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Who might make Tigers' Opening Day roster?

January 14, 2020

DETROIT -- The New Year holiday has passed, and Detroit doesn’t have a ton of roster spots to fill. That in itself is a surprising win for general manager Al Avila, who heads into 2020 with a better-looking roster than the 114-loss Tigers ended with last season. Instead of playing

DETROIT -- The New Year holiday has passed, and Detroit doesn’t have a ton of roster spots to fill. That in itself is a surprising win for general manager Al Avila, who heads into 2020 with a better-looking roster than the 114-loss Tigers ended with last season.

Instead of playing the waiting game before Spring Training as expected, the Tigers signed catcher Austin Romine, first baseman C.J. Cron, second baseman Jonathan Schoop and right-hander Zack Godley in an eight-day span, all on one-year contracts. Detroit brought back versatile reliever Alex Wilson on a non-roster invite to add some experience to the bullpen. All in all, the signings look better than the injury risks of a year ago that backfired (Matt Moore, Tyson Ross and Josh Harrison among them) and left manager Ron Gardenhire with a short-handed, inexperienced roster that slid from a .500 record in April into a summer freefall it could not escape.

Avila and assistant GM David Chadd still have some work to do in the six weeks leading into Spring Training. Detroit would welcome one more starter to compete for a rotation spot or provide early-season depth at Triple-A Toledo before the top prospects begin pushing for callups. Another bat for the corner outfield would be helpful, moreso if left-handed.

But with the signings the Tigers have already completed, they’re not scrambling for help. They didn’t pounce unnecessarily on early deals like in the previous offseason, but when the market moved quicker than expected, they were in position to pivot and make signings without settling for the last free agents standing. Time will tell if the strategy is successful.

With that in mind, here’s a look at where the Tigers stand at each position heading into the final weeks of the Hot Stove season.

Lock: Romine
Grayson Greiner, Jake Rogers, free agent

The Tigers placed a veteran catcher among their top priorities, and they moved quickly to sign Romine to a one-year, $4.1 million contract once Alex Avila signed with the Twins instead of returning to Detroit. The fact that Romine signed so soon with a rebuilding club indicates he’ll be given every opportunity to win the bulk of the playing time out of Spring Training. The former Yankee has shown flashes of solid offense filling in for an injured Gary Sánchez over the past few years; the Tigers don’t need him to be great so much as they need viable at-bats, which they didn’t get often from the catching spot last year. Greiner is expected to back him up, with Rogers heading back to Toledo for more seasoning after a midsummer callup that Detroit officials admit was rushed. If Greiner can play in April and May like he did last September, he could be part of the Tigers' long-term plans.

First base
Lock: Cron
Possibilities: Jeimer Candelario, free agent or trade

Cron not only gives the Tigers a badly-needed run producer and power hitter for the middle of their batting order, but he also he allows the club to view any games Miguel Cabrera plays in the field as a bonus rather than a necessity. Expect the pull-hitting Cron to spend most of his at-bats aiming for the bullpens beyond Comerica Park’s left-field fence, bolstering an offense that didn’t have a 20-homer hitter last season. Candelario could back up at first base if Cabrera is limited to DH duty, but the Tigers would prefer Candelario compete for the starting job at third. If Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson slugs his way into a no-brainer choice for Detroit with the top pick in the MLB Draft, that might solve first base long term.

Second base
Lock: Schoop
Harold Castro, Willi Castro, Niko Goodrum

The Tigers lack an obvious fit at second base for the long term, but Schoop gives them their best option there since Ian Kinsler’s final season in Detroit in 2017. His walk-to-strikeout ratio isn’t pretty, and his power numbers could be tempered by the spacious confines of Comerica Park, but he’s a proven two-way player who can make double-play turns easier for whoever handles shortstop. Don’t be surprised if Harold Castro pushes for at-bats here or in center field. Second base could eventually be a fallback position for shortstop prospect Willi Castro, whose defensive fit remains to be seen.

Lock: Goodrum
Possibilities: Willi Castro, free agent or trade

The ideal scenario is for Willi Castro to hold down this spot for the next several years. However, his .624 OPS in 110 late-season plate appearances didn’t impress, and team officials aren’t sure yet whether he can stick at short defensively. Goodrum, who held his own in an extended midseason stint at short, will get the first opportunity to earn the starting job in Spring Training. Detroit could still bring in a veteran to compete as well.

