The Detroit Tigers Obsession With Versatility is Hurting, Not Helping
The Detroit Tigers have a slew of players that can play multiple positions, but playing them at spots where they are less successful might be hurting their development and the team
The Detroit Tigers made waves at the 2020 MLB Draft when they made their first overall selection. It was not the player that the club drafted that had folks in the industry perplexed; as Arizona State star Spencer Torkelson was the consensus 1-1 talent. Rather, it was the fact that Detroit decided to announce Torkelson as a third baseman instead of first base, where he played almost his entire college career.
Some have hated the move from the start, but folks who have watched Torkelson or have coached him believe he can handle such a change. For that reason, it is worth giving him a look and keep an open mind to him handling the hot corner. Not to mention, Torkelson switching back to first base is a relatively easy transition to make in the event it does not work out. At best, though, this is a microcosm of what Detroit has had a tendency to do–and that is move players around the diamond.
Undoubtedly, the shiny new super-utility role made famous by Ben Zobrist is appealing. The idea that a player can go almost anywhere on the field, play an entire season, and be productive would be a manager’s delight. However, this has not been the case for Detroit. For the Tigers, the perceived versatility is the value; not necessarily the value they would bring to the position they would actually be playing.
During a Summer Camp workout Tuesday, Evan Woodberry from MLive tweeted out the following:
The above tweet is the exact reason Detroit’s starting staff had the biggest gap between ERA and FIP, as pointed out by site expert Roger Castillo here. One of the measures of a fielder is called Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), which measures a player’s overall defensive ability at a particular position. a 0 DRS would mean an average defensive performer, a positive number would indicate above average performance, and a negative number would be below average. The club would post below average defensive metrics across the board in 2019, including a team Defensive Runs Saved metric of -9 in 2019.
The Tigers acquired Dawel Lugo as a shortstop from the JD Martinez trade. He would start in Double-A Erie but would get switched to second base at Triple-A for 80 games in Toledo in 2018. After the team had seen enough there, Detroit would switch him to third base where he would spend the majority of his major league time thus far.
Moving Lugo again could mean a couple of things. Maybe it is simply an early summer camp work out and should not be viewed as much more than that. It could also mean that the team feels Jeimer Candelario is running away with the third base job and some versatility might justify a roster spot. Regardless, the absence of a defensive plan for Lugo both in the minor leagues and the majors is evident with his continual moves around the diamond and could be compromising what little development he had left.
Mercer was brought over from Pittsburgh as a sure-handed shortstop. Not flashy or particularly dynamic, but will make all the plays expected of him. Out of necessity mostly, Detroit was forced into putting Mercer both at second base and first base in 2019. Despite a fresh season, though, the Detroit Tigers seem content on continuing to play Mercer at first base; a position in which he has five major league games of experience.
Harold Castro has three major league starts at shortstop over the 42 starts he has made in his career thus far. I believe Detroit wants Castro to be their utility man for 2020, so finding out at least what he has at shortstop may not be the worst idea. But if we find ourselves watching Harold Castro throwing across the diamond to Jordy Mercer during the regular season, it is fair to question the club’s motives.
I was encouraged the Detroit Tigers had started to understand how they were hurting themselves when the club had stated publicly that Niko Goodrum would shift from his historical utility role and get a shot at the every day shortstop position in 2020.
In Goodrum’s case, his DRS numbers were slightly below average or average at each position except shortstop in 2019, where he was able to post a 4 DRS across just 38 games at the position. By the Tigers committing to Goodrum at short in 2020, they showed that they were willing to put their player in the best position to succeed. However, instances like the one above from Evan do not have me otherwise convinced.
In reality, the consequences of butchering Dawel Lugo or Jordy Mercer defensively are largely inconsequential, or maybe I am simply looking too deep into a random summer camp workout closed to the public. Mercer was signed on a minor league deal heading into the season and Lugo has never taken enough walks to justify a major league future; however, taking players who are already fringe-types and forcing them into defensive roles only compounds their flaws.
The line gets drawn with their more highly thought of players such as Spencer Torkelson. There is a reason that Francisco Lindor does not play second base or Mike Trout does not play third base–even though they probably could. It is about putting the players in the absolute best position to succeed and bring the most value to the club. If Torkelson brings the most value at third base and the club is convicted that he will stick, I am all for the move. Otherwise, we really have to wonder what the Detroit Tigers are doing.