As their talented prospects continue to debut, the Detroit Tigers are closer to having a legitimate foundation to build around. The next step for General Manager Al Avila must be finding a top-tier shortstop.
We are well into year five of the Al Avila era in Detroit and the rebuild is starting to turn into a build-up. The prospects are making their way to Comerica Park in waves, bringing with them the first sign of the Detroit Tigers’ impending competitive window opening. While they are far from 2022 World Series contenders, the foundation of talented young pitching and offensive star power is becoming more visible.
State of the Infield
The 2020 season has helped provide the Tigers with some crucial information as the rebuild continues. There are some long-term pieces on the Major League roster now that can likely help the Tigers win when their window opens.
Jeimer Candelario has pounded the ball, cementing his place in the Tigers’ future plans. He is entrenched at first base now, but he provides more long-term value for the team as a third baseman. Isaac Paredes, despite some recent struggles at the plate, has shown that he can put together a good at-bat. If Candelario moves back to third base, the logical move would be for Paredes to slide over to second base.
Though infield depth in the minors is not a strength for the Tigers, they do have some prospect firepower waiting in the wings. Their number one pick in 2020, Spencer Torkelson, seems destined to become a mainstay at first base. The team seems hellbent on at least trying him out at third base, but odds are he finds his way back to first.
Goodrum Falling Short
Niko Goodrum has been a solid contributor for the Tigers since signing a minor league contract prior to the 2018 season. He immediately showed promise as a bat-first utility man, hitting at a league-average clip in his first season. He has regressed slightly at the plate each year since then, but his defensive work at shortstop has proved valuable in 2020.
Goodrum has provided three defensive runs saved thus far in 2020, in addition to showing above-average range for the position. His strong defense has kept him in the lineup every day when healthy for manager Ron Gardenhire, as it has allowed him to contribute 0.2 bWAR despite a poor .644 OPS.
The main offensive issue for Goodrum this season is his strikeout rate, which has jumped nearly ten percent to 38.8 percent, a bottom-three mark in the MLB. Site contributor Jacob Boes did a deep dive on Goodrum’s batted ball numbers, noting that his launch angle has risen in 2020. His desire to hit for more power may be leading to his increased whiff rate.
Barring a massive turnaround with the bat, Niko seems destined to a super-utility role in the future. His defense at shortstop makes his upside intriguing, but the Tigers have likely seen enough with the bat to know he is not the long-term answer.
What about Willi?
With Niko Goodrum sidelined due to a leg injury, Willi Castro has taken over as the Tiger’s primary shortstop. Castro, who came to the Tigers from Cleveland in a trade for Leonys Martin, has been lauded as the shortstop of the future for quite some time.
In his limited time this year, Castro has shown progress with the bat, slashing .349/.364/.919, though his numbers are a bit inflated due to batted ball luck. He has hit the ball hard, but his strikeout rate of 27 percent and walk rate of 3 percent pose some questions about the sustainability of his offensive breakout. Discipline has never been his strength, surpassing a 6 percent walk rate in the minors only once, but the climb in strikeouts is mildly concerning, even as a 23-year-old.
The real issue for Willi Castro has been his horrendous defense at shortstop. In just nine games at the position, Castro has already accumulated -4 defensive runs saved and has shown poor range. Despite frequent public backing from the organization regarding his future at shortstop, the reality is Willi has never been a good defender there in the minors. He does have the physical tools to become better, and the team is insistent that he is improving, but the evidence is overwhelmingly negative.
If Castro is able to continue to make progress at the plate, he could have a future role with the Tigers as a utility infielder, or even in the outfield, where he was scheduled to get some time before the Goodrum injury.
Where to Look for Answers
Without a true in-house option at shortstop, the opportunity is there for the Tigers to spend big in free agency over the next couple of seasons. The 2021 class for shortstops is nothing to get too excited about, though a one-year prove-it deal with Marcus Semien a la Johnathan Schoop could make some sense for both parties. Didi Gregorius has rebounded from an injury-riddled last year with the Yankees to provide 0.4 bWAR for the Phillies and may interest the Tigers on a short-term deal.
The 2022 class of free agent shortstops is loaded with top-tier talent at a time when the Tigers could benefit from making a big splash to help them become playoff contenders. The class is set to include superstars Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story, Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, and Corey Seager, all of which will likely receive huge contracts, and rightly so.
Any of these shortstops would be an immediately massive boost to the Tigers playoff hopes in 2022, but owner Chris Illitch will have to open the checkbook in a big way, a caveat that makes even the most optimistic of Tigers’ fans nervous. Even if the Tigers are willing to pay up, it remains to be seen if any of the superstar shortstops would even consider calling Detroit home over the long run.
Barring a high-dollar free agent making his way to Detroit, the Tigers may have to consider the trade route to find their next shortstop. Al Avila has talked openly about his willingness to trade from his surplus of pitching prospects for a need down the road. Though the Tigers pitching staff isn’t exactly crowded, trading a top-tier pitching prospect for a top-tier shortstop prospect could make a lot of sense.
Though there is not a huge precedent for these types of trades, we recently saw the Indians make a deal for highly-regarded shortstop prospect Gabrial Arias as part of a package in exchange for polarizing pitcher Mike Clevinger. Arias is seemingly the Indians’ plan to replace Lindor if he leaves in free agency. The Tigers don’t have a guy like Clevinger to trade, but I sure hope they have a plan.