Tiger talk: Lefty bats, youth, Aaron and more

January 23rd, 2021

The bitter cold across Michigan these days makes it difficult to think of spring and baseball, but they are quickly sneaking up. Spring Training is scheduled to begin in less than a month in Lakeland, Fla., and if it’s anything like Summer Camp 2020 in Detroit, the prospects will be the story, and the future should look a little closer.

Here are a few thoughts before the mind turns to pitchers and catchers reporting:

Lefty bats dwindling
Manager A.J. Hinch made it clear during an interview with former general managers Jim Duquette and Jim Bowden on MLB Network Radio that the Tigers want to fix their struggles against right-handed pitchers. Detroit posted a .655 OPS off right-handers last year, third-lowest in the Majors, and an American League-low .673 and .666 OPS versus righties in 2019 and '18, respectively. The team hasn’t been better than 25th in the Majors in OPS off righties since '16, when J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler and Justin Upton were still in the lineup and the Tigers had their last winning season.

Detroit has had a righty-heavy lineup for years -- including in 2016, when switch-hitting Victor Martinez was the only left-handed bat in the regular lineup. Prince Fielder and Alex Avila were the last productive pure left-handed hitters in the lineup back in '13. But Detroit had right-handed hitters who were productive against left- and right-handed pitchers, starting with Miguel Cabrera and continuing with J.D. Martinez, Jhonny Peralta and Torii Hunter.

The current lineup is much more balanced from a lefty-righty standpoint with switch-hitters Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro and Niko Goodrum, plus a sneaky good left-handed hitter in Harold Castro, but the production is lower. Goodrum batted just .144 off righties last year, but right-handed hitter Jonathan Schoop batted .277 with an .815 OPS.

Catcher Jason Castro might well fall into that less-productive category despite batting left-handed. He hit .194 off righties last year after hitting .254 with 13 homers off them in 2019. Marwin Gonzalez, another free agent reportedly drawing interest from the Tigers, has been a very balanced hitter in his career but hasn’t hit .250 or posted a .750 OPS off righties since '17, his last season with the Astros. So there’s a difference between finding more production against right-handed pitchers and simply balancing out a lineup. And the answer to the former might involve adding right-handed hitters.

Multi-year contracts
Speaking of Jason Castro, his two-year contract with Houston was a surprise for a 33-year-old catcher amidst a field of free agents largely seen as short-term stopgaps. Now that he got two years, will there be pressure for Detroit to do the same? The Tigers haven’t had a primary catcher for multiple years since James McCann, and they haven’t signed a free-agent catcher to a multi-year deal since Ivan Rodriguez. Detroit would like to leave the position open to figure out what it has in Jake Rogers, but also for 2020 MLB Draft pick Dillon Dingler to potentially progress. That said, the Tigers broke with their pattern of short-term deals on Jan. 5 by signing outfielder Robbie Grossman to a two-year contract.

Which prospects will get invites?
Riley Greene was the talk of Spring Training and Summer Camp last season, making a big impression for a teenager who has yet to play a full season of Minor League ball. But the Tigers face a decision with Greene and fellow top offensive prospect Spencer Torkelson and whether to invite them to Major League camp. In a normal season, it would be a no-brainer. But if the Minor League season from the Double-A level on down is delayed -- as general manager Al Avila referenced as a possibility a few weeks ago in an interview with Dan Dickerson on WXYT-FM -- and Major and Minor League camps are run separately and at different times, the Tigers will have to figure out whether to run their top young hitters through essentially two camps. It might not be a big deal, but it could still be an adjustment.

Remembering Hank Aaron
Hank Aaron, who passed away on Friday, did not have an extensive history against the Tigers, having played just 28 games in his career against them. But Detroit is still intertwined in his history. First, he was one of six Hall of Famers to homer in the 1971 All-Star Game at Tiger Stadium, hitting an opposite-field loft into the right-field upper deck off Vida Blue. Four years later, Aaron set the Major League RBI record against the Tigers with a single off Vern Ruhle at Milwaukee’s County Stadium on May 1, 1975, during a 17-3 Brewers rout. Two months after that, he homered off Ruhle at Tiger Stadium, Aaron's only regular-season homer at the ballpark.