Versatility name of game for 2021 Tigers

March 27th, 2021

In the end, the Tigers opted for versatility -- in the bullpen, on the bench and in the field.

Manager A.J. Hinch’s first Tigers roster will be known as an intersection of top prospects in Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Willi Castro with rebounding veterans like Julio Teheran and Derek Holland. But if you want a glimpse into the managerial philosophy Hinch brings to Detroit, look at the roster by how few roles and positions are defined.

Michael Fulmer, Holland, Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander could have comprised the bulk of a rotation not long ago. They’re all in Detroit’s bullpen now, and Hinch is open to using them at any time, not just as innings-eating long relievers.

“The way we look at this is we do want to cover every scenario -- long, short and anywhere in between. So this is a very versatile bullpen,” Hinch said.

Positionally, aside from first baseman/DH Miguel Cabrera and catchers Wilson Ramos and Grayson Greiner, everybody on Detroit's roster can play more than one spot. It might be as simple as Robbie Grossman and Nomar Mazara playing either outfield corner, or as complex as Niko Goodrum playing potentially anywhere but pitcher and catcher. But the overall impact is that Hinch can move players around to try to find his best lineup on a given night or his best matchup in a late-inning pinch-hit situation.

“To start this season, we felt like the versatility was going to be very important,” Hinch said.

The Tigers aren’t calling the roster "set" just yet: They’re still leaving the window open for a player addition in case somebody elsewhere opts out of a contract and catches their eye on the free-agent market. But most likely, this is the group.

So, here’s a look at Detroit's 26-man roster:

Catchers: ,
The backup-catcher competition was supposed to go down to the final days, but it wound up being one of the first decisions. It also wasn’t complicated. Though Greiner missed about a week of games thanks to a broken nose he sustained on a hit-by-pitch, he clearly outplayed Jake Rogers and had the advantage over non-roster invites Dustin Garneau and Eric Haase of already being on the 40-man roster. Greiner's overhauled swing already seemed to be making a difference at the plate. The Tigers needed somebody Hinch could trust behind Ramos, who will likely get some starts at designated hitter on days when Cabrera plays first base.

“I said at the beginning of camp it was going to be a competition. We gave everybody a chance. Greiner performed the best,” Hinch said Thursday. “His adjustments looked to be translating over into the game a little faster than the other guys, and [he] won the job.”

First base:
No, this does not mean Cabrera is the everyday starter at first base, or even the primary starter. But he’s the only player on the Tigers' roster whose primary position is first base. He should get a couple of starts a week over there, according to Hinch. The rest will be a rotation that includes Jeimer Candelario, Goodrum, Harold Castro and maybe even Jonathan Schoop. It doesn’t promote stability, but it allows Hinch to preserve roster versatility.

And defensively, it looked like the best move. When Renato Núñez missed a double-play throw last week in Clearwater, Fla. -- a low throw, but not in the dirt -- it was a reminder of the potential risk of pairing him with a young infield, especially with shortstop Willi Castro battling accuracy on throws. Núñez was much better handling throws after that, but the non-roster invitee was informed he won't make the Opening Day roster and could become a free agent by declining a Minor League assignment.

“Núñez at first base, I think, could hold his own if given more reps and continuing to work that way,” Hinch said. “But the flexibility of the roster was impacted if we went that direction and had him only be a first baseman/DH, and I have Miggy at first base/DH, and I have Ramos only as catcher, and I’m trying to carry five outfielders. It was all sort of tied together. That impacted Núñez’s spot to start the season.”

Second base:
Schoop will probably move around some, potentially getting starts at first and third. But once Detroit optioned Isaac Paredes to Triple-A Toledo on Thursday, Schoop was all but assured of being primarily a second baseman. That could change if and when Paredes returns. Goodrum and Harold Castro can also play well at second, but they showed this spring they can also play well at first.

Third base:
Candelario is going to bounce around the infield corners now that the Tigers don’t have a primary first baseman, but Hinch said Saturday he still considers Candelario a third baseman.

“His ability to go over to first is still going to be utilized depending on how I play the various infielders,” Hinch said. “But I’ve always viewed him as a primary third baseman, so that’s where he’ll get most of his reps. If I’m playing Harold or Niko at second and I want Schoop at third and Candy at first, I could see that combo working. I could see Schoop at first and Candy staying at third.”

Castro at shortstop might be the one constant in Detroit's infield as the team tries to let him get settled into the position and find out if he can stay there long-term defensively. Castro's throws improved as Spring Training unfolded, but he needs to remain consistent with his footwork and mechanics. Having Cabrera and Candelario at first base will help. Add in Castro’s expected spot in the middle of the order -- possibly batting in front of Cabrera or behind him -- and the 23-year-old switch-hitter is shaping up to be a key cog in the Tigers’ fortunes -- not just long-term, but this year.

Outfield: , , , ,
Detroit is carrying five outfielders to accommodate Baddoo, who made such an impression this Spring Training that the Tigers essentially had to keep the Rule 5 Draft pick rather than offer him back to the division-rival Twins.

“He earned it,” Hinch said. “It was not something the organization demanded when we drafted him. We had a wait-and-see approach with him, and even though we were excited on the front end, he exceeded even the best of expectations that we had coming in and quite honestly forced his way onto our team as a player and not as a Rule 5 pick.”

Now comes the next test of finding enough playing time to let Baddoo continue developing in the Majors.

Utility: ,
The thought all spring was that Detroit couldn’t carry five outfielders and two utility players. But much like Baddoo forced his way onto the roster, Castro played his way into Hinch’s thought process by playing well all over the infield. Castro's left-handed bat also provides a chance at lineup balance and pinch-hitting opportunities. Don’t be surprised if he gets more than an occasional start at first base.

“He’s easy to like and easy to appreciate when it comes to being an answer to a lot of different things,” Hinch said. “And now with him and Niko moving all around the field, the versatility of this roster is really, really good.”

Rotation: , , , ,
The thought going into Spring Training was that one of the Tigers' prospects would crack the rotation and others would work their way in as the season unfolded, which would allow the team to watch their innings. Then Skubal dominated Grapefruit League hitters for most of camp and Mize made the adjustments Detroit wanted to see from him to compete more with hitters. Now, the more likely way to watch innings will be by employing a six-man rotation, which the Tigers could adopt as soon as Spencer Turnbull is stretched out and ready to go. He’ll open the season on the injured list due to COVID-19 protocol.

Bullpen: , , , , , , ,
Four of these pitchers started games last season, and three of them were in competition for rotation spots when Spring Training began. But just because Hinch carried so many would-be starters doesn’t mean he’s loading up on long relievers.

“We have some guys that can do a lot of different things,” Hinch said. “It will evolve into having a relatively normal setup in expectations on when guys are going to pitch, but the competition continues. And the fact that I can really go to any guy, probably Tyler Alexander, and ambush them with a different responsibility on a day-to-day basis is a great luxury.”

One thing this group doesn’t have is closing experience. The eight relievers have six career Major League saves, all from last year -- four from Garcia, two from Soto.