Detroit — Remember when the Tigers drafted Spencer Torkelson with the first overall pick in 2020 and they announced him as a third baseman?
Seemed daft at the time, didn’t it?
But, as we sit here today, just a few short weeks from the start of spring training, and with the Tigers still without any clear answers at the third-base position — maybe it wasn’t all that daft after all. Maybe then-general manager Al Avila and his staff saw this day coming. Maybe they knew what they were hoping for.
Hope, though, as always, is a bad strategy.
Torkelson floundered in his brief time at the hot corner and then flashed Gold Glove potential at first base in his rookie season. He will not be asked to bring an infielder’s glove to Lakeland, leaving a messy 12-piece jigsaw puzzle at third base for manager AJ Hinch to sort out this spring.
That is, unless president of baseball operations Scott Harris bails him out with a late acquisition, which seems like a remote possibility right now.
Of the potential 12 players who could get reps at third base this spring, not one has played the position on a regular basis in the big leagues. Most project as utility players, except for a couple of prospects who are probably a season away from making a true impact in Detroit.
It’s going to be a fascinating scramble this spring and a season-long challenge for Hinch to find creative ways to maximize whatever third-base rotation he settles on.
The good news is the bar isn’t set all that high. Jeimer Candelario had been the club’s regular third baseman since 2018. In those five years, he was worth 7.5 wins above replacement with a minus-12 in defensive runs saved and an OPS-plus of 98, two points below the big-league average.
Candelario had his most productive seasons in 2020 (137 OPS-plus) and 2021 (127 OPS-plus) — accruing 5.8 wins above replacement in those two years — but fell off dramatically last season (83 OPS-plus, 0.6 WAR).
It would have cost the Tigers probably around $7 million to keep Candelario for another season. Instead, they cut him loose, non-tendered him, and he signed a one-year deal worth $5 million with the Washington Nationals.
And so here we are.
As spring training fast approaches, let’s examine the potential pieces of Hinch’s third-base puzzle.
▶ Nick Maton, age-26 season, acquired from the Phillies for Gregory Soto: He played all around the diamond for the Phillies last season, mostly in the outfield and second base. He even pitched a couple of innings. But he only played two games at third base.
–Nick Maton, age-26 season, acquired from the Phillies for Gregory Soto: He played all around the diamond for the Phillies last season, mostly in the outfield and second base. He even pitched a couple of innings. But he only played two games at third base.
Still, he has the hands, instincts and arm strength to handle the position.
He’s also a left-handed hitter, which plays in his favor, since the three other infield positions are expected to be manned by right-handed hitters: Javier Baez, Jonathan Schoop and Torkelson.
Maton has a good track record against right-handed pitching (four of his seven big-league homers have come off righties, and he slugged .502 against them in Triple-A last season). He also hit .300 against left-handed pitching in a short sample last season.
Also intriguing, Maton hit .406 with a .844 slugging percentage against fastballs last season. Tigers hitters have struggled mightily against fastballs the last two seasons.
▶ Ryan Kreidler, 25, Tigers fourth-round pick in 2019. A broken hand and a groin strain chopped up his season in 2022. He never did find traction at the plate (.178 batting average in a short sample in the big leagues). But, he was impressive during spring training last year, and it’s clear he can be an elite defensive player.
He’s a shortstop by trade, but he posted a plus-3 defensive runs saved and a plus-8 zone rating in 13 games at third base last season. He was a plus-2, plus-20 in 13 games at shortstop.
With both of their primary utility players gone off last year’s team — Harold Castro and Willi Castro — it’s hard to envision a scenario where Kreidler doesn’t make the team. He is arguably the best, most reliable defensive shortstop on the roster, including Baez.
But, he has to hit, which he hasn’t done much of since posting a .804 OPS with 22 homers between Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo in 2021.
▶ Tyler Nevin, age-26 season, purchased from the Orioles. The Tigers are hoping there is a breakout season coming from this former first-round pick. He scuffled last season after an encouraging short-sample debut in 2021, hitting .197 with sub-.300 slugging and on-base numbers in 58 games (184 plate appearances).
He’s a right-handed hitter who has always hit well against left-handed pitching, but he’s not been productive against right-handed pitching, even the last two years against Triple-A right-handers. But, he has slug potential and he’s shown the ability to hit for power to all fields.
He’s played multiple positions defensively, including first base and corner outfield, but third base seems to be his primary spot. He was a minus-4 defensive runs saved there last season.
▶ Matt Vierling, 26, acquired from the Phillies in the Soto trade. Both Hinch and Harris indicated Vierling will get reps at third base, though it seems more likely that he will be a right-handed platoon option in either left field or right field.
Vierling hit .295 off left-handed pitching in the big leagues last year and .294 against Triple-A lefties, so one could envision a platoon fit with him and Maton. But Vierling only played five games at third base for the Phillies.
