DETROIT -- Jeimer Candelario joined the Tigers' organization as a near-ready prospect from the Cubs farm system as part of the Alex Avila trade on July 31, 2017. Thirteen days earlier, Dawel Lugo was a strong-armed infielder who was one of three prospects to join the Tigers from Arizona in the J.D. Martinez trade.
Two-and-a-half years later, both are still looking to establish themselves as big league players. The way the Tigers' roster shapes up, there’s only room for one of them at third base on Opening Day.
The Tigers have few roster battles for a team coming off 114 losses. With Candelario and Lugo competing for the starting role at the hot corner, however, comes the first signal that Detroit's patience with its prospects has a limit. Both are out of Minor League options, so whoever doesn’t win the job has a chance of being taken off the 40-man roster altogether.
If Detroit is to have a better offense than the Major League-worst production it showed last year, it needs Candelario or Lugo to produce. So far, both have hit in brief glimpses, but nothing consistent. Tigers top infield prospect Isaac Paredes (per MLB Pipeline) is expected to open the season with Triple-A Toledo with a chance for a late-season callup, so this might be the last chance for Candelario and Lugo to impress.
“We have guys that need to step up,” manager Ron Gardenhire said during last month’s Winter Caravan. “Candy Man, we want him to do some things. Lugo played pretty well last year. There’s good competition there. Those guys are going to have to battle it out and figure out who’s going to earn that job. That’s going to be important. It’s going to be fun to watch. That’s what baseball is all about, people earning things, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Nobody expected Candelario to be in this spot after the way his Tigers tenure began. After batting .330 over 27 games down the stretch in 2017, the switch-hitter entered June 4, 2018, with a .276 average, .901 OPS and a big spot in the heart of Detroit's batting order. He hit .198 the rest of the way, then .203 last year. Add them together, and he has 212 strikeouts against 139 hits.
Injuries haven’t helped. Candelario looked like a different hitter after a 2018 stint on the injured list with left wrist tendinitis; left shoulder inflammation slowed him last year. Still, patience began to wear thin by last summer. Detroit optioned him to Triple-A Toledo three times last season, then moved him to first base when he returned in September.
By that point, the Tigers wanted to see what they had with Lugo at third after 191 games over two years with Toledo. His .292 career batting average with the Mud Hens is solid, to complement a low strikeout rate. But Lugo's eight Triple-A home runs showed a limited power potential, and 24 walks limited his on-base clip, though he improved his rate a bit last year.
For Lugo to have a future in Detroit in anything more than a utility role, either the power or the on-base rate needs a bump.
Candelario might still be a candidate at first base had the Tigers not signed C.J. Cron for the spot, but such a deal was expected. Candelario posted the stronger defensive metrics last year, including two Outs Above Average at third base according to Statcast’s new defensive measure. Lugo registered negative-2 Outs Above Average. Both registered a 94 percent success rate on plays close to the foul line.
The difference was larger in Defensive Runs Saved -- seven for Candelario, negative-6 for Lugo.
With both players out of options, expect the competition to go on for most of camp. The bump in Major League rosters from 25 to 26 players allows for the chance both players could make the team, particularly if Miguel Cabrera can’t play the field and Candelario is needed to back up at first base. With the Tigers desperately needing offense, though, that’s far from a given.