Once, Jeimer Candelario and Willi Castro were young trade acquisitions who were key parts of the Tigers’ youth movement that general manager Al Avila was putting together. Four years later, they’re among the first decisions that Scott Harris has to make as Detroit’s president of baseball operations weighs how to get the team headed in the right direction again.
Rebuilds stall, but player service time doesn’t. And as the Tigers weigh their list of arbitration-eligible players ahead of Friday’s deadline to tender contracts, their decisions include several players who have been key parts of their rebuild efforts.
Nine Tigers are eligible for arbitration: Tyler Alexander, Candelario, Harold Castro, Willi Castro, José Cisnero, Rony García , Joe Jiménez, Austin Meadows and Gregory Soto. Two other arbitration-eligible players, Miguel Diaz and Kyle Funkhouser, were designated for assignment on Tuesday. Another arbitration-eligible player, Victor Reyes, was outrighted last week and is now a free agent. Detroit could do the same with others by simply not offering them a contract by Friday’s deadline.
Most of those contract decisions are easy, but what the Tigers do with three key players could say a lot about how much change is coming:
3B Jeimer Candelario (third-time arb eligible)
2022 salary: $5,800,000
2023 Cot's projected salary: $6,350,000
Pros: Candelario is only a year removed from leading the Majors with 42 doubles as part of a 2021 season that earned him consideration as a contract extension candidate, though no deal ever developed. His '22 stats dropped off, but his expected stats -- based on exit velocity, launch angle and direction, per Statcast -- were slightly better, and his production improved in the second half. With his 29th birthday coming up on Thanksgiving, he’s in the prime of his career and seemingly capable of a turnaround.
Cons: As encouraging as Candelario’s 2020 and '21 numbers were, his '22 struggles were deep. He ranked in the bottom 22% or worse for average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, expected batting average, chase rate and walk rate, according to Statcast. More surprising was his drop in defensive metrics, from break-even in '21 to -6 Outs Above Average this year. He actually improved in Defensive Runs Saved, but still remained below average at -1.
Plan B: The Tigers do not have an obvious replacement at third base in the system. Ryan Kreidler, the club's No. 7 prospect, could do it, having made 11 starts there down the stretch, but manager A.J. Hinch likes Kreidler's versatility. The market for free-agent third basemen falls off quickly after Brandon Drury, Evan Longoria and Justin Turner. All of them bat right-handed, and Harris wants a left-handed hitter to add to the infield mix.
IF/OF Harold Castro (second-time arb eligible)
2022 salary: $1,275,000 (Super 2 arbitration)
2023 Cot's projected salary: $1,425,000
Pros: Castro’s .271 batting average led the team and backed up his nickname of Hittin’ Harold. Home and away, first and second half, against lefties and righties, runners in scoring position or bases empty -- he was consistently good. He was also tough to strike out. Meanwhile, Castro was willing to play wherever Hinch wanted to put him, and even pitched in four games. Castro isn’t flashy, but he knows his job and does it well.
Cons: Given the Tigers’ struggles, paying a utility player deep into arbitration could be a luxury, notably when the player has no clear path to an everyday role. While Castro plays all over the field, he didn’t grade out well defensively at any of them. His -6 Outs Above Average and -9 Defensive Runs Saved in just 25 games at third base were particularly stunning. While Castro is tough to strike out, he doesn’t walk much, drawing just 45 over 1,148 career plate appearances. He chases pitches outside the strike zone well above the MLB average, though he makes contact with them at a better rate.
Plan B: Harris listing a left-handed-hitting infielder as a priority need seemingly wouldn’t bode well for Castro, a left-handed hitter. But then, the Tigers have precious few left-handed hitters in their infield beyond him. Kody Clemens is one, but he hasn’t hit much. Kreidler can play all over, but he bats right-handed.
OF/IF Willi Castro (first-time arb eligible)
2022 salary: $700,000
2023 Cot's projected salary: $1,100,000
Pros: The 25-year-old Castro showed some of the best athletic ability on the team in 2022, bashing some impressive homers and stealing bases, all while making highlight catches in the outfield. His .261 xBA, per Statcast, was 20 points above his actual average. He has looked very good in stretches, especially on offense. He started at six different positions this past season, including center field and shortstop.
Cons: Castro has yet to turn his great stretches into a productive season, evidenced by his .245 career batting average and .673 OPS. His average exit velocity of 84.8 mph was among the lowest in the league. While his strikeout rate has improved each season, he owns one of the highest chase rates in the league every year, and he rarely walks.
Plan B: Kreidler quietly began working out in the outfield with coaches in September, and he made an appearance in center field during the final homestand. The Tigers worked out several infielders in the outfield in the farm system, and they could try out some prospects there in the spring.