Detroit Tigers’ woes at third base now a problem in the minors after Nick Maton’s demotion

Detroit Free Press

It was right there for the taking.

The Detroit Tigers had a chance to beat the Minnesota Twins on Sunday afternoon at Comerica Park. They had a chance to win another series. They had a chance to gain ground on the Twins in the American League Central standings.

But they threw it away.

Actually, Nick Maton did.

Maton’s throwing error in the eighth inning — as well as his rough glove work in the 10th inning — led directly to a 6-3 loss. He was optioned to Toledo after the game — a move that probably should have happened long before he got to this stage.

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Yes, the Tigers desperately need a left-handed bat, especially because of injuries elsewhere in the lineup. But Maton entered Sunday hitting .162 with little power, then went 1-for-4 against the Twins with a strikeout.

“I just had an emotional meeting with him … but it was necessary,” manger A.J. Hinch said Sunday after the loss.

Maton has been rattled for a while. In his last 11 games, he had three errors; he would have had another to open Sunday’s eighth inning, but Spencer Torkelson bailed him out on a rough throw after a slow roller.

“It’s tough,” Maton said. “I just need to get right and get better, so I can help this team out.”

There is little question that Maton is a positive locker-room presence. Several players stopped by his locker to give him a hug, including Akil Baddoo, Jason Foley and Alex Lange.

“Obviously, I’ve struggled a lot,” Maton said. “I’m not going to sulk around about it. I’m going to get to work and come back the player I can be.”

Tigers have limited options

So, who will the Tigers call up? The expected option is Tyler Nevin, who was scheduled to play in Toledo on Sunday but was pulled from the lineup. Nevin has already played 16 games for the Tigers, hitting .128.

That highlights another problem: There is no clear-cut answer at third — at least not in the minors.

Justyn-Henry Malloy — once thought the heir apparent at third, or at least holding the position until a 2024 battle royale with Colt Keith — has quietly shifted to the outfield in Toledo after struggling at third.

Since May 29, Malloy has played third in just three games, with errors in all three.

But he’s handling the outfield — primarily left field, with one game in right — with no problems. Malloy absolutely raked in April with a .333 batting average, becoming one of the best stories in the minor leagues. After returning to Earth, he had a bad May (.205) but a better June (.235)

“That’s baseball,” Malloy said last week, of his up-and-down season. “Staying level is going to be the way to go. I’m not hitting .350 for an entire season. That doesn’t happen.”

As far as his outfield play, Malloy has embraced it: “It’s been awesome. … I feel comfortable out there. Just go out there and be an athlete, use your arm, just go have fun. I’ve really enjoyed that.”

I wish the Tigers would call up outfielder Parker Meadows, at least until Baddoo and Riley Greene return from the injured list. Over his past 28 games with Toledo (including Sunday), Meadows has hit .331 with four homers. The Tigers need to see what he can do — and how he might be part of the picture in 2024 — before perusing the free agent market this winter.

What better time than when you need a left-handed bat and are playing infielders in the outfield? Even if it’s just a short-term look.

As for third base, they could use a rotation of players: Andy Ibáñez, Zack McKinstry, Jonathan Schoop and Zack Short have all logged appearances at the hot corner this season.

Time to promote Colt Keith

Which brings us to Colt Keith, who also plays third. I seriously doubt the Tigers would call him up from Double-A to Detroit.

But it’s time for Keith to be promoted to Toledo, a seeming inevitability which is starting to feel overdue. He is clearly dominating Double-A pitching: Keith is hitting .325 with 14 homers and 18 doubles for a .977 OPS at Erie. He’s been consistent, too — hitting .286 in April, .374 in May and .310 in June while whacking six homers in May and five in June.

Best of all, he has hit both righties (.315 with 11 homers) and lefties (.353).

What more does he have to prove at the Double-A level?

I know — he might be dinged up. The Tigers didn’t announce this, but it appears that Keith has been dealing with an injury. He missed some games earlier this month, then served as the SeaWolves’ designated hitter for seven straight. But he returned to the field Saturday at second base; he was scheduled to play third on Sunday, but Erie’s game in Connecticut was rained out.

I hope Maton’s demotion does not slow down Keith’s eventual promotion.

It shouldn’t.

How would the Tigers handle both Keith and Maton at Toledo? Two third basemen?

Keith’s development has to take priority. So play him at third — or even if at second, if he’s not fully healthy.

Let Maton focus on his swing as a designated hitter and have him work on his defense before the game. Don’t worry about putting him at third. Not right now. Get his swing right, and his mind will follow.

Now, a word here about Tigers president Scott Harris.

The Tigers’ problem at third — the lack of an everyday option — falls on Harris.

His plan of using Maton at third clearly has not worked.

Maybe Harris was under orders not to increase the Tigers’ payroll and tried to go cheap in trading for Maton and using him at third.

And hopefully, Harris learns from it.

He has had success finding players on the fringes — see: Ibáñez and McKinstry.

But you can’t build a roster out of role players, hoping all the small moves pan out.

The Tigers will head into the offseason with most of their big contracts coming off the books — Miguel Cabrera ($32 million), Matthew Boyd ($10 million), Michael Lorenzen ($8.5 million) and Jonathan Schoop ($7.5 million) account for $58 million of the Tigers’ $117.1 million payroll in 2023. (And the savings could be more if Javier Báez and Eduardo Rodriguez opt out.) That’s a lot of money to play with.

It’s imperative for owner Christopher Ilitch not to reduce the payroll — and for the Tigers to use that money for legit ballplayers.

Betting a season on hoping young, unproven players stick is beyond risky, as we have seen from Maton.

At some point over the next few months, the Tigers need to figure out what they have in Keith, Malloy and Meadows. All three could be playing in Detroit next year. Or not.

Harris needs to bring up these young kids up at some point, just to see what they can do. And what holes they need to address in free agency.

Contact Jeff Seidel at jseidel@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

To read Seidel’s recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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