He is a superior athlete, though. The Phillies used him at second base and first base, as well as all three outfield positions last year.
The Tigers are going to give Vierling every opportunity to play regularly, even if it’s at multiple positions. He has elite speed. He doesn’t strike out much (19.6% last season) and he hits the ball hard (average exit velocity on balls in play, 91 mph).
In the fight
▶ Jermaine Palacios, 26, non-roster invitee. He will be coming to camp off a strong showing in the Venezuelan Winter League, hitting .400 with a 1.1 OPS. That, after struggling in his big-league debut with the Twins last season (10-for-70, 27 strikeouts, four walks).
–Jermaine Palacios, 26, non-roster invitee. He will be coming to camp off a strong showing in the Venezuelan Winter League, hitting .400 with a 1.1 OPS. That after struggling in his big-league debut with the Twins last season (10 for 70, 27 strikeouts, four walks).
He, like everybody else on this list, has played all over the diamond. He’s even pitched. But the Twins played him at third base just once last season. He played 33 games at third base for Triple-A St. Paul (nine errors) and five games in Venezuela this winter (three errors).
Palacios has shown some power in spurts through the minor leagues and he had 13 doubles and five homers in 32 games this winter. The Tigers will give him a chance to carry that over into a potential breakout season this year.
▶ Andy Ibanez, age-30 season, non-roster invitee. In 2021, the Cuban-born infielder sparked the Texas Rangers in a 76-game spurt, with 15 doubles and seven home runs. That earned him the starting third-base job on Opening Day last year. It didn’t last long.
Ibanez struggled and was back in Triple-A after 40 games.
The Tigers are intrigued by his plate discipline and bat-to-ball skills (14% strikeout rate, 20% whiff rate, 28% chase rate). Third base is also his primary position, though he has played all around the infield.
▶ Zack Short, age-28 season, his third with the Tigers. There has to be some reason the Tigers continue to carry Short on the 40-man roster. He is a middle infielder by trade and has played just three games at third base in the big leagues, but he’s got quick hands, a strong arm and sneaky power.
He hit 11 homers at Toledo last season and he hit six in 61 games with the Tigers in 2021. And even though his high strikeout rate (32.5%) doesn’t fit the profile the club is seeking, his walk rate does. He has a 12% walk rate in his short big-league time and a .359 on-base average in 917 Triple-A plate appearances.
Prospects to watch
▶ Andre Lipcius, age-25 season, Tigers’ third-round pick in 2019. He earned a spot on the 40-man roster with a breakout season, posting a .391 on-base average and .826 OPS between Erie and Toledo last season. He whacked 33 doubles and 12 homers. Third base is also his primary position.
–Andre Lipcius, age-25 season, Tigers’ third-round pick in 2019. He earned a spot on the 40-man roster with a breakout season, posting a .391 on-base average and .826 OPS between Erie and Toledo last season. He whacked 33 doubles and 12 homers. Third base is also his primary position.
▶ Justyn-Henry Malloy, age-23 season, acquired from the Braves for Joe Jimenez. The Tigers believe there is a good chance Malloy will get to the big leagues at some point this season, and you can see why. The Tigers’ No. 7-rated prospect (MLB Pipeline), jumped three levels in the Braves system last year, hitting .289 with an impressive .408 on-base average and .863 OPS.
Although he was moved to the outfield, he still played 51 games at third base and is expected to get most of his reps there this spring.
▶ Colt Keith, 21, Tigers fifth-round pick in 2020. He’s probably a year away, but the club’s No. 6-rated prospect is coming fast. A shoulder injury cost him several months last year, but he made up for the lost time, dominating High-A pitching at West Michigan (.301/.370/.544). He did more of the same at the Arizona Fall League (.344/.463/.541). The expectation is for him to ascend to Triple-A by the end of the season and perhaps be a call-up option in September.
▶ Wenceel Perez, 23, seventh year in the Tigers’ system. If he stays on his current offensive track, the Tigers are going to be forced to find a place for him. Between West Michigan and Erie last season, Perez produced 23 doubles, 10 triples and 14 home runs while slashing .295/.369/.534 with a .902 OPS. He had a 10% walk rate and a low 15% strikeout rate.
The problem is finding a defensive spot for him. He was signed as a shortstop, but the Tigers abandoned that notion before the COVID year. He played mostly second base last season. In seven games at third — all at West Michigan — he made five errors in 20 chances.
▶ Jonathan Schoop. Schoop, a Gold Glove finalist at second base, led all of baseball in outs above average last season. The last thing Hinch wants to do is move Schoop and potentially create defensive issues at two positions.
But Schoop has played and can play third base. And with teams no longer able to deploy shifts, there is a question of how Schoop’s range will play at second base at age 31 without the benefit of a third defender on the right side of the infield.
That will be sorted out early in camp. If his range is inadequate, and that seems unlikely, then maybe the position battle becomes at second base instead of third.