DETROIT — Jeimer Candelario shared the Major League lead in doubles in the 2021 season and looked like an emerging young hitter. Now, the switch-hitting third baseman is a free agent looking for a home for a potential bounce-back season after the Tigers declined to offer him a contract by Friday’s non-tender deadline.
The Tigers non-tendered seven players, including Harold Castro and Willi Castro. Right-handers Miguel Diaz and Kyle Funkhouser, catcher Michael Papierski and utility man Brendon Davis were all non-tendered, but all of them had been designated for assignment earlier in the week.
But the biggest name was Candelario, whose exit was expected but nonetheless significant as president of baseball operations Scott Harris tries to rebuild Detroit’s offense and reshape the roster.
For two seasons, Candelario looked like a key cog of the Tigers’ rebuild, posting a 125 OPS+ over 2020 and ’21 combined. While he has yet to post a 20-homer season, his ability to use Comerica Park’s big outfield gaps for doubles made him a productive hitter, batting in the middle of Detroit’s batting order for much of the 2021 season. Add in solid defense, and Candelario produced a 3.9 fWAR in ’21, ninth highest among American League position players.
Candelario entered this past season looking like a prime candidate for a long-term contract extension, but the Tigers decided to keep going year to year in an effort to see if he could repeat his success. Instead, he looked more like the young hitter who was struggling to find a regular role in 2018 and ’19.
This past season was a step back all around for Candelario, from a 54-point drop in batting average to a 162-point plummet in OPS. His hard-hit rate, which was as high as 47 percent in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, plummeted to 34.6 percent in ’22. His average exit velocity also dropped, putting him in the bottom 16 percent of Major League hitters in that category, according to Statcast.
A large part of Candelario’s struggles came against fastballs. After punishing heaters for a .545 slugging percentage in ’20 and .436 in ’21, he posted a .212 batting average and a .351 slugging percentage off fastballs this past season.
While the Tigers were cognizant that Candelario could turn it around in what looms as his final season before free agency, they didn’t want to buy into a rebound at arbitration-level prices. Candelario was projected to make $6.35 million in arbitration, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
Although the numbers made sense for non-tendering Candelario, replacing him could be more of a challenge with no clear answer. The free-agent market for third basemen is thin beyond Justin Turner, Brandon Drury and Evan Longoria, all of whom are over 30, and the trade market likely won’t afford them a discount. Moreover, all of them are right-handed hitters, and Harris has said he’s looking to add a left-handed hitter to Detroit’s infield.
While prospects Ryan Kreidler and Kody Clemens could be internal candidates, neither has shown yet that he’s ready to become a Major League regular.
Harold Castro’s non-tender closes an underdog story for a formerly unknown infield prospect who got an opportunity as an end-of-season callup in 2018 and took advantage. He carved out a career first known for his versatility, then known for his hitting.
Castro’s .271 batting average led the team and backed up his nickname of “Hittin’ Harold.” Home and away, first and second half, against lefties and righties, runners in scoring position and bases empty — he was consistently good. He was also tough to strike out. Meanwhile, Castro was willing to play wherever manager A.J. Hinch wanted to put him, and he even pitched in four games.
However, given the Tigers’ quest to remake the roster, paying arbitration prices for Castro’s utility was deemed a luxury. Detroit listened on potential trade interest, but nothing came to fruition.
The decision on Willi Castro was a little more surprising, given his switch-hitting ability, younger age — he’ll turn 26 on April 24 — and remaining Minor League option. But while he showed offensive potential in spurts, the former trade acquisition couldn’t put together a solid enough campaign offensively. His .245 career batting average and .673 OPS included a 84.8 mph average exit velocity this past season, among the lowest in the Majors. With the Tigers’ outfield getting crowded, the club didn’t see him moving back to the infield on a more regular basis.
The non-tenders, combined with Friday’s claim of outfielder Bligh Madris off waivers from Tampa Bay, leave Detroit with 38 players on its 40-man roster.