Predicting Detroit Tigers' starting lineup, positions for Opening Day

Tigers play first spring training game in 1 month

Nicholas Castellanos and JaCoby Jones should be two of the Detroit Tigers' most exciting starters this season, though for very different reasons. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

DETROIT - The Detroit Tigers are just one month away from their first spring training game, and after a flurry off minor offseason moves, the roster will look very similar to the one that lost nearly 100 games in 2018.

The Tigers will take on Southeastern University, the defending Avista-NAIA World Series champions, on Feb. 22 in Lakeland, Florida. Even though it's still a month away and there are several free agents still on the market, it's unlikely the rebuilding Tigers will make any big moves in the meantime.

READDreaming up the perfect Detroit Tigers starting lineup two seasons from now

When the first pitch is thrown at 1:05 p.m., the roster will probably look the same as it does right now.

Here's a look at what we can expect in the starting lineup.

1: Jeimer Candelario, 3B

2018 stats: 28 doubles, 19 home runs, .224 average/.317 on-base percentage/.393 slugging
Other starting 3B candidates: None

Getty Images

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 7: Jeimer Candelario #46 of the Detroit Tigers rounds the bases past umpire Bill Welke after hitting a walk-off, two-run home run, to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals 5-3 in the ninth inning at Comerica Park on September…

In an organization mostly bereft of exciting offensive players at the major league level, Jeimer Candelario is one of the few current starters who are a part of the team's long-term plans.

Candelario, 25, struggled for much of his first full season as the Tigers' starting third baseman. He finished with a .710 OPS, much lower than the .874 OPS he posted in 27 games with the Tigers after being acquired from the Chicago Cubs in 2017.

Some of his struggles can be traced back to a wrist injury in early May, though. Before a doubleheader on May 12, when he injured his wrist and hit the 10-day disabled list, Candelario was batting .286 with a .367 OBP, .521 slugging and .889 OPS. Essentially, he looked like an all-star for the first 35 games.

Candelario doesn't have much stolen base potential. In fact, he doesn't even have above average speed. But his excellent understanding of the strike zone coming up through the minors and the ability to draw walks could make Candelario a good leadoff hitter.

For now, the Tigers don't have many other options. In 188 games at Triple-A over three seasons, Candelario posted a .372 OBP. If he can stay healthy and recapture that, the Tigers will have a difference-maker at the top of their lineup.

2. Nicholas Castellanos, RF

2018 stats: 46 doubles, 23 home runs, .298/.354/.500
Other starting RF candidates: None

Nicholas Castellanos has elite batted ball data after a full season of hard contact. (Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

The best hitter in an MLB lineup should hit in the No. 2 hole, and there's no debate that Nicholas Castellanos was the best offensive player for the Tigers last season.

At 26 years old, Castellanos has morphed into exactly the hitter the Tigers envisioned when he was coming up through the organization. He was an iron man, playing in 157 games and posting an OPS more than 100 points higher than any other starter.

Castellanos finished with 74 extra-base hits, including 23 homers, and a solid .354 on-base percentage.

There's a chance Castellanos could be traded to a contender at some point in 2019, but until then, he's the team's best power threat.

Castellanos struggles in the outfield, grading out as one of the worst defenders in the league. The Tigers have tried him at third base and right field, and neither has gone particularly well. But his bat will keep him in the lineup daily as long as he's healthy.

3. Miguel Cabrera, 1B

2018 stats: 11 doubles, three home runs, .299/.395/.448
Other starting 1B candidates: None

Miguel Cabrera rips the ball through the right side of the infield for a single against the Baltimore Orioles. (Dave Reginek/Getty Images)

Miguel Cabrera isn't going anywhere until at least 2023, as he's set to make $30 million through 2021 and $32 million in 2022 and 2023. If he finishes in the top 10 of MVP voting, he'll make another $30 million in 2024, with the same stipulation in 2025.

