Detroit Tigers’ Andy Ibáñez enters position battle in spring training after offseason tweaks

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Tigers can’t wait to evaluate Andy Ibáñez.

After all, the 29-year-old served as the Opening Day third baseman for the Texas Rangers last season. He isn’t a member of the Tigers’ 40-man roster but received a non-roster invitation to spring training.

He might be the most underrated position player in camp.

Ibáñez, who will play for Team Cuba in the 2023 World Baseball Classic, arrived in Lakeland, Florida, home of the Tigers’ spring training complex, earlier this month to meet his new teammates and coaches.

“I feel happy with the move (to a new team),” Ibáñez said though an interpreter. “This offseason, I focused on my physical development and the deficiencies I had last year. That’s what I did this whole offseason.”

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The Tigers claimed Ibáñez — a pure contact hitter who avoids strikeouts — off waivers from the Rangers in November 2022. Two months later, he was designated for assignment but cleared waivers to stay in the organization. If he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he will report to Triple-A Toledo.

In November 2014, Ibáñez defected from Cuba to jumpstart his MLB career. He agreed to a contract with the Rangers in July 2015 and made his professional debut in 2016.

His MLB debut came in May 2021.

“I was surprised,” Ibáñez said. “(The Rangers) gave me the opportunity to be a professional, and they were the team I made it to the big leagues with. But I was also excited when Detroit picked me up. It’s an opportunity for a new chapter. I look forward to playing next to guys like Javier Báez and Miguel Cabrera. I want to learn from them and continue to develop.”

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Now, Ibáñez enters a position battle in spring training.

The Tigers don’t have an everyday third baseman, but several players are lined up to compete for playing time at that position: Ibáñez, Nick Maton, Ryan Kreidler, Tyler Nevin, Zack Short, César Hernández, Jermaine Palacios, Justyn-Henry Malloy and Andre Lipcius.

Five of them are on the 40-man roster: Maton, Kreidler, Nevin, Short and Lipcius. Almost all of them — except Malloy and Lipcius — have experience in the majors, with Hernández’s 10 seasons leading the group.

At least two, but probably three, of those players will earn a spot on the Opening Day roster in late March. Ibáñez, a right-handed hitter, played third base, second base, first base and left field with the Rangers.

He was worth plus-10 defensive runs saved across 687⅔ innings: plus-4 DRS at third base (282⅓ innings), plus-4 at second (260⅓ innings) and plus-2 at first (136 innings).

“I’ve worked this whole offseason at every position,” Ibáñez said. “I’ve always been a guy who can play different positions. Wherever the team needs me, I want to make sure I’m ready and able to play the position.”

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In 2022, Ibáñez hit .218 with one home run, nine walks (7% walk rate) and 21 strikeouts (16.4% strikeout rate) in 40 games for the Rangers. In Triple-A Round Rock, he posted a .255 batting average with six homers, 28 walks and 48 strikeouts in 73 games.

The results were a step backward from his 2021 campaign.

In 2021, Ibáñez hit .277 with seven homers, 15 walks (5.5% walk rate) and 35 strikeouts (12.9% strikeout rate) in 73 games for the Rangers. He also hit .342 with seven homers, 12 walks and 18 strikeouts in 30 Triple-A games.

“I worked on my front foot (this offseason),” Ibáñez said. “In years past, when I would load, my load was a little sooner and a little earlier, and I would land on time for when the pitch was getting to the plate.

“Last year, my load was off and the transfer of my weight was off. Everything was happening as the pitch was already on me. It was a little bit difficult. I worked on the front foot so I’m in a good hitting position when the pitch is there.”

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Ibáñez maintained his exit velocity and launch angle metrics over the two seasons, as well as his above-average contact rate. Last season, he swung and missed at a 19.4% clip and chased pitches outside of the strike zone at a 24.6% clip.

He clearly fits the Tigers’ plan for their new offensive identity.

For some reason, though, his pop-up rate increased from 7.7% in 2021 to 14.3% in 2022, and his ground-ball rate increased from 38.2% to 43.9%. He also stopped pulling the ball as often, which could explain his loss of power.

“We wanted to know why so many of those ground balls and pop flies were happening,” Ibáñez said. “It was basically because my load was incorrect and my timing was off. It was either that I was too much in front, and I would roll over, or the ball would get on me, and I would hit a lazy fly ball.”

To find those answers, Ibáñez started his offseason routine earlier than normal. By early November, while the Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies were wrapping up the World Series, he was combing through film with his personal hitting coach, Ricardo Sosa, in Miami.

Sosa, also Miguel Cabrera‘s hitting coach, helped diagnose the problems.

“Last year, I tried to change on my own, and it probably wasn’t the best decision,” Ibáñez said. “I needed to have a better idea of what I’m trying to do at the plate so I can be that Andy from before that helped me get to the big leagues.”

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During the upcoming roster battle, Ibáñez will leave the Tigers’ complex in March and compete in the World Baseball Classic. Team Cuba is in Pool A with Chinese Taipei, Netherlands, Italy and Panama. The five teams will compete at Taichung Stadium in Taiwan.

Ibáñez, at age 19, was the youngest player with Team Cuba in the 2013 World Baseball Classic but couldn’t play in the 2017 edition because he had defected to the United States. This time around, the U.S. has allowed Cuban players in MLB to represent their home country.

He can’t wait to play alongside longtime friend Yoán Moncada.

“We have history together,” Ibáñez said. “We played when we were younger for the (Cuban) national team. We were the two pieces up the middle (in the infield), and now he’s a third baseman and I’m a second baseman. It’s exciting to get the opportunity to play with him and some of my other good friends.”

Once the WBC concludes, Ibáñez will return to the Tigers’ facility and continue battling for a coveted spot on the Opening Day roster. He is certainly in the mix for playing time.

Therefore, he hopes his offseason tweaks pay off in 2023.

“With everything working, I think things could be either the same or better than what they were in 2021,” Ibáñez said. “That’s what I’m working for. I’m working to be better, produce more and be there for my team. The goal is to either get back to that or be better.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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