Welcome to the first Spring Training where the players expected to comprise the Tigers’ long-term future compete against the veterans brought in to stabilize the present. These are the roster battles the Tigers tried to set up to push their prospects to develop. How new manager A.J. Hinch constructs his first roster in Detroit will be worth following; he has preached a mindset of improvement and competitiveness since he arrived a few months ago.
“I’m coming in with an open mind on how this roster can be configured at the end of March,” Hinch said. “The players that we take with us at the end of March, we’re going to feel like [they] have impact. In a perfect world, they all play great, and I’m miserable the last night of Spring Training trying to figure out how to break this team.”
The front office has reinforced that.
“We want more competition for our young players,” general manager Al Avila said just before Spring Training officially began. “At this point, we’re looking to win more games. We’re looking for players to make the club through good performance and competition. So that was part of bringing in some of the more veteran guys, to make the team better, more competition, some leadership on the team.”
Spring Training could play a lot in determining who heads north to Detroit for Opening Day on April 1. But for conversation’s sake, here’s one reporter’s prediction for how the Opening Day roster could shake out:
The Tigers have every reason to want Jake Rogers to win a job behind Ramos and learn in the Majors, and he could handle it defensively. But Rogers hasn’t had an at-bat in a regular-season game since 2019, and the Tigers might want to make sure his offensive approach is solid enough to hold up without everyday playing time when he does get called up. So unless Dustin Garneau or Eric Haase have a big spring, Greiner should get another chance to atone for a rough 2020 and show he can stick in the Majors.
Though Núñez reports to camp as a non-roster invitee, there’s every reason to believe he’ll earn a starting job if he can be an impact hitter and field respectably. The Tigers will have 40-man roster openings once Joey Wentz and Alex Faedo, both rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, are placed on the 60-day injured list. Núñez has flaws at the plate and doesn’t rate well in the field, but he’s a power source. Cabrera wants to get some playing time at first base again, but would likely play there occasionally at best to limit wear and tear on his back and legs.
Schoop perked some ears when he talked about wanting to show off his positional versatility around the infield this year after signing a one-year deal to return to Detroit. But if Núñez makes the team, that likely sets the rest of the infield, leaving Schoop with maybe occasional starts at third base along with regular duties at second. That’s fine, since he was a Gold Glove finalist at second last year.
If Núñez makes the team, Candelario should be set at third, maybe starting on occasion at first if Núñez needs a break and Cabrera is limited. If Núñez does not make the team, Candelario likely again becomes an option to play more regularly at first, which could open the door for Isaac Paredes to play third.
The Tigers want to create competition for their young players rather than hand them Major League spots, but Castro made his claim to shortstop by becoming arguably the second-best hitter on the team by season’s end last year. With a stacked class of free-agent shortstops looming next offseason, the Tigers need to figure out where Castro fits in the long term before then.
The Mazara signing should set this outfield, with the versatile Reyes playing right field against lefties and mixing in at the other two spots. The question then would be whether the Tigers keep Rule 5 Draft pick Baddoo or use the roster spot for a second utility player such as Harold Castro. Avila again praised Baddoo going into camp.
“What we’re hoping for,” Avila said, “is that what we see in Spring Training is enough that [he can fill a role] kind of like a Victor Reyes, where he can play defense, he can run the bases well and can give you a competitive at-bat so they can contribute towards a team winning a game.”
The Tigers didn’t sign Marwin Gonzalez, though they were linked to him this offseason. That’s fine, because Hinch has talked about Goodrum potentially taking on a Gonzalez type of role, getting enough starts at various spots that he essentially becomes an everyday player. Goodrum has to hit in order to earn the playing time, of course, which makes this a big camp for him. Harold Castro could still enter the mix here if the Tigers carry just four outfielders.
All eyes will be on top prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal after both got a taste of the big leagues last year. There’s no question they’re among the five best starters in Tigers camp, but if Detroit is serious about watching their innings after last year’s shortened season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if both of them open the season in Toledo and return to the big leagues soon after. It would also allow the Tigers to get one more look in a starting role at Norris, who is highly motivated to prove himself as a starter in his final season before free agency. The Tigers could do both by using a six-man rotation, but two off-days in the first week of the season would be a reason against going that route to start.
The closer’s role should be sneaky interesting, whether Hinch actually names a closer or goes with a committee. Jimenez will try to win his old job back, while Garcia has a chance to prove he was made for this role from his college days at Miami. If Norris or Alexander crack the rotation, that opens a role for Holland, who will stretch his pitch count in Spring Training but could work as a lefty specialist. Ramirez can help eat innings if the Tigers decide to ramp up some of their starters slowly to begin the season.