DETROIT – It’s been a very entertaining spring training for the Detroit Tigers, with a mix of veterans and prospects battling for roster spots and competition at multiple positions.
In a week, the Tigers will head north to prepare for the start of the regular season on April 1 against the Cleveland Indians. That means we need to get as much roster speculation in with the time we have left.
Here’s a projection of what the 26-man roster should look like.
C Wilson Ramos
Role: Starting catcher
There’s a legitimate three-way battle to back up Ramos, but everyone knows who the starter will be. He was signed this offseason to bridge the gap between Austin Romine and whoever emerges as the Tigers’ catcher of the future.
1B Jeimer Candelario
Role: Starting first baseman
When I say Candelario is a “lock,” that means he’s guaranteed to make the roster. He’s not necessarily locked into the first base role. He is a third baseman by trade and more comfortable at the hot corner, but the way the roster is playing out (more on that later) looks likely to force him across the diamond.
2B Jonathan Schoop
Role: Starting second baseman
The Tigers might move Schoop around a little bit to give certain players a day off here and there, but for the most part, he should be at the keystone more often than not. He was one of the team’s best players in 2020, and the Tigers are happy to have him back for another season.
3B Isaac Paredes
Role: Starting third baseman
So far this spring, Paredes’ numbers remind me a lot of his first taste of MLB action. It’s easy to come away from a game impressed with the 22-year-old only to look at the box score and see he went 0-3 with a walk. He’s hitting the ball hard and has a good eye at the plate, so the Tigers will likely give him another chance this year. If not, Renato Nunez is likely to make the team as the starting first baseman and bump Candelario over to third.
SS Willi Castro
Role: Starting shortstop
There are going to be some defensive miscues, especially on the throw. But overall, Castro has proven he can play shortstop this spring, and it’s not a given that he’ll be a liability there. Don’t get it twisted, though: He’s making the team because of his bat. After hitting .349 in 2020, Castro is raking this spring, with three home runs and a .958 OPS.
LF Robbie Grossman
Role: Starting left fielder
A candidate for the leadoff spot, Grossman has shown exactly why the Tigers signed him this offseason, drawing six walks and posting a .357 on-base percentage in the spring. He’ll be the everyday left fielder.
CF JaCoby Jones
Role: Starting center fielder
There are actually a couple of ways the Tigers could go in center field this season, but the most likely -- at least to start the season -- is Jones. He hasn’t done anything to lose the job, and before an injury ended his 2020 campaign, he was one of the team’s better all-around hitters. It’s been a rough spring, but you don’t just ditch a guy who posted an .849 OPS last season and has shown an elite defensive ceiling.
RF Nomar Mazara
Role: Starting right fielder
Mazara hasn’t been at camp for long, but the Tigers gave him a contract that guarantees he’ll be in the majors, and that probably means he’s going to start in right field. Mazara has a strong arm and good power at the dish. If he can bounce back from an ugly 2020 in Chicago, he’ll be a bargain for this year.
DH Miguel Cabrera
Role: Designated hitter
Manager A.J. Hinch said Cabrera will play some first base this season, but expect to see him penciled into the designated hitter spot much more often than not. Cabrera has dealt with an array of injuries and isn’t a plus defensively, so doing so only behooves the Tigers in that it gives someone else a day off.
SP1 Matt Boyd
Yes, Boyd will get the nod again on Opening Day, even though 2020 was a disaster. Boyd was one of the top risers for most of 2019, but his increased strikeout rate has unfortunately come with a home run rate no number of whiffs can help him overcome.
*(IL) SP2 Spencer Turnbull
Role: Starting pitcher -- injured list
The Tigers announced Turnbull was played on the injured list Wednesday, and that means he’ll likely begin the regular season there, as well. As a result, the Tigers will have an extra roster spot to play with -- that’s why there will be 27 names on this list. When he’s healthy, Turnbull will be up near the top of the rotation with Boyd.