Third base
Locks: None
Dawel Lugo, Candelario

The Tigers pivoted late this past season from Candelario to Lugo, whose defensive improvement at the hot corner was one of the team’s few silver linings. With Cron now at first, Lugo and Candelario will battle for the starting job in Spring Training while No. 5 prospect Isaac Paredes looms at Toledo. Both Lugo and Candelario have to prove they’re better than the sub-.700 career OPS marks they've posted, especially if Vanderbilt infielder Austin Martin ends up becoming the Tigers’ top Draft selection come summer.

Utility (if applicable)
Lock: Harold Castro
Possibilities: Willi Castro, free agent or trade

Though Detroit values Goodrum most when he’s playing everywhere, the gaping hole at shortstop makes too much sense for him not to fill it. That, plus Ronny Rodriguez’s departure to Milwaukee, opens an opportunity for Harold Castro, whose .291 average was tempered by a 9-to-86 walk-to-strikeout ratio.

Locks: JaCoby Jones, Christin Stewart
Possibilities: Victor Reyes, Travis Demeritte, Jorge Bonifacio, Jacob Robson, Danny Woodrow, Daz Cameron, Troy Stokes Jr., free agent or trade

A year ago, 2020 looked like the year Cameron would be knocking on Detroit’s door to take over in center. But his struggles in Toledo combined with Jones’ midseason swing adjustment have earned Jones more time to show if he can turn a developmental corner. Stewart’s '19 season was a disappointment, especially on defense, but he showed enough flashes as a left-handed power hitter to earn another look. With no clear replacement for Nicholas Castellanos in right following Demeritte’s .630 OPS in a late-season audition, the Tigers will either have an open competition in Spring Training or sign a veteran stopgap. Keep an eye on Bonifacio, who looked like a budding young hitter in Kansas City in 2017 before a suspension and injuries halted his progress.

Designated hitter
Lock: Cabrera

Whether or not his balky right knee allows him to play first base, Cabrera isn’t going anywhere. He’ll be primarily a DH regardless, but he wants an occasional game at first. Either way, he’ll be the Tigers’ best hitter if he’s healthy, with or without home run power. Detroit wants him to report to Spring Training with a slimmer body to take some pressure off his soon-to-be 37-year-old legs. That could cost him power, but he could make up for that in part with renewed bat speed and plate coverage if he can go back to his old swing and push off his back leg again.

Starting pitchers
Locks: Matthew Boyd, Jordan Zimmermann, Spencer Turnbull, Ivan Nova, Daniel Norris
Possibilities: Godley, Tyler Alexander

Avila set a goal of having seven starting pitchers in camp to compete for five spots. Nova’s signing in mid-January reached the goal while also giving the Tigers a veteran innings-eater. Detroit could need more help if it gets a trade offer for Boyd that it can’t turn down. If Norris can carry forward his momentum from last year and grab a starting spot rather than return to the bullpen, the rotation will be better for it. He’s on the staff for next season regardless. Godley could be a wild card, a good swing-and-miss right-hander who had a bad 2019 season. Zimmermann enters the final season of his five-year contract coming off one of the roughest campaigns of his career. Top prospects Casey Mize and Matt Manning are also expected to get innings in big league camp as non-roster invites, but they will start the season at Triple-A Toledo.

Locks: Joe Jiménez, Buck Farmer
Possibilities: Gregory Soto, Jose Cisnero, Bryan Garcia, Rony Garcia, John Schreiber, Matt Hall, David McKay, Wilson, Godley, free agent or trade

Shane Greene’s trade last July and Blaine Hardy’s departure last month leave a very unproven group after closer Jiménez and setup man Farmer, but it also presents an opportunity. Soto, Rony Garcia and Schreiber represent the Tigers’ best attempt to produce a bullpen in-house in several years, not counting Jiménez's rise. Soto, who had a very good winter ball season in the Dominican, could be critical in lefty relief as baseball transitions to a three-batter minimum. Bryan Garcia could be in position for a breakout in his second year back from Tommy John surgery. Wilson, back on a non-roster invite, could fill the do-everything role Drew VerHagen handled capably down the stretch last year.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.