How Urshela's signing impacts six other Tigers

February 23rd, 2024

LAKELAND, Fla. -- reported to Spring Training last week focused on third base, while not trying to focus on proving himself as a third baseman.

“Going into this camp, wherever you want to put me, you put me. I’m just going to work hard,” Vierling said last Friday. “If it ends up being at third, if it ends up being the outfield, or if it ends up being something else, as long as I worked hard and had fun every day, I’m cool with it. I do want to make the team and help out where I am, but I try not to put pressure on myself to win a certain spot.”

In hindsight, that was a smart move. Though the Tigers did not anoint as their starting third baseman upon announcing his one-year, $1.5 million contract, their praise of his work at the hot corner and his ability to hit lefties and righties indicated he’ll get the first opportunity to earn regular playing time at a spot that hasn’t had an everyday player since Jeimer Candelario in 2022.

That has a trickle-down effect on a roster built around positional versatility. Here are six Tigers whose roles now shift with the Urshela move:

Vierling entered camp with an inside track towards getting starts at third after starting in the outfield for 186 of his previous 226 career MLB starts since 2021. His offseason work was focused at third base to prepare for the change in skill set.

Maybe it was a sign when Vierling was spotted in outfield drills during team workouts Thursday morning, hours before the Urshela deal was announced.

“He plays so many positions … I told him the best way he can contribute is being somewhat of an answer at a lot of different places,” manager A.J. Hinch said Friday. “Now, I said that before we signed Gio, and nothing changes.”

If Urshela was a left-handed hitter, Vierling could still find a good timeshare at third base in a platoon scenario. But since they both bat right-handed, Vierling’s best chance to crack Detroit’s lineup is in the outfield when the Tigers face a left-handed starter. Fortunately for Vierling, he plays all three outfield positions which gives him a chance to spell Parker Meadows, Riley Greene or Kerry Carpenter on a given day.

The Tigers love what Meadows brings to center field, starting with potentially Gold Glove-caliber defense and continuing with game-changing speed. The skill set brings less worry about platoon splits knowing Meadows can contribute in the field. Urshela’s arrival potentially puts the platoon option back in play as it frees up Vierling as an option in center against a tough lefty starter. It also gives the Tigers some insurance in case Meadows encounters any sophomore struggles or gets injured.

Ibáñez still has a role as a right-handed-hitting complement or alternative to Colt Keith at second base, but with Vierling now likely seeing more outfield work, Ibáñez is at best the third option for a right-handed-hitting outfielder, possibly cutting into his role.

McKinstry bats left-handed, so Urshela doesn’t provide direct competition for his role in that respect. However, Urshela holds his own against right-handed pitchers, batting .276 against them last year and .272 for his career. That reduces the potential need for platooning. Moreover, Urshela’s ability to play occasional shortstop -- he actually started six of the Angels’ first 12 games there last season when Anthony Rendon played third -- fills another potential role backing up Javier Báez.

The Tigers love Malloy’s combination of patience and power and brought their No. 9 prospect to camp as a non-roster invitee to compete for a part-time role. If Vierling gets more time as an outfielder than a third baseman, it raises the question whether there’s enough of a role left for Malloy to allow him to develop at the Major League level. If not, Malloy’s best move might be a return to Triple-A Toledo for regular at-bats while he waits for an in-season opportunity in Detroit.

Hinch told Jung at the start of camp that he wasn’t competing for an Opening Day roster spot. Still, much of the mixing and matching at third base came with the idea of keeping the position warm for Jung’s eventual MLB debut, possibly later this year. Urshela reduces the temptation to rush Jung, the Tigers' No. 4 prospect, to Detroit, something president of baseball operations Scott Harris was wary of doing anyway.

“We’re going to do the right thing for Jace’s development,” Harris said. “That’s going to be an evergreen comment for me. We can’t rush guys to the big leagues. We’ve seen in recent years around the league what happens when you rush guys.”