Ian Kinsler has been gone for a week, and though we’re still mourning his loss around the BYB office, it’s time to get back to the business of offseason speculation. The major question left in Kinsler’s wake is: who will play second base now?
Kinsler was a Gold Glove winner, and an absolute dynamo defensively. He and Jose Iglesias may have been one of the most exciting duos in the middle infield since Whitaker and Trammell. So it’s safe to say no one the Tigers hire for the second base position will be a true replacement for Kinsler. The free agent market is pretty thin with second base options, and the Tigers have very few home-grown talents ready for the majors.
Let’s take a look at who is available to step up at second plate for Detroit in 2018.
Dixon Machado — The Tigers Rookie of the Year winner, Machado is a natural choice to take over second base duties from Kinsler. He spent only 27 games at second last season — 32 at shortstop — but is no stranger to the Tigers infield. He hit for .259/.302/.319 in 2017 and got his first career home run. He’s below average defensively at second, with a -3 DRS and a -1 UZR, but those numbers aren’t so abysmal as to write him off. None of the candidates suitable for the job have the same defensive dazzle as Ian Kinsler did, and the Tigers may decide to go with a player who can simply hold his own, rather than pull off mind-bending plays. Machado can hold his own at second, and would cost the Tigers nothing on the free agent market since he’s already under club control.
Dawel Lugo — Lugo, who was acquired as part of the J.D. Martinez trade, spent the latter part of his 2017 season with the Double-A Erie SeaWolves where he hit for .269/.314/.417. While he isn’t major league ready just yet, don’t be surprised to see the infielder make an appearance at some point in the 2018 season.
Kody Eaves — Like Lugo, Eaves spent the bulk of his 2017 season in Erie, with a brief stint at Triple-A with the Mud Hens. His numbers between the two minor league teams were .271/.341/.464. Having spent some time with Triple-A already, it’s not a big stretch to imagine that Eaves might make a trip to Detroit before Lugo does. If the Tigers don’t pick up outside assistance in the infield, Eaves and Lugo would be good options to serve as back-up to Machado.
Niko Goodrum — Goodrum will be a non-roster invitee to spring training where he will hope to lock down a potential infield utility job. He most recently played with the Minnesota Twins Triple-A affiliate the Rochester Red Wings where he hit for .265/.309/.425. He might be the most major-league ready of the minor leaguers.
JaCoby Jones — this is less likely, given that Jones’s focus seems to be more in the outfield. He has played both shortstop and third base for Double-A Erie, however, so a trial run at second might not be out of the question. Hey, if the Tigers can move Nick Castellanos to the outfield, anything is possible. Jones hit for .170/.240/.270 in the majors last year, but .245/.314/.387 with Triple-A Toledo.
Expensive free agents
Neil Walker — Way too expensive for the Tigers. His 2017 salary with the Mets/Brewers was $17.2 million, and given the position the Tigers find themselves in (one where spending $6 million on a closer is too much) don’t expect them to shell out $13-$18 million a season for Walker. Between two clubs last year he hit for .265/.362/.439 with 14 home runs. Defensively he’d be a huge step down from Kinsler, with a -5 DRS and a -1.5 UZR. Not worth the cost, in spite of the decent bat.
Brandon Phillips — Like Walker, Phillips’ anticipated value of about $6 million (he was paid $14 million last year between the Braves and Angels) is a bit much. Not to mention the Angels would rather acquire Ian Kinsler than to re-sign with Phillips, why would the Tigers want to do the reverse. Phillips had a strong slash line of .285/.319/.416 last season with 13 home runs. He would also be a subpar defensive replacement, with a -7 DRS and a -0.3 UZR last year.
Chase Utley — At 38, Utley is entering his baseball curtain call. He was paid $2.25 million last season with the Dodgers, which actually isn’t too insane for a single-year contract. He hit a solid .236/.324/.402 last year with the Dodgers. He is average defensively with a 1 DRS and 0.6 UZR, but with his bat and lower price tag, the Tigers might want to consider bringing the veteran on.
Steve Lombardozzi — it wouldn’t be fair to Lombardozzi to assess him based on his MLB numbers last season, as he only played in two games. His Triple-A numbers with the Miami Marlins Triple-A New Orleans Baby Cakes were pretty decent. He hit .274/.337/.334. His career numbers defensively are average, either just above or below the 0 mark in DRS and UZR with no major blips to suggest he would be a defensive detriment to the team. Lombardozzi was briefly a Tiger in 2014 when he cam to the Tigers as part of the Doug Fister trade. He didn’t play a single game with the team before being traded again to the Baltimore Orioles for Alex Gonzalez. He has spent more of his time since then bouncing between teams and playing in the minors. He seems like an unlikely selection for second base.
Darwin Barney — When I suggested this acquisition on Twitter, there was quite a rallying cry against it. But compared to some of the other free agent options, Barney would be a sensible get to platoon with Machado. His average for 2017 with the Blue Jays was .232/.275/.327 with six home runs. He had a -3 DRS and a -0.5 UZR, neither number too alarming, and he could be had on the cheap (think $3 million or less). Barney also has the advantage of being a complete infield utility player, meaning he could step in for Jeimer Candelario at third, or even Jose Iglesias at shortstop, giving the infield a bit more versatility and room for inevitable injury.
That said, the Tigers have implied that if they do bring on any second base players, it will likely be a cheap older player, one who can compete for the position in spring training. There aren’t many existing free agent options that bring a lot of excitement to the table beyond Chase Utley. Utley could be an interesting get for the Tigers, bringing an old school dynamic into a very young clubhouse, which might be exactly what the Tigers need. Whether or not Utley would want to play in those conditions this close to the end of his career is another question entirely.
It seems more likely the Tigers will keep Machado in the second base role and challenge their other minor league talent, unless a veteran option arises before the end of March.