The Tigers options at third base are thin

Bless You Boys

Almost two weeks ago, the Detroit Tigers made the decision not to tender a contract to long-time third baseman, Jeimer Candelario. New President of Baseball Operations, Scott Harris, attempted to negotiate a one-year deal for less than the presumed $7 million Candelario would’ve received in his final year of arbitration, but it was no surprise that the 29-year-old decided to test the open market and see what kind of offers he’d receive.

The Washington Nationals then quickly inked him to a one-year deal for $5 million with an extra million in incentives. For Candelario, this may be an opportunity to reset his career. For the Tigers, it leaves a glaring hole in their projected 2023 infield.

Obviously, the Tigers need several strong pieces built into this offense. The fact that they have many needs complicates matters in terms of any one position. The lesser options we’ll touch on may actually be plenty at third base should the Tigers add a much better hitting catcher and a quality outfielder. Without going all in, they aren’t going to be able to fill all these needs with really good players.

There’s also the matter of Mr. Colt Keith. The 21-year-old prospect’s 2022 offensive breakout has him looking like the club’s third baseman of the future. It’s not impossible that he’ll be ready for a look even late next season based on his impressive trajectory. We’re certainly not going to consider him a lock and worry about blocking him at this point. Still, if there’s a position on the field where the Tigers look to have significant help coming from the farm system, it’s the third base position in the form of Keith and a younger, but talented prospect in his own right, Izaac Pacheco.

If Harris decides that a stopgap measure at third base is the appropriate answer this season, it will be understandable as long as he’s able to boost the club’s offensive output by other means.

In terms of the bigger free agents, there are certainly plug-and-play options here that are nice to dream about, but probably don’t need to be investigated in any depth here. Signing Xander Bogearts and dropping him in at third base would certainly solve the problem authoritatively. Do that and trade for A’s catcher Sean Murphy and we’d be downright giddy about the future. The Tigers could revisit a missed opportunity and attempt to trade for Brewers’ shortstop Willy Adames, shifting Javier Báez to second base, and Jonathan Schoop to third. You get the point. Sign Carlos Correa and we’re not going to be worked up about right field and catcher.

We would certainly advocate for going out and getting really good players as opposed to trying to piece this together out of other teams’ scraps. The Tigers remain in a pretty good position to surprise us with a major signing as Miguel Cabrera’s deal reaches its final season. One way or another though, the Tigers need to find themselves better options than they have currently in-house.

Let’s run through some potential temporary fixes.

Ryan Kreidler

The Tigers selected Ryan Kreidler, a right-handed hitting shortstop out of UCLA, in the fifth round of the 2019 draft. There were modest positive projections for his defense and hit tool, but little expectation that he’d hit for enough power to get regular playing time in the show. Kreidler rebuilt his swing with the help of swing coach Doug Latta during the cancelled 2020 season, and surprised observers by crushing 22 home runs in 129 games in 2021. He tackled a strong first year assignment to Double-A Erie well and didn’t miss a beat with the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens late in the season.

Kreidler has some vulnerabilities as a hitter that made him something of a longshot to stick as a full-time regular in the major leagues. However, the newfound power combined with the ability to play a solid shortstop or a plus third base made him a fast riser on Tigers’ prospect lists last winter.

Unfortunately, like many in the Tigers’ organization in 2022, Kreidler was too hampered by injuries to put his best foot forward. On April 26 he was hit in the right hand and suffered a fractured bone. After surgery, he waited just a month before returning to action in late May. That proved too hasty, and Kreidler went back on the shelf for another two week stint. The Tigers had him playing part-time in June, and eventually he hit the disabled list again and wasn’t finally recalled by the Mud Hens until the end of July. Finally healthy, Kreidler struggled in August despite showing signs of his plate discipline and timing coming together, and didn’t do much in his 26 game look at the major leagues after a September call-up.

