DETROIT – Spring training games officially began over the weekend, and that means the Detroit Tigers got their first look at the candidates to break camp as the starter at third base.
A.J. Hinch has a few holes to fill in what was the MLB’s worst offense a year ago, but none are more glaring than the hot corner. Jeimer Candelario played 124 games there for the Tigers last season, but now that he’s with the Washington Nationals, his old job is wide open.
It figures to be a crowded race -- at least until certain candidates start to separate themselves. Nick Maton, acquired in the offseason Gregory Soto trade, is probably the odds-on favorite heading into the spring. Ryan Kreidler played 26 games at third base late last season, so he’s in the mix.
The long-shot candidates include prospect Andre Lipcius, minor leaguer Zack Short, and camp invites Tyler Nevin and Andy Ibanez. It would take unbelievable spring training performances for any of these three to become the Opening Day starter, but it’s not like the Tigers have any proven options.
The competition kicked off this weekend, as the Tigers played their first two spring training games against the Philadelphia Phillies (Saturday) and Baltimore Orioles (Sunday). Hinch got all five of these players into at least one game, and a couple of them made loud first impressions.
Lipcius replaced Jonathan Schoop at second base during Saturday’s game and smashed a 387-foot, 107 mph home run to left. It’s worth noting this came against Jake Jewell, a pitcher who had strong minor league stats last season, but hasn’t enjoyed much success at the MLB level.
Detroit drafted Lipcius in the third round in 2019, and he’s maintained middling prospect status since then, primarily as a hitter who makes a lot of contact and gets on base. He’s played plenty of second base in the minors, but the majority of his games have come at third.
Lipcius broke out at Double-A Erie last season, racking up more walks (61) than strikeouts (56) across 372 plate appearances. He continued to see the ball well after a promotion to Triple A, drawing 25 walks and striking out just 33 times over 188 trips.
In total, Lipcius hit 12 homers and 33 doubles with a .277/.391/.435 slash line in 2022.
He’ll turn 25 in May, so it wouldn’t be unfair for the Tigers to promote him at some point this season. Could it be as the Opening Day third baseman? It’s an uphill climb, but he deserves consideration.
Maton, meanwhile, did nothing to jeopardize his frontrunner status, homering in his first at-bat Sunday against Orioles starter Dean Kremer. It was a strong start for the 26-year-old, who hit five home runs in just 72 at-bats with the Phillies last season.
The Tigers acquired Maton as part of the Soto trade, hoping the strong offensive skills he showed in a short MLB stint could translate to a full season. Nobody expects him to replicate his .514 slugging percentage, but a career .344 OBP in the minors combined with the early power returns offer visions of a well-rounded contributor.
Some other first impressions: Nevin went hitless in three at-bats Saturday, Short hit a single Saturday and added a walk and a strikeout on Sunday, and Kreidler went 0-2 on Sunday with a strikeout. Obviously these small sample sizes mean very little in what will be a month-long race.
Ibanez, who broke camp as the starting third baseman for the Texas Rangers last season, is 1-4 with a single and a walk through two games. He’s interesting because of his defensive skills and the .756 OPS he posted across 272 plate appearances in 2021. Last year, he lasted just 40 games before losing his spot due to poor offensive results.
Third base is probably going to be a weakness for the Tigers again this season, but watching the race play out this spring should be fun. Maton and Lipcius are the two with the most upside, so it’s encouraging to see both jump out to strong starts.
Here’s how I would handicap the competition right now:
- Maton: most likely starter (60%)
- Kreidler: in the mix, with some upside (20%)
- Ibanez: in the mix, proven defender (10%)
- Lipcius: long shot, with some upside (5%)
- Nevin: long shot, with little upside (2%)
- Short: long shot, with little upside (2%)
- Other (1%)