There were few signs, other than injuries, that suggested Cabrera was slowing down through the 2016 season. He won back-to-back American League MVP awards in 2012 and 2013 and his worst OPS from 2009 to 2016 was still .895. In 2016, he hit 38 home runs in 158 games.

But the last two seasons have been concerning for the Tigers' slugger, has he's played a combined 168 games and hit just 19 home runs. His ratios aren't bad, but Cabrera has been a very expensive singles hitter.

In terms of hard contact rate and plate discipline, the numbers suggest Cabrera still has plenty in the tank. He had nearly as many walks as strikeouts in 38 games last season and made hard contact on 46.3 percent of his batted balls.

Can Cabrera stay healthy? If so, can he still rack up extra-base hits? Those answers will dictate how the Tigers perform offensively this season.

4. Christin Stewart, LF

2018 stats: One double, two home runs, .267/.375/.417
Other starting LF candidates: Mikie Mahtook, Victor Reyes

Christin Stewart of the Detroit Tigers bats against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on Sept. 15, 2018, in Cleveland. (David Maxwell/Getty Images)

While Mikie Mahtook and Victor Reyes combined for 87 games played in left field last season, there's no reason for the Tigers to go with anyone but Christin Stewert in 2019.

The powerful lefty finally got a chance to face major league pitching at the end of 2018 after mashing 93 minor-league homers in parts of four seasons.

MOREHere's what the perfect Detroit Tigers starting rotation would look like in two years

Stewert handled himself well in 17 games, drawing 10 walks compared to 13 strikeouts and hitting his first two MLB homers. His .792 OPS was topped only by Castellanos and Cabrera, suggesting Stewart could already be the best left-handed hitter in the organization.

The Tigers are hurting for power, especially if Cabrera can't hit 30 balls out of the park this season. He should get every opportunity to prove his minor-league numbers can translate to the big leagues.

5. Niko Goodrum, 2B

2018 stats: 29 doubles, 16 home runs, .245/.315/.432
Other starting 2B candidates: Dawel Lugo

Detroit Tigers infielder Niko Goodrum records his first career MLB extra-base hit -- an RBI double against the Pirates on April 1, 2018. (Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of 2018 came from the most unexpected source.

Niko Goodrum was allowed to walk away from the Minnesota Twins in November 2017, and just eight days into free agency he was scooped up by the Tigers.

The move paid immediate dividends, as Goodrum was arguably the team's second-best hitter, behind Castellanos, in 2018. He racked up 48 extra-base hits and posted a very respectable .747 OPS in 131 games.

Goodrum was also a valuable defensive player for Ron Gardenhire, playing all four infield positions and left field over the course of the season.

He should be able to settle into one spot this season if Cabrera and Candelario can stay healthy. Goodrum played nearly half his games at second base in 2018 and was serviceable at the position. If he can stick at one spot permanently, there's a good chance his defensive numbers will improve.

Goodrum isn't eligible for arbitration until 2021 and won't become a free agent until 2024, so if he continues to be the 1.5 WAR player he was a year ago, he can be a part of the Tigers' future, likely in a utility role.

6. John Hicks, DH

2018 stats: 12 doubles, nine home runs, .260/.312/.403
Other starting DH candidates: Mikie Mahtook, Miguel Cabrera, Christin Stewart

John Hicks hits an RBI single against the Oakland Athletics at Comerica Park on June 25, 2018, in Detroit. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

This will be the first major change to the Tigers' lineup in 2019. For seven of the last eight years -- excluding a 2012 season erased by injury -- Victor Martinez has locked down the designated hitter spot in the Tigers' starting lineup.

Martinez's shoes won't be easy to fill. Despite terrible seasons in 2015, 2017 and 2018, he finished his Tigers career with a .290 average, .349 on-base percentage and .789 OPS. He hit 188 doubles and 115 home runs while drawing more than three walks for every four strikeouts.

Hicks seems the likely successor after spending 81 games as the backup catcher and injury fill-in for Cabrera at first base.

He did decent work at the plate, hitting .260 with a .715 OPS thanks to 12 doubles and nine home runs. He's a strikeout-per-game guy and doesn't have a high walk rate, but the Tigers don't have an abundance of offensive talent on the roster.

