With the signing of second baseman Jonathan Schoop to a one year, $4.5 million contract, the Detroit Tigers have acquired one more piece of their infield puzzle for the 2021 season. Unfortunately, the move doesn’t quite complete their infield lineup, and they’re not even quite sure where Schoop fits, based on his post-signing comments about his positional versatility.
Schoop is a second baseman, by trade. He has played portions of 18 games at third base and 16 at shortstop in his career, but 97 percent of his innings have been played at the keystone position, where he started for the Tigers last year until a sprained wrist landed him on the injured list for the last two weeks of the season. After being nominated for a Gold Glove award and ranking among the team’s most productive hitters, the natural conclusion is that he would be penciled into the lineup card at second base on a regular basis.
Likewise, the Tigers have stuck with Willi Castro at the shortstop position despite mediocre results. He exploded onto the scene offensively after replacing Niko Goodrum three weeks into the season. If there’s one infielder that seems like a lock in his position, that would be Castro. Although the small sample size and unworldly BABIP suggest substantial regression, the numbers are too tantalizing to not want a deeper look, and the team has shown no signs of trying to move him off the position. With Schoop presumably locked in at second base, Castro is going to get another opportunity to improve at shortstop in 2021.
The hot corner will be manned by either Jeimer Candelario, who started last season at the position, or Isaac Paredes who took over for him when CJ Cron suffered a knee injury that finished his season after just 13 games, moving Candelario across the diamond.
Candelario handled third base more than capably while having a breakout season at the plate that continued after his position shift, earning him “Tiger of the year” honors for the season. He handled the move to first base reasonably well as he acclimated to a new position, and there isn’t any reason that he- or Schoop for that matter- couldn’t adjust to man the position capably on a semi-regular basis. The skillset is there. The real question with Candelario is whether you’re de-valuing a future trade chip by playing him at a less impactful position defensively.
Paredes was called up as a top six prospect in the organization. While he wasn’t completely overmatched, he looked as though he could use a bit more offensive seasoning before taking on full time major league duty. But then, there were no minor league games in 2020 to give him any playing time, and the team had a need for his services. There was some speculation that Paredes might be shifted to second base, with Candelario resuming his old spot at third. The triumphant return of Schoop would seem to put paid to that idea, leaving Paredes at either third base or Triple-A. The fan base, if not management, may be anxious to challenge him in the show, but as he skipped the Triple-A level in 2020 and may be asked to play some second base as well, some time in Toledo is probably called for early in the season. But then, if Candelario is back at third base, we return to the question on square one. Who’s on first?
Miguel Cabrera has made it known that he would like to return to the field, and manager AJ Hinch has said that he’s open to the idea. The Tigers have 102 million reasons why they’d like to restrict Miggy to offensive duties and avoid anything that might land their prized hitter in the infirmary. In the Tigers’ lineup, Cabrera is still a middle of the order hitter, getting on base one third of the time or more, and he led the team in home runs in 2020, which isn’t saying much. But any time he sees in the field should be limited.
Niko Goodrum began the 2020 season as the Tigers’ starting shortstop, with questions as to whether he could handle the position on a full time basis. In the field, he was very much up to the task, playing above average for the position. At the plate, however, Goodrum sank below the Mendoza line with a batting average of .184 and an on base percentage of .263, striking out 38.5 percent of his plate appearances. He is versatile enough to backup any infield position, including first base, and he figures to rebound somewhat offensively but no amount of defense, at any position, can compensate for those kind of numbers at the plate. He won’t be prioritized defensively unless he can showcase improved results at the plate in a utility role.
Spencer Torkelson is the Tigers’ top prospect, and one of the top prospects in all of baseball. The first overall selection in the 2020 draft played first base at Arizona State, but the Tigers had him playing third base in what passed for minor league camp during the season. It’s too soon to bring him up to the major leagues without being game tested at his new position, or his old position. By this time next year, he may very well be an every day starter, but not just yet.
Which brings us back to square one again. Who’s on first?
There are some free agent options, including CJ Cron, who has recovered from his knee injury and remained unsigned. In his 13 games with the team last season, he hit just .190 with a 17.3 percent BB rate that brought his OBP up to .346. Small samples. He slugged 55 home runs over his two previous seasons with the Rays and the Twins, so his power is a given. He wouldn’t cost much at this stage, so he fits the Tigers ever shrinking payroll.
Travis Shaw, who was released by the Milwaukee Brewers after the 2019 season, is another interesting possibility. Shaw posted slightly sub-par offensive numbers with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2020, but launched 30 home runs as recently as 2017-2018 for the Brewers before a wrist injury cratered his production in 2019, leading to his release. Shaw is a left-handed bat with good power and average discipline when in form, but he’s now two years removed from being an above average run producer. He’s mostly played third base in his career, and generally been a bit above average at the position, but he’s seen time at first base as well. He and Candelario’s versality could help A.J. Hinch matchup against opposing pitchers at the corners.
Mitch Moreland is another free agent who is still available, and as a left-hander would give the Tigers a power boost against right-handed pitching. He swings a bat similar to that of Cron in terms of production, with a bit higher average, and is well used to playing first base. He posted a 135 wRC+ in the short 2020 season, though his production cratered in September after his trade to the San Diego Padres from Boston. Any of those three players could give the team a legitimate bat at the premier sack.
Perhaps the Tigers want another season of tryouts, racking up the losses while seeing which of their prospects can handle the pace of play in the major leagues. There are other prospects in the organization who aren’t getting any younger and need a shot sooner than later. Kody Clemens, for example, is now 25 and hasn’t really earned a call up to the show, but he might get his shot if Schoop is going to play multiple positions.
It seems apparent that the Tigers will either sign or trade for a first baseman, or they’ll start the season with Candelario at first base. That would leave Paredes as the most likely candidate at third base. Or... Justin Turner is still unsigned!
What do you think?
Who’s on first?
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