DETROIT – What in the world are the Detroit Tigers going to do in the outfield this season?
With a couple weeks left in spring training, there are still questions about who will start and who will even make the roster in a reserve role. In the mix are last year’s starters, Victor Reyes and JaCoby Jones, free agent signees Nomar Mazara and Robbie Grossman, and prospects Derek Hill and Akil Baddoo.
Here’s what we think we know: Grossman is an everyday starter. The Tigers signed the 31-year-old lefty to a two-year, $10 million deal this offseason so that he could start in one of the corners. Even though he’s just 3-for-24 this spring, Grossman will likely be in the lineup almost every single game.
Grossman has a career on-base percentage of .350 and posted an .826 OPS during the shortened 2020 season. His signing was a safe, cheap move for the Tigers, and there’s clearly some upside.
Jones is probably in the same position as a near-lock for the Tigers’ starting lineup. His last three seasons have been cut short by injury, but there have been long stretches when Jones was the best hitter on the team.
His defensive ceiling is being one of the best center fielders in the game, and his speed on the base paths should play up even more under aggressive head coach A.J. Hinch.
Like Grossman, Jones is struggling at the dish this spring, striking out nine times compared to just three hits in 20 at-bats. But look at how his OPS has improved over four seasons in MLB:
- 2017: .510
- 2018: .630
- 2019: .740
- 2020: .849
Sure, 2020 was only 30 games because of the pandemic and his injury. But Jones has earned some benefit of the doubt in terms of making improvements year-to-year.
Here’s where the picture gets murky. Who is the third starter? Is it Reyes, who was a very solid leadoff hitter for a majority of 2020, or Mazara, one of the team’s top offseason acquisitions?
Reyes posted a .767 OPS in 2019 and backed it up for most of 2020. Before an abysmal 10-for-56 stretch without an extra-base hit (.482 OPS) in his final 15 games, the 26-year-old was slashing .315/.346/.473 -- good for an .819 OPS.
Mazara, 25, had a forgettable partial season in 2020, but before that, he was consistent enough to dismiss last year as an outlier.
In his first four MLB seasons from 2016-2019, Mazara hit 20, 20, 20 and 19 home runs with an OPS between .739 and .786 -- rising slightly each season. Mazara is a former top 20 prospect, and his ceiling is certainly higher than Reyes’, but is that enough to earn him an everyday job?
One factor working against Reyes is that he still has a minor league option. It sounds crazy to consider the possibility that the Tigers would send one of their best hitters from last season to the minors, but that has to be considered.
Why wouldn’t Reyes just come off the bench if he doesn’t earn a starting spot? The only reasonable explanation would be to make room for Baddoo.
Since he was selected in the Rule 5 draft, Baddoo has to spend the entire 2021 season on the Tigers’ MLB roster to avoid sending him back to division rival Minnesota.
Baddoo is the talk of camp. Even though he hasn’t played above Single-A ball, the 22-year-old is 8-for-20 this spring with two home runs, two doubles and a 1.356 OPS. Most impressively, Baddoo has drawn seven walks compared to six strikeouts.
The Tigers took a flier on Baddoo with their Rule 5 selection, but now they’re in a bit of a tough situation. Not only would they like to hang onto Baddoo -- they also don’t want to send him back to a team in the AL Central. Do they send down someone else to make room on the roster?
Another potential bench outfielder is Hill, who is turning heads on defense for the second spring training in a row. There’s no debate about who’s the best defensive outfielder in the system, but can Hill hit enough to stick on the team?
This spring, Hill has been about average, with a .753 OPS. If he can stick around that range, he’ll be an asset to the Tigers because his defense and speed will be such obvious plus tools.
Obviously, the position has a very different feel this spring. In the past, the Tigers were trying to scrounge up three serviceable outfielders to fill the starting lineup. Now, while there certainly aren’t any superstars, there are more potential options than available spots. That’s a much more enviable position than in the past.
Opening Day is April 1 -- a date that’s approaching quickly. Baddoo could go hitless in his next 20 at-bats or an injury could knock someone out for the start of the season, but barring something unforeseen, the Tigers have some difficult decisions to make.
Detroit will likely have one of the worst offensive outfields in baseball this year -- no matter who they choose. But at least the position as a whole appears to be on the rise.