More LF starts for Haase? If it helps Tigers, ‘I’ll do it’

Detroit Tigers

ST. PETERSBURG — Tigers manager A.J. Hinch gave Eric Haase a vote of confidence at catcher this offseason. But he also warned the slugging backstop to bring his outfield glove to Spring Training.

As Haase stood in left field at Tropicana Field in Monday’s 9-5 loss to the Rays, he was putting it to use. In many ways, it could be a dress rehearsal for March 30-April 2, when the Tigers open their regular season here.

As the Tigers look for versatility in the field and matchups to exploit, Haase is part of a big group. If it gets him more at-bats, he’s on board. It’s nothing he hasn’t done before.

“If I’m going to be here doing the work, then I want to be in and have as much of a hand in the game as I can,” he said. “If that comes from left field or first or catching, whatever the case is, I’ll do it.”

Left field was a vehicle for Haase to get the extra at-bats to turn a Major League opportunity into a breakthrough season in 2021. He started 20 games in left that season and held his own, and he posted a 1.074 OPS in games he played in left compared to .689 in games he caught. It was different game preparation, Haase said, but more importantly, it was added at-bats.

“It’s just those consistent ABs,” he said. “If there was a stretch where I was going to play just two out of four days, but now I can play three, maybe four out of those games because I can play another position, then I’m in there consistent, I’m able to make those adjustments, just seeing more pitches, more opportunity for things to go right.”

Haase was on track for a similar hybrid role last year until the Tigers traded for Austin Meadows to serve as their everyday left fielder, scuttling a potential three-catcher roster.

Haase made just four starts in left field last year, all in April. He made some late-inning appearances as the season went on, but he focused the vast majority of his work on catcher, where he shared time with Tucker Barnhart.

While Barnhart left in free agency, the Tigers’ only addition at catcher was Donny Sands from Philadelphia in the Gregory Soto trade. That seemingly put Haase in position to serve as the No. 1 catcher, but that doesn’t mean he can’t play another position.

“I’m saying ‘one of’ our catchers,” Hinch said before Monday’s game. “That’s a unique trait, to be able to do that in general. But I don’t think it impacts him. This is his third year doing it with us. Physically, the hardest thing is the throws are a little bit different, and certainly it’s harder on your legs, both the day before and the day after. But Haase will be prepared on that. There’s no concern.”

The return of Jake Rogers, and the surprising lack of rust in his hitting after a year off recovering from Tommy John surgery, certainly helps the Tigers’ ability to be flexible with Haase. On the flip side, Matt Vierling — also part of the Soto trade — looms as the only right-handed hitter in the Tigers’ outfield.

Using Haase as a left fielder more than occasionally would work better if the Tigers carry three catchers on their 26-man roster. At the moment, Haase, Rogers and Sands are the only catchers on Detroit’s 40-man roster.

“The bulk of my stuff is going to be behind the plate,” Haase said. “We have a lot of guys that I need to learn behind the plate, so that’s priority No. 1. And then roster construction goes in at No. 2.”

Hinch wants to get Haase in left field three or four times before Spring Training ends. The fact that his first game in left came at Tropicana Field was no coincidence.

“He could very well play a game [in left] in the first weekend,” Hinch said.

Haase saw one fly ball in left field Monday, a high loft from Brandon Lowe that he had to judge against the gray backdrop of the Tropicana Field roof. Haase tracked it fairly easily for an out as Daniel Robertson tagged up from third.

“I’ve played left quite a few games here before, so I knew,” Haase said. “In the daytime, it’s just brighter. It’s not a big deal. Get a couple of reads in BP, just try to stay on top of it.”

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