DETROIT – There aren’t many starting spots up for grabs at Detroit Tigers spring training, but third base is an open competition, and neither candidate is staking much of a claim.
When the Tigers kicked off spring training last month, they did so with seven or eight of their Opening Day starters already locked in.
- Catcher: Austin Romine
- First base: C.J. Cron
- Second base: Jonathan Schoop
- Third base: Open
- Shortstop: Niko Goodrum
- Left field: Christin Stewart
- Center field: JaCoby Jones
- Right field: Cameron Maybin
- Designated hitter: Miguel Cabrera
It’s possible Victor Reyes could squeeze into one of the starting outfield spots, or that Goodrum could start elsewhere and clear the way for Willi Castro or Jordy Mercer. But there’s a difference between a starter who could get surpassed and a truly open competition.
Spring training struggles
The Tigers have been open about third base: It’s anybody’s spot to win.
By anybody, they mean either Jeimer Candelario or Dawel Lugo.
Both players spent significant time with the club last season. They were both acquired via trade in July 2017, and both are currently in their mid-20s.
Al Avila and Ron Gardenhire probably don’t have much of a preference between the two as long as, you know, somebody actually steps up and earns the job.
So far this spring, the worst-case scenario is playing out. Candelario is 1-for-13 at the plate with a single and three strikeouts. Lugo is 1-for-12 with a single and one strikeout. That’s a combined 2-for-25 (.080 batting average) with no extra-base hits, no walks and four strikeouts.
Those numbers by themselves wouldn’t typically be reason for concern. Over the course of a 162-game season, this would simply be one bad three-game series. The problem is both Candelario and Lugo entered spring with major questions about their offensive abilities.
Candelario, once a top 100 prospect thanks to his ability to draw walks and hit with extra-base power, was sent to Triple-A last season because of a sub-.200 batting average. He finished the year at .203, but his low hit total destroyed his offensive value, leaving him with a .337 slugging percentage and a .643 OPS.
The only positives for Candelario last season was a high walk rate that translated to a .306 on-base percentage and 17 doubles in 94 games. The potential to be a doubles/on-base threat still exists, but Candelario can’t be around the Mendoza line and strike out in a quarter of his at-bats.
The greatest concern is that Candelario’s underlying numbers back up last year’s struggles. He simply didn’t hit the ball hard with any regularity. Another season like 2019 could signal the end of Candelario’s chance to be an impact player in Detroit.
Lugo, meanwhile, has had far less experience at the MLB level. He earned 288 plate appearances last year and posted a .652 OPS. Lugo doesn’t strike out much, but he also can’t draw a walk. His power potential is thought to be lower than Candelario’s, but he managed 21 extra-base hits in 77 games at the MLB level.
Lugo did what he needed to do in Triple-A to surpass Candelario last year, batting .333 with 30 extra-base hits and a low strikeout rate. But Candelario also raked in Toledo, hitting .320 with 10 doubles and nine home runs in just 39 games -- good for a 1.004 OPS.
It’s obvious Candelario has a higher offensive ceiling, but his changes of bottoming out seem much higher because it’s already happened.
Somebody has to win this job. But so far, nobody is making a move.
Around the league
Detroit will be at a huge disadvantage this season if third base is a weakness, because the position is loaded in terms of star power across the league. Anthony Rendon, Nolan Arenado and Alex Bregman are three of the best players in the game. Rafael Devers, Eugenio Suarez, Kris Bryant and Matt Chapman are stars. There were 19 players with 300 or more at-bats as third basemen and an OPS of at least .790.
The AL Central alone has Yoan Moncada, Miguel Sano, Hunter Dozier and Jose Ramirez at third base. Those four players averaged better than 3.0 WAR for the Tigers’ divisional rivals.
Detroit got just 17 home runs out of the third base spot in 161 games. Only the Los Angeles Angels got worse production than the Tigers’ .675 season-long OPS at third base, and the Angels addressed the need by signing Rendon.
Cron, Schoop, Maybin and Romine will improve the Tigers’ lineup this season. But without a third baseman who can hit in the heart of the order, they’re already at a significant disadvantage.