The highlights from the 2018 Detroit Tigers were relatively few, especially with the team looking to likely struggle again the next season (spoiler alert: they did!). One bright spot, though, was young Jeimer Candelario, the former Chicago Cubs prospect who came over to Detroit during the 2017 trade deadline in exchange for Justin Wilson and Alex Avila.
The third baseman had a strong showing after joining the Tigers, hitting .330/.406/.468 in 27 major league appearances to end the 2017 season. This would lead to his first full major league season in 2018, where he ended with a .224 average and 19 homers in 144 games, culminating in a 94 wRC+ — one buoyed by a huge first half that showed what a fully operational Candelario was capable of.
Maybe the Tigers did not have many choices anyway, but Candelario’s 2018 was good enough to earn him a repeat opportunity in 2019. Many fans were hoping — and maybe expecting — to see him take a step forward given his age, but unfortunately, things started to trend the other way.
What went right in 2019?
While this section is supposed to be about the positives of a given player’s season, it is hard to ignore all of the negatives from this year. Candelario saw a decline in most areas compared to the previous year: a .203 batting average (compared to .224 last year), eight home runs (he hit 19 in 2018), 33 runs to 78 the season before, a 72 wRC+, and just 94 games played, 50 fewer than in 2018. These numbers put him among the bottom of the league among third basemen with at least 300 plate appearances, including the worst batting average and third-worst wRC+.
There are some small reasons for hope, however. Candelario’s hard-hit rate did jump up by a couple percentage points, up to 37.6 percent, slightly dropping his soft-hit rate. His line drive rate also grew, moving up to 22.9 percent from 17.7 percent the year prior. This led to an expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) of .302, which is not exactly world-beating, but still higher than his actual .286 wOBA.
Candelario’s plate discipline numbers slipped a little, but his walk rate improved a bit to 11.1 percent, and his strikeout rate saw a very minor dip. He is likely never going to be a top-of-the-order hitter as some initially thought, but there could be room for him in the lineup if he is able to turn some of these numbers around.
Additionally, Candelario was pretty solid defensively in 2019, leading the Tigers with +7 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). This was an improvement over his 2018 performance of -1 DRS, and his Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games (UZR/150) jumped from 3.5 to 6.3 as well. If the bat does not carry him all the way to a starting job, his glove might give him a second chance at sticking around...
What went wrong in 2019?
...that is, if the Tigers even want to utilize him at the hot corner. Over the last couple months of the season, Candelario started seeing a lot more playing time at first base. Some of this could be due to a lack of options on the roster — Tigers first basemen were worth -1.3 fWAR in 2019, second-worst in the major leagues — but moving the 25-year-old across the diamond does reduce a good chunk of his overall value.
It would make sense that Detroit was underwhelmed with his 2019 production and started looking toward the future when making this switch. Notably, top prospect Isaac Paredes had a monster year in Double-A, and his best fit might be at third base. A strong start to 2020 could see Paredes reach the majors by the end of the season (if not sooner), locking up the position long-term.
Since the Tigers are still rebuilding, Candelario should get another chance to prove himself next season. He is likely a little better than his numbers showed, but if he does not make significant improvements, it will be hard to justify giving him playing time when some of the bigger name prospects make it up to the majors. His defense does stick out, but it becomes much less of a factor at first base.
The Tigers do not have many impact infielders right now, and it would be a huge win for Candelario to play a role for this team as it enters back into its competition phase. However, after 265 games in Detroit, he has yet to show that he can fit that slot. The 2020 season may be his final chance to do so.