After a 2019 season in which he led the Detroit Tigers in runs, stolen bases and fWAR, and one in which he hit a dozen home runs while playing multiple infield positions, Niko Goodrum was given the job of starting shortstop to begin the 2020 baseball season. There were initially more questions about whether he could stick at the position defensively than whether he would hit enough to stay in the lineup.
Goodrum answered all the questions about his defense in the affirmative. His glove was better than average at a key defensive position, posting a plus 3 defensive runs saved in 30 starts at shortstop. But mid way through the 2020 season, he lost his starting job to a pair of young prospects in Isaac Paredes and Willi Castro, who figured to have more offensive upside, even if they came with questions about their defensive ability. And so the game of musical chairs continued.
Niko is now a veteran on the Tigers’ roster, relatively speaking. With three years of service time under his belt, he will be eligible for salary arbitration for the first time, where he is projected to receive $1.6 million for the 2021 season. Despite the very modest price tag, MLBTraderumors.com has him on the list of players who may not be tendered a contract, making him a free agent.
Goodrum struggled mightily at the plate in 2020, hitting just .184 with an on base percentage of .263 while slugging ,335 for a wOBA of only .262 in 179 plate appearances. The primary culprits were a strikeout rate of 38 percent and a batting average on balls in play that plummeted from .338 in 2019 to .276. The good news is that he should bounce back with any kind of luck, even if he won’t get all the way back to his modest average of .248, which he hit in 2019.
Exactly where Goodrum fits on the Tigers’ roster, assuming he is back in 2021, is uncertain. Despite his defensive shortcomings, the Tigers are sure to give the bulk of the playing time at shortstop to Willi Castro. Jeimer Candelario may return to third base while Isaac Paredes gets a minor league tune-up, but ultimately Paredes is going to get plenty of reps there. Goodrum will have to remain flexible as we wait to see if the Tigers add multiple free agent infielders while awaiting the arrival of Spencer Torkelson, the all-world slugger whose arrival is much anticipated.
So the theory goes that the club may not want to spend $1.6 million on a backup infielder unless they feel that he has a real chance of bouncing back better than ever. There is also the chance that Goodrum could be awarded $2 million, which is about the floor for a starting position player in the major leagues. Still, to non tender him would appear to be an ultra-cheap move for a team that figures to slash payroll for the fifth consecutive season. Indications are that the team will tender all eligible players, so we can expect him to return in 2021.
At a minimum, Goodrum is a serviceable defender in the middle of the infield, with legitimate speed on the bases who has shown some pop in stretches. While Castro exploded onto the scene offensively, Paredes struggled in his major league debut. Goodrum has three seasons of club control remaining, still has all three options left, and should provide new manager A.J. Hinch with some much needed flexibility. The pendulum could ultimately swing back in Niko’s direction if things don’t go as planned.