Detroit Tigers’ 2023 Opening Day roster prediction 2.0: Why matchups matter for almost all

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Opening Day is 14 days away.

Spring training has been underway for the Detroit Tigers since mid-February. The organization has eliminated 16 players from 26-man roster contention, but there are 49 players remaining in MLB camp.

The regular season begins March 30 against the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg, Florida.

HOW WE GOT HERE: Tigers’ 2023 Opening Day roster prediction 1.0: Position battles in spring training

Here’s a look at our second version of how the Tigers should fill their 26-man Opening Day roster with just 12 games remaining in spring training:

Jake Rogers is the best defensive catcher on the Tigers’ 40-man roster, and with fellow catcher Eric Haase able to play left field, it’s worth thinking deeply about how the playing time behind the plate will shake out this season, especially knowing Haase’s below-average defense but above-average power should warrant opportunities as the designated hitter when Miguel Cabrera doesn’t play.

A healthy Rogers, now fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, is quietly starting to look like the Tigers’ best option and the closest thing they have to an everyday catcher — and unlike Haase, he can’t play a different position.

Donny Sands, the third catcher on the 40-man roster, has struggled on offense this spring. Rogers, meanwhile, is hitting .368 with two doubles, three home runs, one walk and five strikeouts in 20 plate appearances. He caught back-to-back games for the first time Monday and Tuesday.

MORE ON ROGERS: Why Tigers’ Jake Rogers, returning from injury, ‘needs to be in the locker room’

Spencer Torkelson, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick, is one of three players practically guaranteed to be a full-time starter (along with shortstop Javier Báez and outfielder Riley Greene). The 23-year-old, who made several changes behind the scenes, has been hitting the ball hard throughout spring training.

Finally, he’s starting to get rewarded.

In spring games with Statcast data, Torkelson has put 12 of his 22 balls in play with at least a 100 mph exit velocity, which means his contact is outstanding. And 10 of is 22 balls in play have occurred on pitches with at least a 94 mph velocity — he isn’t missing fastballs anymore.

Torkelson enters Thursday riding a four-game hitting streak and has a .258 batting average with three doubles, two walks and eight strikeouts in 31 plate appearances. Expect to see his first home run, and maybe a couple more, before spring training ends.

MORE ON TORKELSON: How Tigers’ Spencer Torkelson adjusted his mindset to find his confidence

Of the position players, Jonathan Schoop has the most to prove on offense. The 31-year-old, an established veteran earning $7.5 million this season, has a long track record of hitting, but the clock has been ticking for far too long.

A loss of playing time will be the first repercussion.

Schoop is hitting .195 (102-for-524) with 11 home runs in 144 games since the beginning of the 2022 season, including a .116 (5-for-43) batting average across 13 2023 games in spring training, the Caribbean Series and the World Baseball Classic. The Tigers haven’t talked about cutting him before Opening Day, but he needs to pick it up if he wants to be a regular in the lineup.

MORE ON SCHOOP: Tigers’ Jonathan Schoop looks different, promises better results in 2023

Báez enters the second season of his six-year, $140 million contract and has an opt-out clause in his contract after this year. He needs to bounce back if the Tigers want to play competitive baseball throughout the summer months. He hit .238 with 17 homers in 144 games last season.

But keep in mind, the 30-year-old wasn’t that bad in 2022.

Beginning June 16, Báez ranked eighth among qualified shortstops with a 112 wRC+ and ninth with a .750 OPS in his final 94 games, hitting .264 with 14 home runs. He was also worth 2.3 fWAR, ranking 13th among shortstops, during the last three-plus months of the season.

MORE ON BÁEZ: Can World Baseball Classic help ‘comfortable’ Javier Báez energize Tigers in 2023?

MORE ON BÁEZ: Getting to know Javier Báez, from his Lamborghini to his incredible farm in Puerto Rico

After a few weeks of camp, Nick Maton looks like more like a starting shortstop than a starting third baseman. The 26-year-old likes to field and throw on the run, a product of his middle-infield roots, but the plant-and-throw action isn’t a natural movement at this point in his development at the hot corner. Regardless, he has all the athleticism to mature into a reliable third baseman once he adjusts to not having as much reaction time.

On offense, the left-handed hitter feasts on pitches in the upper half of the strike zone. He hammers right-handed pitchers and fastballs while posting miserable results against left-handers and breaking balls. Entering 2023, Maton should be the starting third baseman against righties. He needs to improve against breaking and offspeed pitches.

MORE ON MATON: Why Nick Maton — who crushes righties and ‘can hit any fastball’ — fits with Tigers

The strength of the Tigers’ lineup is the outfield: Greene, Austin Meadows and Matt Vierling. Greene, 22, will be an everyday player as he looks for a breakthrough sophomore season with All-Star-caliber results. Meadows, 27, is coming back from a broken first season with the Tigers, but his mental and physical health leads him to believe he can produce in the heart of the batting order.

