Detroit Tigers’ 2023 Opening Day roster prediction 1.0: Position battles in spring training

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Opening Day is 43 days away.

Spring training is underway for the Detroit Tigers with the first full-squad workout scheduled for Monday. Once March rolls around, the Tigers will start cutting players from camp. The 26-man roster must be finalized by the end of March.

The Tigers start the regular season March 30 against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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Here’s a look at our first version of how the Tigers should fill their 26-man 2023 Opening Day roster as spring training begins: 

How about Eric Haase‘s journey?

For most of his career, Haase didn’t get a real chance at playing time in the big leagues. Now, the 30-year-old enters spring training as the Tigers’ starting catcher and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Haase hit .242 with 36 home runs in 208 games over the past two seasons, and his overall production on offense improved from a 101 wRC+ in 98 games in 2021 to a 112 wRC+ in 110 games in 2022.

He has raked against left-handed pitchers throughout his career, but don’t forget about his recent development against right-handed pitchers, from hitting .204 with a .661 OPS in 2021 to hitting .239 with a .731 OPS in 2022. If Haase continues to hit righties, and if he improves his pitch framing, he could play at least 130 games this season.

The Tigers don’t have a contingency plan at first base: It’s Spencer Torkelson or bust. The 23-year-old will be the Opening Day first baseman, but if he needs another demotion to Triple-A Toledo at some point during the season, there’s no telling how the organization will fill the void.

But the Tigers are banking on a bounce-back performance from Torkelson, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick from Arizona State. He is coming off an underwhelming rookie season, hitting .203 with eight home runs in 110 games and struggling against four-seam fastballs.

Quincy Nieporte, a 28-year-old who hit .270 with 31 home runs in Double-A Erie last season, might be the regular first baseman in Triple-A Toledo, barring a new minor-league signing. Justyn-Henry Malloy, the top prospect acquired from the Atlanta Braves in the Joe Jiménez trade, might play some first base for the Mud Hens, too.

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In the past six full seasons, Jonathan Schoop has five seasons with at least 20 home runs and four seasons with at least a .250 batting average. Last season, he hit .202 with 11 homers, 19 walks and 107 strikeouts in 131 games. His .561 OPS was the worst of his career, but the track record suggests his production will improve in 2023, the final year of his contract.

Defensively, Schoop is expected to start the season as the Tigers’ everyday second baseman. The elimination of the shift could negatively impact his defensive metrics, but he is still an above-average defender. Before spring training, Schoop represented Curaçao in the Caribbean Series. He hit .136 in six games; his older brother, Sharlon Schoop, hit .417 in seven games.

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For better or worse, the Tigers are stuck with Javier Báez. The former two-time All-Star shortstop looked miserable with his new team until June 16 last season. From that point on, he was worth 2.3 fWAR — 13th among MLB shortstops — while hitting .264 with 14 home runs in 94 games. Overall, the 30-year-old was worth 2.0 fWAR and hit .238 with 17 homers in 144 games.

The Tigers expect Báez to feel motivated following his participation in the World Baseball Classic, from March 8-21, which could help him to a hot start in his second year with the organization. If the Tigers want to shock the world, they’ll need Báez to play MVP-caliber baseball. It’s too bad he has only received MVP votes once in his nine-year career, when he finished runner-up to Christian Yelich in the National League in 2018.

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The Tigers don’t have an everyday third baseman, so they’ll likely mix and match throughout the 2023 season. But Nick Maton — acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in the Gregory Soto trade — seems like the starting third baseman against right-handed pitchers. He hit .250 with five home runs, 10 walks and 29 strikeouts in 34 games for the Phillies last season.

Maton, who turns 26 this month, hit .278 against righties and .220 against lefties between the majors and minors last season. When facing righties in the majors, he hit .478 against fastballs, .067 against breaking balls and .071 against offspeed pitches. He favors pitches around the top of the strike zone.

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Riley Greene and Austin Meadows are guaranteed starters in the outfield, and Matt Vierling — also acquired from the Phillies in the Soto trade — could benefit from an expanded role. Greene, 22, seems to be on the verge of a breakout sophomore season in the big leagues, while Meadows, 27, thinks he can be an All-Star-caliber player again after mental and physical struggles derailed his first season with the Tigers.

