MINNEAPOLIS -- At some point this weekend, once the snow here abates, the Tigers and Twins will have their first meeting of 2019 at Target Field. The Minnesota pitching staff will likely use its usual caution for Miguel Cabrera, whose production against the Twins -- a .313 average, 41 homers,
MINNEAPOLIS -- At some point this weekend, once the snow here abates, the Tigers and Twins will have their first meeting of 2019 at Target Field. The Minnesota pitching staff will likely use its usual caution for Miguel Cabrera, whose production against the Twins -- a .313 average, 41 homers, 139 RBIs and a .959 OPS -- tops anything he has done against any opponent besides Cleveland.
Then the Twins will have to worry about the familiar face hitting behind him.
Niko Goodrum punished his old club last year for five home runs, 13 RBIs and a 1.006 OPS in 16 games, fueling his rise from former Twins Draft pick to Tigers Minor League signing to a regular in Detroit’s lineup. As big of a jump as that seemed, his encore has been more impressive.
Goodrum returns to the Twin Cities as the regular cleanup hitter in the Tigers' lineup, filling the void behind Nicholas Castellanos and Cabrera. He leads the team in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, walks and OPS. He’s tied for the team lead in hits and sits second in RBIs.
“He's been swinging really good,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He's been on it pretty much every day.”
The 27-year-old Goodrum is doing all of this without a set position in the lineup. No wonder he currently leads the Tigers in Wins Above Replacement.
Goodrum started the last five games at five different positions. In his first start of the season in right field on Thursday, Goodrum threw out Brad Miller at home plate on a Leonys Martin single in the fourth inning, his second outfield assist in five days. A few pitches later, he made a running catch in the corner on a Jose Ramirez liner to help starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull out of a troublesome inning.
Goodrum also accounted for three of the five baserunners the Tigers put up against Indians starter Shane Bieber. He hit a two-run homer and a single against Trevor Bauer on Wednesday while starting at first base, and produced an RBI single off Corey Kluber on Tuesday in a start in left field.
Two weeks into the season, Goodrum has started at every defensive position except shortstop, third base and catcher. He has no idea where he’ll be playing in the field on a given day, only that he will likely be playing. The one constant is where he’s hitting in the batting order.
Goodrum embraces it. He grabs one of his 10 gloves and goes.
“I just prepare,” Goodrum said. “Wherever Gardy puts me in, I get my work done there and don’t worry about it. When it comes to the lineup, I don’t look too far ahead and try to guess where he’s going to put me at.”
This is the role Gardenhire and general manager Al Avila envisioned when the Tigers signed Josh Harrison during Spring Training, detaching Goodrum from a potential starting job at second base. The fact that Goodrum has handled it this well while filling the cleanup void is something few might have imagined going in, despite his success in a utility role for much of last year.
“We feel we can give him a lot of at-bats playing first base, second base, shortstop, third base, outfield,” Avila said in Spring Training. “We want to make sure we have enough at-bats for him. And Gardy feels that he’ll be able to give him plenty of at-bats.”
The best comparison for Goodrum might be watching him from the opposite side this weekend. Marwin Gonzalez built an everyday role playing all over the field for the Astros the last few years. He was on an American League MVP Award ballot two years ago after batting .303 with 23 homers and 90 RBIs and playing all over the field.
The Twins signed Gonzalez to a two-year, $21 million contract this past offseason to fill a role similar to what Goodrum, Minnesota’s second-round pick in the 2010 Draft, is performing for Detroit now.
“It’s a challenge,” Goodrum said, “but there’s more people doing it than just me, so I have to find a way to get it done.”
It’s a role of change, yet Goodrum thrives with an approach that’s constant: Look for a pitch he can drive, try to center it and hit it hard.
The approach reflects in the metrics. Goodrum ranks in the top 5 percent of Major League Baseball for hard-hit rate at 58.1 percent, according to Statcast. As well as he’s hitting, batting .293 as of Friday, his expected batting average is .348, with a .688 expected slugging percentage, both among the top five percent of hitters across the league.
“I’m just trying to keep everything simple, let the game come to me,” Goodrum said. “I’m not trying to go outside of my zone, stay in my lane and do what I can do.”
If Goodrum picks up where he left off last year, he’ll do plenty against his old club this weekend. The one opponent here that can stop him so far seems to be the weather.
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.