It’s reasonable to suggest that Kreidler deserves a do-over. That leaves him a likely part-time player as expected, but it’s still possible that he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet. Kreidler’s defense gives him value and even if the bat doesn’t improve much more he may hit enough to stick around in a backup role. So far, it looks like the Tigers are interested in seeing more of him next season, but we’ll have to see how Harris feels about it. If the Tigers go get themselves an everyday third baseman, all bets are off.

Jace Peterson

This 32-year-old third baseman has spent most of his MLB career with the Atlanta Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers, where he played the past three seasons. As a free agent with a modest track record as a light-hitting role player, Peterson isn’t going to command a lot, but he is coming off his most valuable season, posting 2.2 fWAR in 2022 and hitting a career best eight home runs in 328 plate appearances.

Peterson’s assets are his speed, a solid glove at third base, and a sound career on-base percentage against right-handed pitching. Generally he’s been considered a dedicated platoon hitter who doesn’t face many lefties. So, he doesn’t represent a full-time third baseman.

Scott Harris has specifically mentioned finding a left-handed hitting infielder as part of his offseason shopping list. That specificity would seem to imply something more impactful than Peterson is equipped to provide. However, with Harold Castro non-tendered, and assuming that the Tigers want to see a lot more out of Ryan Kreidler, Peterson makes for a solid utilityman. He’d provide some insurance for Kreidler, can handle himself at second base enough to get some reps there as well, and has the speed to be a weapon off the bench late in close games.

Josh Rojas

Finding a quality third baseman to trade for isn’t very easy right now. It’s not impossible that Rafael Devers could be pried away from the Red Sox, who appear to be in the midst of a partial reset and haven’t managed to get an extension done. However, he’d be costly in trade even as a rental bound to reach free agency at year’s end. So he doesn’t make sense unless the Tigers could extend the 26-year-old long-term.

A more realistic target may be Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman/utilityman, Josh Rojas. While he’s already 28, Rojas has four years of team control remaining but shouldn’t be too difficult to acquire in trade. The problem is that his defense has been a little suspect at times, leading Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo to sit him a few times late in the 2022 season.

Rojas was only a -1 defensive runs saved at third in 2022, so he’s not exactly a problem at the position, but they have used him in a utility role in the past, mixing him in at second base, shortstop, and right field. The Diamondbacks have a roster stacked with left-handed hitting outfielders, so using him more in a super utility role isn’t really viable for them going forward. Perhaps it’s time for a change of scenery.

There are several factors that could appeal to Harris here. Rojas hits left-handed, and acquiring some left-right offensive balance in the Tigers’ infield has been one of the few specific goals stated by Harris this offseason. Rojas hits for most of his power against right-handed pitching and posted a 114 wRC+ against right-handers in 2022, though his career splits are pretty balanced.

Rojas also stole 23 bases in 2022, and while not a burner, is a good baserunner who may be primed to take advantage of the shorter path between the larger bases coming in 2023. That could prove valuable on a team currently lacking speed in the everyday projected lineup.

He also fits the bill in terms of plate discipline. Rojas rarely chases outside of the strike zone, posting an O-swing percentage of 22.5, while the league average was 32.6 percent. His whiff rate is also better than league average. He draws his share of walks, holds a good career OBP of .336, and only struck out 19.2 percent of the time in 2022, against a league average of 22.4 percent. If Harris is really determined to put a team on the field that controls the strike zone well, Rojas is a fine fit in that regard.

Over the last two seasons, Rojas has 20 home runs in 1060 plate appearances. So while he has average raw power, he doesn’t get to it in-game for a lot of home runs. His batted ball profile is a little unique in that he tends to pull the ball on the ground, spray line drives to all fields, and hit more of his deep fly balls the opposite way or to center field.

This isn’t the type of impact bat we’re hoping for, but if Harris can find some offensive firepower elsewhere, Rojas could really tie the roster together. His plate discipline, defensive versatility, and base-stealing ability could be valuable to the Tigers in that super-utility style role. He’d give A.J. Hinch a good deal more flexibility in his lineup, with the ability to mix in Ryan Kreidler at third, and to spell Jonathan Schoop at second base against right-handers should the veteran second baseman’s struggles at the plate continue, and could also contribute in right field, where he has experience and a better arm than the rest of the club’s current outfielders.

