Tigers manager A.J. Hinch was a guest on the New York Post’s podcast with Jon Heyman and Joel Sherman this afternoon. The veteran skipper addressed the team’s infield as part of a wide-ranging conversation.
Detroit heads into Spring Training with some uncertainty at both second and third base. The Tigers didn’t have a set starter at either position last season. No single player even reached 250 plate appearances while manning one of those spots. The Tigers haven’t gone outside the organization for any infield acquisitions aside from corner outfielder/first baseman Mark Canha.
On the heels of last week’s near-$29MM extension, top prospect Colt Keith appears the presumptive starter at the keystone. Asked by Sherman whether Keith could make the Opening Day roster, Hinch replied the 22-year-old will “have to come and earn it.” Hinch called it the organization’s expectation that Keith will perform well enough in Spring Training to break camp but stressed the contract alone won’t guarantee him a season-opening job.
As one would expect, Hinch went on to speak effusively of Keith’s offensive upside. The left-handed hitter is coming off a huge year in the upper minors. Keith opened the year with a .325/.391/.585 showing over 59 games at Double-A Erie. He continued hitting after a late-June promotion to Triple-A Toledo. Keith ran a .287/.369/.521 slash in 67 contests with the Mud Hens. He walked at a strong 11.9% clip while keeping his strikeouts to a modest 19.3% rate. Overall, he connected on 27 homers and 38 doubles with a .306/.380/.552 batting line to cement himself among the sport’s most promising offensive prospects.
Keith’s defensive fit isn’t as clear. He’d been a third baseman for the bulk of his career but saw most of his action at second base in Triple-A and into the Arizona Fall League. Hinch confirmed that Keith would play mostly at the keystone moving forward, although he indicated the young infielder could still see occasional reps at the hot corner.
If Keith indeed grabs hold of the second base job, that could push a handful of Detroit’s multi-positional infielders more frequently to third. Zach McKinstry, Andy Ibáñez and Nick Maton all took reps at both positions a year ago. Matt Vierling made 27 starts at third while opening 94 contests throughout the outfield.
Hinch suggested the Tigers were content to mix and match at third base. In response to an inquiry from Heyman about the possibility of going outside the organization for a clearer upgrade, the manager spoke of the team’s comfort with “optionality for (players) to emerge.” Hinch said the team planned to give playing time to each of Ibáñez, McKinstry and Vierling — in addition to any reps which Keith might pick up — and opined they’ll “be able to piece it together and maybe have a better player than (they would’ve with) one singular guy.”
Specifically, the manager pointed out the possibility for “a natural platoon” between the right-handed hitting Ibáñez and the lefty-swinging McKinstry. Ibáñez, claimed off waivers from the Rangers last offseason, had a quietly effective season after being promoted to the majors at the end of April. He hit .264/.312/.433 over a career-high 383 trips to the plate. He did most of his damage against left-handed pitching, connecting on six homers and nine doubles with a .261/.297/.523 line over 118 plate appearances versus southpaws.
Detroit acquired McKinstry on the eve of Opening Day. While he got out to an excellent start, his production cratered from June onwards. He ended the season with a well below-average .230/.297/.356 slash through 472 plate appearances against right-handers. That’s not enough offense for a strong side platoon player, so he’d need to put together better results if he’s to log that kind of playing time now that Detroit has more serious postseason aspirations.
Vierling, a righty hitter, profiles as both a third base option and a fourth outfielder behind Canha, Parker Meadows and Riley Greene. The former Phillie was a league average player in his first season in Detroit, hitting .261/.329/.388 with 10 homers across 530 plate appearances.
Prospects Justyn-Henry Malloy and Jace Jung have third base experience, but neither is sure to make an impact in 2024. Baseball America’s scouting report on Malloy suggests he’s likelier to play the corner outfield because of throwing accuracy issues on the infield dirt. Jung, the 12th overall pick in 2022, finished last year in Double-A. He could play his way into the mix at some point in the year but will start the season in the upper minors.