LAKELAND, Fla. – Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire began spring training by promoting competition and talking about how the team needs to get much better this year.
It’s clear the Tigers -- who finished with the worst record in MLB by a wide margin last season -- needed to make drastic changes to the offense. General manager Al Avila provided some of that change by overhauling nearly half the starting lineup through free agency. When the team breaks camp, C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Austin Romine and Cameron Maybin figure to be more or less everyday players.
Beyond those spots, Gardenhire said there will be competition this spring. Third base is obviously a battle between Jeimer Candelario and Dawel Lugo, with Jordy Mercer a possible third option if neither step up to take the job. Shortstop has a few contenders as well, though Niko Goodrum is expected to win the job.
After the Tigers signed Maybin, he joined JaCoby Jones and Christin Stewart in the presumed starting outfield. Jones’ status is up in the air due to injury, but if he comes back healthy, expect him to man center field on Opening Day.
Stewart, on the other hand, has been in the lineup nearly all spring. And the results have not been positive.
Spring training results have to be taken with a grain of salt. Players are often shaking off rust or working on specific parts of their games. But when a player coming off a tough season continues to struggle, it’s a concern. Conversely, a player coming off a breakout can validate that success the following spring.
As the presumed starter, Stewart would have to do a lot to lose his job before Opening Day arrives. He was regarded as the best power prospect in the organization just two years ago and has shown glimpses of power and on-base ability.
But as of Monday, only one player with at least 10 at-bats during Tigers spring training is hitting worse than Stewart. His .360 OPS tops only Maybin, who has much more job security considering his track record.
Stewart is just 3-for-21 this spring with three singles, two walks and seven strikeouts. His 33% strikeout rate suggests he simply isn’t seeing the ball well, and it’s discouraging to see a zero in the extra-base hit column.
The foundation of Stewart’s presumed starter status is almost entirely built with minor league numbers. It takes some projection to see MLB production from Stewart, and that’s without even factoring in his poor outfield defense.
There wouldn’t be any pressure on Stewart if the Tigers didn’t have another option. That’s where Victor Reyes comes in.
If Maybin and Jones are healthy for Opening Day, their jobs are much more secure than Stewart’s, so left field seems the most likely avenue for Reyes to get into the lineup.
In 21 at-bats this spring, Reyes has seven singles, a double and a triple with only three strikeouts and one walk. He’s slashing .429/.435/.571 and leads the team with nine total hits.
Nobody would care about 21 hot spring training at-bats if Reyes hadn’t flashed an almost identical profile in 69 games last season. He didn’t draw walks or hit for much power, but Reyes racked up a ton of hits and rarely struck out.
Reyes projects to have a high batting average because he’s among MLB’s best in line drive rate. About 29% of his balls in play registered as line drives last season, a number backed up by his 40% hard-hit rate and 11% soft contact rate.
His 4.8% walk rate is awful, but Reyes overcame it in 2019 because he rarely struck out. In this environment, a 22% strikeout rate is something to work with.
Reyes has 91st percentile speed and is a slightly above-average defensive outfielder. Combine those factors with what appears to be a better bat than Stewart at the moment and this seems like an easy decision.
Stewart definitely has more offensive upside than Reyes. At his best, the former top 100 prospect could hit 25 home runs and post a .360 OBP.
Reyes has had more success at the MLB level, though, and is enjoying a much more productive spring. He’s guaranteed to be more valuable defensively and on the base paths, so all Reyes needs to do is make the gap in actual offensive production wide enough to overcome Stewart’s higher ceiling.
Has that happened yet? It’s unlikely the Tigers would make a change after 21 spring training at-bats. But if Reyes continues to rake and Stewart struggles deeper into March, the Tigers might be forced to make a move.