7. Grayson Greiner, C

2018 stats: Six doubles, zero home runs, .219/.328/.281
Other starting C candidates: John Hicks

Grayson Greiner tags out Hunter Dozier of the Kansas City Royals at home plate at Kauffman Stadium on Aug. 29, 2018, in Kansas City, Missouri. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

James McCann has joined the AL Central Division rival Chicago White Sox, making way for Grayson Greiner to get his first shot as a starting MLB catcher.

The 26-year-old made his debut in 2018, posting a .609 OPS in 30 games. He was the Tigers' No. 26 prospect in 2016 but has struggled to hit, with a career minor-league OPS south of .700.

He drew a solid 17 walks with the Tigers last season, but had just six doubles and no other extra-base hits in 30 games.

Greiner is a solid defensive catcher with a strong arm, but his offense will always be the question mark. It's only a matter of time before elite defender Jake Rogers -- acquired from the Hoston Astros in the Justin Verlander trade -- gets his opportunity to start. But for now, it appears the Tigers will go with Greiner and have Hicks Hector Sanchez back him up.

8. Jordy Mercer, SS

2018 stats: 29 doubles, six home runs, .251/.315/.381
Other starting SS candidates: None

Jordy Mercer of the Pittsburgh Pirates watches a three-run homerun against the Colorado Rockies during a game at Coors Field on Aug. 7, 2018, in Denver. (Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

It shows how quiet the Tigers' offseason was that signing Jordy Mercer was likely the biggest move, but he'll replace Jose Iglesias as the starter at shortstop.

It's difficult to find offensive players with less power than Iglesias, but Mercer actually had fewer extra-base hits and a lower OPS last season. He was pretty much right on his career ratios, batting around .250 with a .315 OBP and .380 slugging percentage.

Mercer has hit double-digit homers three times since 2014, but he was brought to Detroit to play solid defense at shortstop and bridge the gap between Iglesias and the promising prospects in the minor leagues.

The Tigers have two solid shortstop prospects in Willi Castro and Isaac Paredes, but neither appears ready to take over the starting job in Detroit, and there's no need to rush them along with the team rebuilding.

Mercer has as many intentional walks as home runs in his career -- largely a product of hitting in front of pitchers in the lineup -- so he's not going to provide much power at the bottom of the lineup. He should be at least a replacement-level player for the Tigers this season, though.

9. JaCoby Jones, CF

2018 stats: 22 doubles, 11 home runs, .207/.266/.364
Other starting CF candidates: Mike Mahtook, Victor Reyes

Getty Images

DETROIT, MI - JULY 7: Center fielder JaCoby Jones #21 of the Detroit Tigers reaches over the wall to catch a fly ball hit by Adrian Beltre of the Texas Rangers during the sixth inning at Comerica Park on July 7, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan.…

JaCoby Jones was terrible at the plate last season, posting a near-unplayable .630 OPS and looking completely overmatched in several at-bats. He struck out too often and didn't walk enough.

Yet Jones was the Tigers' fourth-most valuable position player.

Jones will turn 27 in May, so his offensive skills aren't likely to improve dramatically from what they've been in 200 MLB games, but they certainly shouldn't get much worse. Even with the offensive struggles, Jones was a 2.0 WAR player for the Tigers last season.

How is that possible? Jones was the best defensive outfielder in baseball last season, according to FanGraphs' defensive runs saved. He had 21 DRS in 129 games last season with the top range rating in the league and above-average arm strength.

Jones has some power, with 39 extra-base hits and a .364 slugging percentage that's actually on the very high side for someone who hit .207. He also stole 13 bases in 18 attempts.

It would be a significant improvement, but if Jones could hit .230 and draw a few more walks, he could be a guy who hits 30 doubles and 15 home runs while playing elite defense at a premium position. There's massive value in that.

Who do you want to see in the Tigers lineup on Opening Day? Post your starters in the comments. 

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