Not long ago, the Detroit Tigers infield appeared set for the future; one year later, it’s possible each position sees a change
There were reasons to be excited about the Detroit Tigers infield this season. Jeimer Candelario was coming off a season in which he led the league in doubles; Javier Baez was the shiny new toy that, while frustrating at times, would provide equal electricity to the team; Schoop was a sure-handed fielder who was able to hit 20 home runs out of a position group that doesn’t typically produce power. Spencer Torkelson was the lauded rookie that hit for prodigious power; Tucker Barnhart was a gold-glove catcher capable of handling a young and promising Tigers pitching staff.
Things didn’t go according to plan and now mystery surrounds the team and how new President of Baseball Operations Scott Harris intends to approach the infield situation. Obviously, where each player is at in their career and their individual contract status will play an influence into the matter, but it is a genuine possibility that this Detroit Tigers infield could have a new face at every single position next year.
Starting with Jeimer Candelario, his season was unbearable for a team with playoff aspirations, and has become one of the more surefire non-tender candidates when the offseason begins. If the team feels he could still be of value they could certainly bring him back at a lower price, but it is difficult to envision Candelario being the opening-day third baseman next season.
Perhaps his saving grace is the market, which is incredibly light on third-base options–headlined by 37-year-olds Justin Turner and Evan Longoria (team options). Additionally, the Detroit Tigers do not have a ready-made replacement in the minor leagues. Ryan Kreidler has the makings of a bench guy as most felt he would be and Izaac Pacheco and Colt Keith are long shots to debut in 2023.
Sufficiently plugging the third base leak in the event that Candelario walks may need to happen via trade this offseason, but don’t sleep on Candy’s positional flexibility, either. Perhaps he could be part of a contingency plan for Spencer Torkelson in the event he scuffles again out of the gate.
Javier Baez figures to be fully entrenched into the 2023 plans at large, but whether he remains at shortstop under the new front office is a fascinating thought. The news of Carlos Correa intending to opt out has already gotten Detroit Tigers fans excited, but signing Correa, or any shortstop for that matter, and moving Baez to second base remains improbable.
Still, the prospect is fascinating and one to explore, especially considering the new regime. Baez was less-than-stellar defensively as evidenced by his 26 errors and -4 DRS at shortstop. Baez’s improvement or even his openness to such a move makes this unlikely, but it also shouldn’t be completely glossed over, either.
Speaking of second base, Jonathan Schoop has a $7.5 million player option that most expect him to pick up, but many wonder if his stout defense is valuable enough to justify his place in the batting order on an everyday basis. Schoop, like Candelario and Baez, also has some defensive flexibility, and like Candelario, Schoop could be an insurance policy for another down Torkelson season (though likely not a great one).
It is easy to see someone like Schoop being next year’s Harold Castro–someone who moves all around the infield (save shortstop) and finds his way into 80-90 games, but really only starts in favorable match-ups for himself or less desirable match-ups for others.
For the first time in a long time, the first base position is open–and as badly as the Detroit Tigers wanted Spencer Torkelson to entrench himself there the next half-decade, he hasn’t done so quite yet. This leaves a team who is playoff-hunting at a strange crossroads–do they develop a plan with Torkelson this offseason and roll with him as their guy in 2023, or could they bring in perhaps a DH that could also play first that could handle everyday duties in the event Torkelson scuffles?
I like the second route in part because it still gives Torkelson the ability to make the team and ‘win’ the starting job this spring while also not wasting resources on a player they may or may not need if Torkelson is ready, but it also gives them more viable insurance in the event he is not. Additionally, I see Cabrera’s playing involvement decreasing even lower in 2023–so while I believe Hinch would rather leverage the DH slot to give a half day to a position player, any addition would still have their way into the lineup on nearly an everyday basis.
Lastly, at catcher, Tucker Barnhart is a free agent and it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which he returns. The club will have Jake Rogers set to return from Tommy John Surgery and while Eric Haase played his fair bit of outfield, he has shown to be a competent backup with some surprising power.
The platoon splits are less than ideal between Rogers and Haase–both players seem to handle left-handed pitching better than righties, but neither should be unplayable in such a capacity, effectively making the catching position low on the totem pole of needs. The Detroit Tigers also claimed Michael Papierski off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds recently, a switch-hitter who debuted at age 26 and could be nice depth for them in Toledo after Ali Sanchez was designated for assignment.
I’d count on Baez and Torkelson being the shortstop and first baseman, respectively, when the Detroit Tigers open their season on March 30 against the Tampa Bay Rays, but the chances of neither being there are not zero and likely higher than most imagine, too–and while I wouldn’t be shocked to see either Schoop or Candelario back, I don’t see either being an everyday player for next year’s team.