SP2 Tarik Skubal
Role: Starting rotation
Skubal might not pitch the second game of the season, but right now, he appears to be at least the third-best (counting Turnbull) starter on the roster. Hinch officially announced Wednesday that Skubal would make the team, and that’s a great first step in his quest to be entrenched in this rotation for the foreseeable future. If he can get his control down, Skubal could pitch deeper into games and take better advantage of his swing-and-miss arsenal.
SP3 Julio Teheran
Role: Starting rotation
Like Skubal, Teheran has been named to the roster -- a victory for the veteran who turned down MLB offers for a chance to make the team this spring with the Tigers. He bet on himself and won, allowing just three runs while striking out 15 batters in 11 spring innings.
SP4 Jose Urena
Role: Starting rotation
It appears the Tigers will use Urena as a starter to break camp, though he’s only pitched 4.2 innings during the spring. Urena was signed to a one-year deal this offseason, and though his numbers have been bad for two straight seasons, the Tigers are hoping the 29-year-old can recapture some of his 2018 form.
SP5 Casey Mize
Role: Starting rotation
Mize probably hasn’t earned a spot in the rotation, whether you look at his 6.99 ERA, 6.47 FIP, 1.482 WHIP or 4.1 BB/9 from last season or his 9.90 ERA, 2.2 WHIP, and 9 BB/9 this spring. But since the minor league season isn’t starting on time, the Tigers have to choose between sending Mize to the alternate site or allowing him to pitch in actual games. Keeping him at the MLB level might be better for his development, though he feels like someone who will get sent down in May, unless his performance improves drastically.
RP Bryan Garcia
Role: Closer (not for long)
I’m positive Garcia will make the roster, less confident he’ll be the closer and almost positive he won’t hold that role for the entire season. Look, Garcia is only 25 years old and was a top relief pitcher prospect, so he’s certainly got the pedigree to be a high-leverage option. But he had 10 walks and 12 strikeouts in 21.2 innings last season -- that’s atrocious. Those rates haven’t improved this spring, so even if he breaks camp as the closer, those numbers will catch up to him, and it won’t last long.
RP Gregory Soto
Role: Set-up man
Soto wants to be the closer, and in time, he will be. He can throw 100 mph and has a devastating swing-and-miss slider. When Soto is on his game, you can tell hitters don’t have a chance from the very first pitch. He had a strong 2020 and is flourishing in the spring, so don’t be surprised if his set-up role turns into the closer job sooner rather than later.
RP Daniel Norris
Role: Whatever the Tigers need
It’s gone under the radar a bit, but Norris has been a star for the Tigers ever since they stopped trying to make him a traditional starting pitcher midway through 2019. He excelled as a three-inning opener at the end of that season and was arguably the best pitcher in the bullpen for 2020. Norris can go multiple innings if the Tigers need him to, or he can have a more traditional one-inning outing.
RP Jose Cisnero
Cisnero doesn’t get the same loveas Soto because he’s about to be 32 years old, but he was every bit as good in 2020. He struck out 34 batters in 29.2 innings while appearing in exactly half of the team’s games.
RP Joe Jimenez
Role: Sixth or seven inning
Once considered the closer of the future, Jimenez is more of a fringy relief pitcher at this point. His fastball isn’t elite and his secondary pitchers can’t play up as a result. While the Tigers are holding out hope that Jimenez can eventually cash in on the prospect pedigree, there’s mounting evidence that he’s simply just another guy in the bullpen.
RP Buck Farmer
Role: Late-inning option
Coming off an excellent 2019 season, Farmer was far less dominant in 2020, striking out just 14 batters in 21.1 innings. He managed to post a 3.80 ERA and 1.172 WHIP, but his 4.41 FIP suggests he was fortunate. Cisnero and Soto have certainly passed him in the pecking order.
RP Derek Holland
Role: Multi-inning reliever
Holland isn’t on the 40-man roster, but the injury to Turnbull could create room for him to make the team out of camp -- though I would personally cut Michael Fulmer to keep Holland on the team. The veteran lefty has shown excellent velocity this spring, and the result is seven scoreless innings with five hits and 11 strikeouts. There’s nothing more Holland could do to prove he should make the team.
