Jeimer Candelario’s breakout season ended a few games early on Friday, when the Tigers placed their first baseman and cleanup hitter on the 10-day injured list with a low back strain.
Outfielder Christin Stewart was recalled from the taxi squad to take Candelario’s place on the roster.
Though Candelario left Thursday’s game against the Royals in the fourth inning, interim manager Lloyd McClendon had sounded optimistic he’d be able to play again. A subsequent MRI exam confirmed the strain, an injury that might cost him a few days under normal circumstances but ends his season in the final weekend.
“If this was a 162-game schedule, we probably could wait it out,” McClendon said. “But it’s kind of tough with a three-man bench at this time of year. It’s obvious he was going to miss the rest of this series, so we just had to do it.”
Candelario becomes the second Tigers first baseman lost to injury this season. C.J. Cron’s season-ending knee injury in early August created an opportunity for Candelario to move across the infield from third base and become a key cog in the middle of the Tigers' lineup.
Despite starting the season with an 0-for-17 slump and ending his season with a 1-for-23 slump, Candelario finishes with a .297 average (55-for-185), seven home runs, 29 RBIs and a team-best .872 OPS. His 47.1 percent hard-hit rate was about 14 points better than his previous career average, and ranked in the top 12 percent of Major League hitters as of Friday according to Statcast. He cracked the Top 10 among American League hitters in Wins Above Replacement until his recent downturn.
Not bad for a 26-year-old switch-hitter who entered Spring Training seven months ago in a roster battle at third base and out of Minor League options.
“The way I look at it, you’re part of the problem or part of the solution,” McClendon said. “And we feel like [Candelario is] part of the solution. He’s had a great year, done some nice things, switched position and still carried on. Hopefully he can build off this and continue to be the player we think he can be.”
Where Candelario will be next season will probably depend on what the Tigers do this offseason. If they sign another veteran first baseman -- Cron or someone else -- Candelario will return to third. But if the Tigers like Candelario at first, they could either try to add a veteran third baseman or open camp next year with a competition including Isaac Paredes, Harold Castro and others.
Also in the equation is top prospect Spencer Torkelson, who played first base at Arizona State but converted to third base this summer after joining the Tigers as the top pick in this summer’s MLB Draft. He’s ticketed to open next season in the Minors but could move quickly if he shows advancement.
While Candelario’s breakout season is over, the Tigers hope a few more big league games can provide a boost for Stewart and set up a similar season for him in 2021. The Tigers optioned him to Toledo a couple weeks ago with a .171 average (14-for-82), .550 OPS and 27 strikeouts.
“I know what type of player I am. I know what I can do out there on the field,” the former first-round Draft pick said. “I mean, I’ve done it before; I just have to do it here. And when it happens, it’s going to be a beautiful thing, I believe.”
Hard-throwing lefty Gregory Soto worked his way out of command issues most of the season but has now walked five of his last 15 batters, including three of five Royals he faced on Thursday.
“Sometimes Sotopop can be like a box of chocolates,” McClendon said. “He kind of reminds me of an old teammate of mine, Mitch Williams. So hyper and so pumped up, and they live on the edge and it’s either going to be good or it’s going to be bad.”