Vierling, 26, will be a lineup lock when the Tigers face a left-handed pitcher and should receive opportunities to develop against right-handers. He hit .217 against righties and .295 against lefties in 117 games last season.

The Tigers can’t wait to learn if Vierling can be an everyday player in the outfield.

MORE ON VIERLING: How Tigers’ Matt Vierling became a ‘yes man’ in the best way possible

MORE ON GREENE: Tigers won’t guarantee Riley Greene as full-time leadoff hitter, center fielder

There is no competition. Cabrera, who turns 40 in April, plans to retire after the 2023 season. The Tigers are paying him $32 million, but he won’t play every day. Right now, the future Hall of Famer is working hard as a leader in the clubhouse for Team Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic.

MORE ON MIGGY: Venezuela manager Omar López reveals how Miguel Cabrera can transition from player to coach

When Haase isn’t catching, the Tigers will utilize his strengths as a right-handed hitter in pinch-hit opportunities off the bench against left-handed relief pitchers. He struggles against certain types of pitches from right-handed pitchers, so those are matchups the Tigers could avoid.

One of the closest roster battles in camp is between Akil Baddoo and Kerry Carpenter. They’re left-handed hitting outfielders with completely different profiles, though both are below-average defenders. The biggest difference: Baddoo has speed, while Carpenter has power. The Tigers have spent a lot of time teaching baseball awareness on the basepaths, and they want to get back to taking risks, which fits right into Baddoo’s style of play.

César Hernández, a veteran switch-hitter, should feel good about his chances of making the Opening Day roster and pushing Schoop for playing time. He hasn’t homered this spring, but he’s hitting .346 with six doubles, four walks and seven strikeouts in 31 plate appearances. Hernández also looks comfortable at his natural second base position, even without the shift, and has played just four innings at third base.

MORE ON HERNÁNDEZ: For first time, Tigers’ César Hernández enters spring training without assurances

MORE ON IBÁÑEZ: Tigers’ Andy Ibáñez puts roster battle on pause to play for Team Cuba

If Hernández makes the team as a true utility player, the Tigers would benefit from adding a right-handed hitting third baseman to platoon with Maton. Three players stand out in this competition: Ryan Kreidler, Andy Ibáñez and Tyler Nevin. It’s unclear when Nevin will return from his oblique strain, leaving Kreidler and Ibáñez in the mix.

Remember, Maton crushes righties and fastballs but struggles when facing lefties and breaking balls. Therefore, wouldn’t the Tigers want someone who crushes lefties and can handle breaking balls? Ibáñez has a 76.2% contact rate against breakers — much better than Kreidler’s 57.1% contact rate against breakers — and is a career .304 hitter against lefties. Another bonus: Ibáñez, unlike Kreidler, can play first base when Torkelson gets an off day.

The first four starters are locked in.

Right-hander Matt Manning, whom the Tigers have been waiting on to develop further, has struggled in spring training. He continues to show spurts of greatness but remains inconsistent, especially with his secondary pitches. His fastball was his most effective pitch last season, but so far this spring, the heater is sitting around 90-92 mph. Everyone is waiting to see whether or not Manning posts an encouraging outing when he starts Friday against the New York Yankees in Lakeland.

If he falls apart again, could the Tigers start planning for a demotion to Triple-A Toledo? Left-hander Joey Wentz appears like a viable alternative, with an electric swing-and-miss cutter and increased fastball velocity. His arsenal will likely overmatch opponents at the Triple-A level, but the Tigers don’t have anywhere else to send him (while keeping him as a starter) without optioning Manning to the Mud Hens.

MORE ON MANNING: How Tigers’ new-school regime is resuscitating Matt Manning’s potential

MORE ON WENTZ: Why Joey Wentz’s curveball could be a ‘weapon’ and launch his rise with Tigers

Expect five of the eight bullpen spots to be occupied by Alex LangeJosé CisneroJason FoleyTyler Alexander and Mason EnglertChasen Shreve, a nine-year MLB veteran who signed a minor-league contract, also should be a lock for the Opening Day roster with his filthy splitter, increased velocity and average command.

That leaves two openings.

Several pitchers are still competing in camp: Will Vest (40-man roster), Beau Brieske (40-man), Garrett Hill (40-man), Edwin Uceta (40-man), Tyler Holton (40-man), Matt WislerTrey WingenterTrevor Rosenthal, Miguel Díaz and Kervin Castro. Alex Faedo seems likely to begin the season as a starter in Triple-A Toledo.

MORE ON SHREVE: Chasen Shreve could fill vital role in Tigers’ bullpen, which feels like home to him

MORE ON WINGENTER: Tigers’ Trey Wingenter throws two nasty pitches. He just needs to stay healthy

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

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