Spring Training is Finally Here and is Time for Roster Battles to Shake Out
Heading into the first week of Spring Training games, the Detroit Tigers’ starting lineups and rotation are mostly set. But, there are some interesting roster battles taking place for the utility players and for the 4th outfielder. And, with the new addition to the roster, who will the Tigers take north as their 26th man.
The third base job may be the only starting lineup position that is an open race right now. Both Dawel Lugo and Jeimer Candelario are out of options and must make the team or be exposed to the waiver wire.
Lugo ended 2019 as the primary third basemen appearing in 77 games. He struggled against major league pitching and also registered a negative defensive WAR based on both Fangraphs’ and Baseball References’ calculations. Because of a 2.8% walk rate, Lugo only had an OBP of .271. He will need to put together a big spring to challenge Candalerio for the starting role.
Candelario has only shown flashes of the promise that we saw in his short stint in 2016. The ZIPS projections do predict him to be the Tigers’ best position player this season. He’s predicted to have a nearly league average of 94 OPS+ and 1.9 WAR.
Both Lugo and Candalerio make the team. Candelario as the starting third baseman and Lugo as a utility player only because he is out of options. Lugo won’t challenge Harold Castro as the primary utility player but, because of the new 26 man roster, Detroit can afford to carry Lugo.
The first four rotations spots are spoken for and this off-season Detroit signed Iván Nova to a one year deal with hopes that he will lock down that final spot. But, nothing is guaranteed this Spring Training, Nova needs to perform if he is going to head north with a rotation spot.
Nova gave up more hits than any other pitcher last season and had his K/9 drop to 5.5. He continued to excel at limiting walks and worked his way to a 4.72 ERA but needs to show Detroit’s front office that he can still be an effective starting pitcher. Historically, Nova has been a reliable pitcher and, if he is in the rotation, Detroit should expect him to make 30 starts and have an ERA in the high 4’s.
Tyler Alexander is Nova’s biggest competition. Alexander pitched relatively well in 13 games last season. He isn’t a hard thrower, but he only gave up seven walks over 53.2 innings and found success keeping the ball in the yard, giving up just nine home runs.
Zack Godley and Hector Santiago both signed minor league deals with Detroit after each had the worst season of their careers. Godley went from averaging a strikeout per inning over his career to recording just 70 over 92 innings last year. The loss of his ability to generate strikeouts combined with almost doubling his HR/9 was not a recipe for success. Santiago, on the other hand, had the best K/9 of his career in 2019. But, he also had the worst H/9, BB/9, and HR/9 of his career which led to a disastrous 6.68 ERA.
Detroit is loaded with pitching prospects, but don’t expect to see Casey Mize or Matt Manning on the opening day roster. Beau Burrows does have a chance to be the fifth starter though and has the advantage of already being on the 40-man roster. Burrows battled injuries last season but could push his way onto the roster with a strong spring. This is an important year for him as he needs to show that he can handle a starter’s role. If he is moved to the bullpen his fastball will play up and he should be a late-inning weapon for the Tigers.
Nova wins the job out of Spring Training but the spot is a rotating door all season as Detroit’s top prospects make their debuts.
Detroit’s front office seems to have made their decision to start Jake Rogers in Triple-A to start the season. That leaves Grayson Greiner and Eric Haase as the potential backup to starter Austin Romine. Greiner had a rough year in 2019, batting just .202 over 58 games. He did hit five home runs over his first 43 games but a strained back would put him on the 60-day IL and would limit him to just 15 more games in September.
Haase is new to the organization but not to Detroit, he graduated from Divine Child High School in Dearborn. Haase is not known for his defense at catcher, what he is known for though is his 70-grade raw power.
Because both Greiner and Haase have options remaining, this is a wide-open competition. Haase gets the edge here because of his huge power potential. But, expect both to spend time with the club this season.
Prior to the signing of Cameron Maybin, Christin Stewart, Travis Demeritte and Victor Reyes looked like the contenders for the starting corner outfield jobs. Now they must compete with Troy Stokes Jr., and former top prospect Derek Hill for the starting left fielder’s job as well as the fourth outfielder roster spot.
Hill spent the entire year in Double-A where he hit 14 home runs and stole 21 bases, regaining some of that old prospect shine. Stokes Jr. had his worst statistical season since 2014 when he was just 18 years old which lead to him being waived by Milwaukee and subsequently claimed by the Tigers.
Detroit has four outfielders in big league camp that are non-roster invitees. They are looking to challenge for the last outfield spot as well. The recently signed, Jorge Bonifacio, is the only outfielder of the group with MLB experience. After showing promise over 113 games in his rookie season, he was suspended for 80 games for testing positive for the anabolic steroid, boldenone. Since his suspension, he has registered an OPS of .688 over 74 games split between 2018 and last year.
The trio of Jacob Robson, Jose Azocar, and Danny Woodrow have all been with the Tigers for their entire professional careers. None of the trio project to have much power, but they all have a solid hit tool and above-average speed. Azocar might have the highest potential, but he has struggled to draw walks. He drew just 21 in Double-A last season and has a career-high of just 25 in 2016. He did draw seven walks in 17 games in the Arizona Fall League this year though. Robson looks to be the closest to earning a spot with the big league club after putting up a .750 OPS in Toledo last season.
Reyes had a great end to his 2019 season and he carries that through the spring to win the starting spot. Hill challenges for the backup job but it goes to Stewart. Hill starts the season in Toledo and is the first outfielder called up when a starting outfielder is needed.
The only secure spots in the bullpen belong to Joe Jiménez and Buck Farmer. Bryan Garcia, José Cisnero, and David McKay look like front runners for the other spots. Anthony Castro and Gregory Soto could transition to relief full time where their stuff will play up. Soto gets the advantage of being the only left-handed relief pitcher on the 40-man roster.
Alex Wilson and Rony Garcia are the two challengers to watch this spring. Garcia started 24 games in the minors last season for the Yankees. He was acquired in the Rule-5 Draft by Detroit this season. He must stay on the MLB roster for the entirety of the 2020 season or be offered back to the Yankees before he can be sent down to the minors. Wilson returns to the Tigers after spending the 2019 season with Milwaukee. He only pitched 11.1 innings in the majors last season but had a 2.86 ERA in 50.1 Triple-A innings.
John Schreiber is a hometown kid that struggled in his first 13 appearances. He had an ERA of 6.23 but a much better FIP of 4.44. His lower FIP shows that his poor ERA might have been inflated by bad luck.
Rony Garcia impresses enough this spring for Detroit to want to hold onto him, earning him a spot on the opening day roster. Wilson is a fan favorite in Detroit but doesn’t make the team out of Spring Training. Detroit would have to remove someone from their 40-man roster to add Wilson to the Tigers’ roster. He will be used as a depth piece in Toledo with a chance to get called up later in the season as the roster gets shuffled.
David McKay has two options remaining and starts the season in Toledo even though he pitches well this spring.
The Tigers open the season March 26th at Cleveland. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection predicts that the Tigers will win 69 games, and have 0% chance to make the playoffs. But, even if Detroit finishes with the worst record once again, this season will be much more bearable to watch as many of the Tigers’ prospects are knocking on the door to the Big Leagues.