It might not be Jung's time just yet ... but it's coming

March 1st, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck's Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

LAKELAND, Fla. -- loves having something to prove. He came to Spring Training, his first Major League camp, with a chip on his shoulder.

He wanted to make a case for making the Opening Day roster despite having one full pro season and no games above Double-A yet. Third base was open at the time, before Detroit signed Gio Urshela, and Jung wanted in. New Tigers third-base coach Joey Cora, who has been working with him on his defense, encouraged him to tell manager A.J. Hinch just that when he had his start-of-camp meeting.

Hinch cut him off before he could argue.

“Before he even sat down, I told him he wasn’t going to make the team,” Hinch said with a smile. “He was just here to work and learn.”

Jung was blindsided.

“I was thinking, ‘Is he being serious?’ I didn’t know what to say,” Jung said. “I was just shaking my head, like, ‘Yeah, first thing, he rips me.’ I was just caught off-guard, like, ‘OK, nice.’”

Turns out, Cora knew the plan as well. He was just setting up the 2022 first-round MLB Draft pick. Jung eventually figured out the gag.

“He probably didn’t believe me,” Hinch said, smiling.

It was no slight meant at Jung, Hinch explained. It’s the same thing he told fellow Tigers prospects and non-roster invites Jackson Jobe and Ty Madden. Hinch didn’t want the prospects to get into bad habits trying to make a roster they had no chance of making, at least out of camp. He wants them here to work with the coaching staff, learn from Major Leaguers, watch the daily routine big leaguers go through to prepare for a game, and prepare for their seasons, likely at Triple-A Toledo for Jung.

Urshela’s arrival a few days later brought that point home: The Tigers might be keeping third base warm for Jung, but it’s not his time yet.

“We should never confuse that message with the fact that it can happen quickly and he can make an impression,” Hinch said.

He already is. Despite the joke, Jung has meshed with Cora, a match of two intense personalities with a common goal of improving Jung’s defense. He won a Minor League Gold Glove at second base last year before moving to third for the Arizona Fall League.

“It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve learned a lot defensively,” Jung said. “We go out there every day. I try to be the first one there so I can be one-on-one with him and try to learn from him, let him get after me a little bit and just have fun with it. …

“Yeah, he’s intense, but as long as you’re putting in work, I don’t think he has a problem with it. I think that’s why we get along, because I love putting in work and he can see that. We go out there and get after it together. I’m not scared of a butt-chewing or anything like that. I’ve had plenty from my dad, so it doesn’t faze me.”

Jung has had plenty of chances to make an impression. He was a late-inning substitution in three of Detroit’s first six games, and started at third Thursday against the Red Sox, going 1-for-3 with a single.

Thursday marked Jung’s first hit of camp. He’d been looking it ever since the Grapefruit League opener, when he disdainfully drew a walk.

“The most angry walk you’re going to get out of a first-year guy,” Hinch said. “He wants to hit.”

Jung laughed recalling the story.

“Just having fun with it,” he said, “but I did want to hit. I just missed a slider [earlier in the at-bat].”

That’s Jung’s game. He slugged 28 homers with 82 RBIs in 128 games last year between Erie and High-A West Michigan. He also walked 79 times, fitting the Tigers’ credo of dominating the strike zone.

Eventually, perhaps this year, that bat is going to get him to Detroit. He’ll be the second big leaguer in the family, following older brother Josh Jung, a World Series champion with the Rangers. Jace just has to wait a little bit longer.