Last spring training, Greene hit .429 with three doubles, two triples, two home runs, three walks and six strikeouts in 11 games. The 2019 No. 5 overall pick fractured his right foot on a foul ball and missed the Opening Day roster.

Vierling, 26, hit .256 with six home runs, 23 walks and 70 strikeouts in 117 games for the Phillies last season. He posted a .217 batting average against righties and a .295 batting average against lefties. Swing changes could help him unleash his raw power, but he looks like a solid all-around player and a lineup lock when the Tigers face a left-handed pitcher.

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Entering his 21st MLB season, Miguel Cabrera is hitting .308 with 3,088 hits, 607 doubles and 507 home runs in his historic career. He has surpassed the major milestones and won’t be an everyday player, even though the Tigers are paying him $32 million for his below-average services. Cabrera, who turns 40 in April, plans to retire after the 2023 campaign, which is when his contract expires, but he could return in 2024 (with a $30 million salary) if he finishes in the top 10 in American League MVP voting this season.

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For the Opening Day reserves, the Tigers seemingly need a backup catcher, a left-handed hitting outfielder to platoon with Vierling, a right-handed hitting infielder to platoon with Maton and a utility player.

Several players are in the mix for those openings: catchers Jake Rogers, Donny Sands and Andrew Knapp; outfielders Kerry Carpenter and Akil Baddoo; and infielders César HernándezAndy IbáñezRyan KreidlerAndre LipciusTyler Nevin and Jermaine Palacios.

Hernández, a 10-year MLB veteran, should win a spot as the utility player, leaving three projected battles between Rogers, Sands and Knapp for backup catcher, Carpenter and Baddoo for fourth outfielder, and Ibáñez, Nevin and Palacios for the other opening at third base.

Kreidler and Lipcius could compete, too, but if the Tigers felt confident about them beyond Triple-A Toledo, they probably wouldn’t have acquired as many right-handed hitting infielders this offseason. Kreidler, 25, hit .213 for the Mud Hens and .178 for the Tigers last season.

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The Tigers’ rotation, despite all the injuries last season, is stable entering spring training. Eduardo Rodriguez leads the pack and should be the Opening Day starter, followed by Matt Manning, Matthew Boyd and Michael Lorenzen.

This offseason, Boyd and Lorenzen signed one-year contracts worth $10 million and $8.5 million, respectively. Spencer Turnbull, returning from Tommy John surgery, is the biggest question mark.

Turnbull, 30, posted a 2.88 ERA with 12 walks and 44 strikeouts over 50 innings in nine starts during the 2021 season. After throwing a no-hitter, he underwent elbow surgery in July 2021 and hasn’t pitched professionally since then. If he isn’t ready come Opening Day, 25-year-old left-hander Joey Wentz could fill his spot in the rotation.

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Five of the eight bullpen spots will be occupied by Alex Lange, José Cisnero, Jason Foley, Tyler Alexander and Mason Englert. As a Rule 5 draft pick, Englert must stay on the 26-man roster for the entire 2023 season or be offered back to the Texas Rangers.

Several pitchers will compete for what could be three openings: Will Vest (40-man roster), Beau Brieske (40-man), Garrett Hill (40-man), Edwin Uceta (40-man), Brendan White (40-man), Chasen Shreve, Matt Wisler, Trey Wingenter, Miguel Díaz and Kervin Castro, among others.

On paper, Shreve and Wisler — a pair of established MLB veterans — look like frontrunners, which would leave one spot for the taking. Shreve is admired for his splitter and developing slider, while Wisler is known for throwing sliders more than 90% of the time.

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The Tigers have expressed some interest in two left-handed relievers on the free-agent market: Will Smith and Zack Britton. The Tigers tried to re-sign lefty reliever Andrew Chafin, but he chose a more lucrative offer and inked a one-year, $5.5 million contract (plus $1 million in incentives) with the Arizona Diamondbacks. His deal includes a $7.5 million club option for the 2024 season. Smith has received interest from postseason contenders, so unless the Tigers pay up, they’re unlikely to add him.

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

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