The writing was on the wall for Jeimer Candelario.
He didn’t produce, not enough at least, as the everyday third baseman last season, and the Detroit Tigers refused to pay his projected $7 million salary in arbitration to keep him around. On Friday night, the Tigers removed Candelario from their roster. He immediately became one of the top free agents at his position in a weak market.
For the Tigers, they’re left with a glaring question:
Who will play third base?
The Tigers’ infield is composed of first baseman Spencer Torkelson, second baseman Jonathan Schoop and shortstop Javier Báez. Miguel Cabrera, set to earn $32 million, will occupy the designated hitter spot on a limit basis for the final year of his contract, which makes roster construction difficult. All four players are right-handed hitters.
President of baseball operations Scott Harris has committed to Báez, a two-time All-Star, as the Opening Day shortstop and still believes in Torkelson, a 23-year-old former No. 1 overall pick, as the everyday first baseman.
Still, the Tigers need a third baseman.
A few free agents could fit: Brandon Drury, Jace Peterson, Brian Anderson and Edwin Ríos. Before cutting ties with Candelario, the Tigers attempted to bring him back at a cheaper rate. It’s unclear if those negotiations will continue, but don’t forget about Candelario as the market unfolds.
There’s 21-year-old prospect Colt Keith. He should be ready for the big leagues at some point in 2023, as long as he adjusts to Double-A Erie, but his defense at third base isn’t sharp. If his defense improves, he has the potential to be a long-term answer at the hot corner. (Ryan Kreidler, by the way, profiles as a valuable utility player.)
Of the free-agent third basemen, Drury is expected to command the longest commitment — possibly a three-year contract — and the largest total salary. The 30-year-old exploded for 28 home runs last season. It was his first year as an above-average offensive player while collecting more than 400 at-bats, so he doesn’t have a strong track record and has already played for six teams. But he can handle third base, first base, second base and both corner outfield positions.
Anderson, 29, seems like the perfect fit among free-agent options. Harris previously said he is targeting a left-handed hitting infielder, which would rule out Drury and Anderson, but depending on the rest of his roster, he probably isn’t married to a lefty.
If that’s the case, Anderson — a third-round pick in the 2014 draft — makes sense because he draws walks, doesn’t have an overwhelming chase rate, plays average defense, has elite arm strength and is fairly consistent on offense. He also has extensive experience as an outfielder.
The Miami Marlins non-tendered him Friday.
At the plate, Anderson disappointed in 2022 with a .222 batting average and .311 on-base percentage. He missed significant time with a left shoulder subluxation in 2021, then lower back spasms and a left shoulder sprain in 2022. But he was healthy from 2018-20 and profiled as an above-average hitter, batting .266 with 42 home runs and a .350 OBP in 341 games over those three seasons. Most importantly, Anderson has a 9.3% walk rate over his six-year MLB career.
Ríos is another name to watch after being non-tendered Friday. The 28-year-old, a longtime member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, has insane power as a left-handed hitter, slugs against righties and lefties and can play both third base and first base. If Torkelson gets demoted again, Ríos could fill the void.
The primary concern is his health.
Since 2020, Ríos has been on the injured list for a left hamstring strain, right shoulder inflammation and a right hamstring strain. Last season, Ríos hit .259 with nine homers and a 9.2% walk rate in 48 games for Triple-A Oklahoma City. He also played 27 MLB games, batting .244 with seven homers and a 5.4% walk rate.
His career walk rate, however, is 8.6% over 112 games in the big leagues. Ríos is a proven Triple-A player, and because of his raw tools, Harris might think he can get more out of him at the highest level. He would be a fascinating test for the Tigers’ new hitting department, which will emphasize biomechanics.
Peterson, another left-handed hitter, has played for five teams in his nine-year MLB career. His 11.4% walk rate and 22.9% chase rate offset his lack of power and would help the Tigers get closer to a league-average offense. Too many strikeouts and too few walks have plagued the Tigers for the past five seasons.
Much better against right-handed pitchers, Peterson launched a career-high eight home runs in 112 games last season, batting .236 with a .316 OBP. Peterson, a first-time free agent at age 32, spent the past three seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers. He can play second base, third base and both corner outfield positions.
If the Tigers aren’t pleased with those options, they’ll have to look to the trade market for an upgrade.
Or Harris could do something else.
A creative way to construct the roster would be to move Schoop, under contract for $7.5 million, to third base. He is an outstanding defender — worth 26 outs above average as a second baseman last season — and has perfected the double-play turn. But without the shift, Schoop might not be as potent at second base.
If the Tigers send Schoop to third base, Harris could pursue Adam Frazier, a left-handed hitting free agent who turns 31 in December, as the everyday second baseman. The Tigers have been showing interest in Frazier recently, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.
Frazier, an All-Star in 2021, has a 7.5% walk rate and 12.7% strikeout rate over his seven-year MLB career. Although Frazier doesn’t hit the ball hard, he puts the ball in play and is one of the best at limiting strikeouts.
He hit .238 with three home runs, 46 walks and 73 strikeouts in 156 games last season. Both his 14.4% swing-and-miss rate and 87.0% contract rate ranked 10th among 130 qualified hitters.
Contact Evan Petzold at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.