RP Michael Fulmer
Role: Long reliever
Again, if the final spot in the bullpen came down to Holland vs. Fulmer, it looks like an easy decision to me, but the Tigers are still holding onto that fading image of 2016-2017, when Fulmer appeared to be a budding ace. Signs of decline were obvious in 2018, even before injury, and he posted a 8.78 ERA, 6.91 FIP and 2.06 WHIP in 2020 while striking out just 6.5 batters per nine innings. This spring, he’s allowed 10 runs on 11 hits and five walks in just nine innings while striking out six.
C Grayson Greiner
Confidence: Slight edge
Role: Backup catcher
I think the Tigers really, really wanted Jake Rogers to come in and earn the backup catcher spot this spring. Rogers is about to be 26 years old and has yet to make a positive impact at the MLB level, and the rest of the return from the Justin Verlander trade is looking less than promising. But Rogers, who went 4-for-112 with 51 strikeouts at the MLB level in 2019, is just 3-for-22 this spring with 10 strikeouts and a .382 OPS. That could very likely open the door for Greiner to once again open the season as the No. 2 catcher.
OF Akil Baddoo
Role: Reserve outfielder
As maddening as the Tigers can be in terms of roster decisions (see: Fulmer, Greiner), Baddoo has pretty much taken this decision out of their hands in the spring. The Rule 5 draft pick was expected to compete for a job and lose this preseason, but instead has slashed .344/.475/.781 -- yes, a 1.256 OPS -- with two doubles, four home runs, three stolen bases, eight walks and 11 strikeouts. Yes, it’s spring training. But eight walks in 40 plate appearances suggests an elite eye at the dish for a 22-year-old, and his six extra-base hits are another added bonus. If we’re being honest, a conversation about Baddoo as a starter feels more justified than a conversation about earning a roster spot.
INF Niko Goodrum
Role: Utility infielder
Goodrum can play infield or outfield, but the Tigers are likely going to roster five outfielders, so he’ll be filling in at all four infield spots. The Tigers love Goodrum’s defense, and it’s easy to see why. Versatility and reliability are a great combination. The only problem is Goodrum has completely lost the offensive momentum he built in 2018 and 2019. He was seeing improved power and plate discipline heading into 2020, and then turned into a strikeout machine. It was a small sample size, but 15 strikeouts in 36 spring plate appearances hasn’t alleviated any concerns.
OF Victor Reyes
Role: Reserve outfielder
It seems crazy that there’s a question about Reyes’ spot on the Opening Day roster. For much of 2020, he emerged as the most consistent hitter in the lineup. But a dreadful finish to the season and a delayed start to spring have opened the door for Baddoo and the two free agent signees to solidify their spots, and now Reyes looks like either a reserve outfielder or a victim of having a minor league option remaining. Even if he isn’t a starter, Reyes will see plenty of action because he can play any of the three outfield positions.
- 1B Renato Nunez: A late arrival to camp and the fact that he’s not on the 40-man roster are working against Nunez. If he hits for power in the minors, he’ll find his way into the lineup at some point in 2021.
- P Tyler Alexander: Injuries are a given for a pitching staff, and since Alexander has the ability to stretch out as a starter or come out of the bullpen, he’ll be one of the first arms called up when the Tigers have a need.
- C Jake Rogers: The Tigers would love for Rogers to earn the backup catcher job. But the truth is if he breaks camp with the team, it’s because of his upside, not his performance at the dish.
- C Eric Haase: Haase is the best offensive option behind Ramos at catcher. He’s 6-for-14 this spring with two home runs, three doubles and four walks -- good for a 1.627 OPS.
- INF Harold Castro: With Goodrum as a top utility infielder and five outfielders likely to make the team, there doesn’t seem to be room for another Castro.
- OF Derek Hill: The best defender at spring camp, Hill will find his way onto the team at some point this season. It just won’t be on Opening Day.
- OF Daz Cameron: An offseason injury and minor league options will put Cameron behind Baddoo on the depth chart. But he’s still an exciting two-way prospect.