Non-tendered options

By now it’s probably clear that there just aren’t many options for Harris to pursue without making a major trade or signing. However, we know he likes his waiver wire claims, and there are two players who were recently non-tendered who might peak his interest in the same vein.

The first is former Miami Marlins third baseman, Brian Anderson. From 2018 to 2020, the now 29-year-old third baseman was a consistent run producer with modest home run power whose strong arm made him a plus defender. By the end of 2020, he was rumored to be an extension candidate. That never came to pass, and over the past two seasons, injury issues have limited the right-handed hitter to 165 games combined.

In 2021, Anderson had two separate IL stints for left shoulder subluxation, essentially a dislocated shoulder. He then aggravated it late in the season diving for a ball and missed all of September. He played just 67 games total that year. In 2022, he missed a month with back spasms, and then was out for another month with a left shoulder sprain. The Marlins understandably decided to non-tender him on November 18 rather than commit to paying him an estimated $5.2 million in arbitration. Finding out the condition of that left shoulder would be the key to any real interest at the major league level.

When healthy, Anderson draws his share of walks and plays a pretty good third base. His power numbers are modest, but a good OBP and plenty of extra base hits were his calling cards before the shoulder issues became a big problem in 2021.

Another non-tendered third baseman recently was long-time Los Angeles Dodgers farmhand, Edwin Rios. The 28-year-old hits left-handed and packs huge raw power, but he’s never been able to put it together at the plate at the major league level. Trying to crack the Dodgers’ lineup is difficult enough despite decent ability at both third base and first base, but Rios has battled several major injuries in recent years as well.

Rios topped out with 31 home runs in just 104 games at Triple-A back in 2019. The PCL is generally a good hitting environment, but even so that’s a pretty huge display of his potential. There’s certainly a good amount of swing and miss in his game. However, he draws walks and his chase rates tend to be league average. The intervening years saw his prospect stock go into decline due to injuries, despite performing very well at the plate in 2019-2020 in 60 games at the major league level.

Pain related to a long-term shoulder issue dating back to labrum surgery in his junior year of college finally reached a point he could no longer play through it, and he missed just about all of the 2021 season to finally address it. The labrum was revealed to be partially torn and he went under the knife again, hoping to be 100 percent in 2022. He performed much better, posting a 120 wRC+ in 27 games, but once again dealt with a significant injury as he torn a hamstring in late May and missed June and most of July before returning to finish out the season at the Triple-A level.

Certainly Rios is a longshot, but the cost and risk will be negligible. If he could finally stay healthy for a season it would interesting to see what he can do. The problem is that people have been saying that for several years now, and that healthy season has never arrived. For a team like the Tigers he seems worth checking into, and perhaps could be enticed with a nice bonus to sign a minor league deal, giving the club time to evaluate him and for the medical and training staff to work with him this offseason to try and get him right physically.

If things happened to work out, pairing Rios with Kreidler at third could work out very well, and Rios ability to play first base may provide some cover should Spencer Torkelson fail to hold his spot on the major league roster for some part of the 2023 season. Expectations should not be too high, but again, a player like this might be a worthy longshot pick as long as they address the offense more decisively elsewhere.

Conclusions

As we discussed last month when considering whether or not to keep Candelario, the options are clearly pretty limited unless Harris is up for a really big move. There are more obvious opportunities available in terms of outfielders and catchers, and if that’s where he ends up placing the offensive emphasis this offseason, it’s pretty understandable. However, rolling with Ryan Kreidler and minor league options like Jermaine Palacios and Andy Ibanez for backup isn’t likely to provide an upgrade even considering Candelario’s rough 2022 season.

With the Winter Meetings due to start Sunday, we can hope for some action in the next week or two, but the odds that the Tigers end up better at third base than they were last year don’t look terribly promising at the moment. We’ll see what the new President of Baseball Operations can do to change that.

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