Detroit — As we sat in the Tigers’ dugout at Comerica Park Wednesday, being apprised by Tigers president Scott Harris of the new dimensions that will be in place by Opening Day, I thought I’d slip in a question about the rest of the offseason.
Like, “Do you think most of the heavy lifting is done at least until we get to camp next month?”
A wry smile cracked Harris’ face.
“I don’t know if I can credibly say I feel like we’re done or that we’ve done the heavy lifting,” he said. “We feel good about the trade we made over the weekend but we are still hard at work trying to make the team better. Whether that manifests in a trade or a free-agent signing — I can’t say right now.
“But we’re working really hard at it. We feel the offseason isn’t over.”
Now you see why trying to make roster predictions is such a futile exercise, right? Things could look very different by the time the prediction gets posted on this website.
The trade over the weekend, though, did bring some things a little more into focus. The acquisition of versatile and athletic players Matt Vierling and Nick Maton from the Phillies — in exchange for reliever Gregory Soto and utility infielder Kody Clemens — lent a peek into how this roster is being constructed, position player-wise, for 2023.
As it stands now, you don’t even need all five fingers to count the everyday players: Riley Geene in center field, Javier Baez at shortstop and Jonathan Schoop at second base. That’s it. Not even Miguel Cabrera is likely to get everyday designated hitter reps.
Eventually, maybe, Spencer Torkelson hits his way into everyday status at first base. Maybe Eric Haase ends up as the predominant catcher. Austin Meadows will be given every opportunity to bounce back and lock in on the right field spot.
For now, though, it’s mix and match, platoon and exploit as many favorable matchups as manager AJ Hinch can create on a given day.
“Having options and having the ability to put people in positions to be successful against the right pitchers is something Scott and I have been studying the whole offseason,” Hinch said last week.
Might Hinch long for the days when he could write the names, Bregman, Correa, Altuve, Springer, Gurriel and Beltran on his lineup card every day? Of course. But that’s not what he’s working with right now. He’s got a roster of young, talented players still trying to carve their niche against big-league pitching.
And honestly, who better to manage match-up baseball than Hinch? He put on a clinic in maximizing minimal talent in the final five months of 2021, did he not?
So what might this look like?
A left-field platoon with left-handed hitting Akil Baddoo and right-handed hitting Vierling, for starters. Baddoo has struggled against lefties while Vierling has raked against lefties. No-brainer.
Without an established everyday third baseman — and not one in sight, frankly — you rotate left-handed hitting Maton with either Ryan Kreidler or Tyler Nevin, both right-handed hitters. Maybe, if Vierling is swinging it well, he’s the right-handed option.
Maton, who at present is the only left-handed swinging infielder in the mix, could spell Schoop at second and Baez at shortstop, too.
(Quick aside: There has been talk of Schoop possibly moving to third base. Hinch brought it up during the Winter Meetings just because there is some uncertainty about Schoop’s range without the support of over-shifts. But the ball-in-play data is the same and teams are still going to shade defenders toward where the hitter hits it most. The transition might not be as drastic as we think.
The plan for Schoop, a Gold Glove finalist last year, is to remain at second base until he proves he can’t play it effectively. Remember, even when Jeimer Candelario was at the height of his struggles last season, Hinch resisted moving Schoop over. Going into spring training, the focus will be trying to find the right player or players to man third base, not transitioning Schoop away from his most effective defensive position.)
Back to the lineup.
If left-handed hitting Kerry Carpenter wins a roster spot, Hinch will find good matchups for him against right-handed pitching either in the DH spot or right field. Especially against some of the harder-throwing righties that have given Cabrera trouble the past couple of seasons.
Hinch should have a lot of options against left-handed pitching. All three of the competing catchers rake against lefties. Haase for his career has a .609 slugging percentage and .821 OPS against lefties.
Jake Rogers and Donny Sands, the third player acquired from the Phillies, are both right-handed hitters who are competing for the second catcher spot and hit lefties extremely well. Sands slashed .373/.500/.552 with a 1.052 OPS in Triple-A against lefties last season. Rogers in his brief big-league career slugs .609 with a .938 OPS against lefties.
Lots of lineups
We thought Hinch used a lot of different lineups in his first two seasons in Detroit, and he did. But he might set a record this year.
Let’s try to map out how that first series in Tampa may look. The Rays presumably will have lefty Shane McClanahan start Opening Day, with a right-hander (either Tyler Glasnow, Zach Eflin or Drew Rasmussen) pitching the second game.
Hinch will probably load up on right-handed hitters against McClanahan. I won’t try to predict his batting order, but you might see Torkelson at first, Schoop at second, Baez at short and either Nevin or Kreidler at third. Vierling would start in left, Greene in center and Meadows in right. Cabrera would likely be the DH.
The Rays have a right-handed-heavy bullpen, too, so Hinch would have Baddoo, Carpenter and Maton available off the bench and he’s very adept at forecasting late-game moves and aligning his bench hitters accordingly.
On day two, though, against the presumed righty, the lineup might include Maton at third, Baddoo in left and Carpenter at DH.
And that’s just the surface matchups. It goes way deeper. The Tigers’ data base is far more advanced now, with what Harris brought with him from San Francisco, than it’s ever been. Few teams have created and managed in-game matchups better than the Giants the last couple of seasons and Harris was a huge part of that.
So, it’s not just about creating righty-lefty matchups. It’s about playing to hitters’ strengths and pitchers’ weaknesses. Maton, as an example, has been a good, high-fastball hitter, thus he’s a good matchup against pitchers who rely on elevated fastballs.
It’s about matching up a hitter’s hot zones against a pitcher’s zone tendencies. Haase, for example, crushes balls middle in and down and in. White Sox right-hander Lucas Giolito throws a lot of four-seam fastballs and changeups in and down to right-handed hitters.
Haase in his career is 8-for-21 with two doubles and two homers off Giolito, a 1.17 OPS.
Simplified here, for sure, but that’s the kind of data Harris and Hinch are studying, only in far more intricate and advanced forms.
But that doesn’t mean the Tigers will be playing an on-field version of Strat-o-matic baseball next season. Not every platoon will be etched in stone. Those who hit will play. Hinch isn’t going to sit a hot hitter just because of a righty-lefty matchup.
He would like nothing more for players to seize everyday roles. But until that happens, put the over-under on 100 different lineups in 2023.
Friday was the deadline for teams to sign arbitration-eligible players or submit salary numbers to the league. The Tigers had two unsigned arb-eligible players:
Right-handed reliever Jose Cisnero, who is projected to earn approximately $2.2 millions, and right-hander Rony Garcia, projected to earn $1 million.
Lefty Tyler Alexander, who was arbitration-eligible, signed for $1.8 million earlier this offseason. Meadows signed for $4.3 million.
Eight other players who would’ve been eligible for arbitration are no longer in the organization: Drew Hutchison, Joe Jimenez, Candelario, Victor Reyes, Harold Castro, Willi Castro, Gregory Soto and Kyle Funkhouser.