reunion between the Tigers and Candelario might make sense at a cheaper rate.

The Tigers would get a one-year stopgap at third base, and if Candelario doesn’t show signs of improvement by the All-Star break, the organization could move on without eating too much money. On the flip side, Candelario would stick around with the Tigers in search of a bounce-back season before hitting the open market.

“A lot of things need to be fixed,” Candelario said of a franchise which last made the postseason in 2014. “We want to win, but it’s part of growth. Every team that wins in the playoffs, they trust the process. We got to trust the process, come back next year, fix what was wrong and go from there. We didn’t perform the way that we have to perform.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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