The Detroit Tigers have received infamously little in trade returns during the Al Avila era, but Jeimer Candelario has been a rare clear win. The back-to-back Tiger of the Year award winner has been a crucial part of the organization’s rebuild both on and off the field, and now that the future is starting to come into reality, Candelario looks be right in the middle of it all.
This was not always the expectation. This author offered a 2019 season review titled “Jeimer Candelario is probably not the Third Baseman Of The Future” which captured the presumed stopgap nature of his deployment. While this is declaration is comical in hindsight, it was really not that long ago that it seemed like Candelario was destined for a depth role at best.
Since that time, the 28-year-old has done nothing but lead the team in wRC+ (123) and fWAR (4.8). While the rest of the lineup was far from star-studded, this has solidified the third baseman’s place in the heart of the 2022 batting order, which will likely be the start of a much more talent-heavy cohort going forward. In a full reversal from 18 months ago, it truly does look like Candelario is actually the Third Baseman of the Future, and that future begins now.
Jeimer Candelario 2020-2021
The best way to describe Candelario is “above-average.” In recent seasons this has seemed more like “irreplaceable” in Detroit because of the void around him, but the hope is that he now becomes part of a powerful core that includes newcomers such as Javier Báez, Riley Greene, and Spencer Torkelson. Their addition means that Candelario might move a bit in the batting order at some point, but that change could increase his run production numbers.
In line with the above-average moniker is Candelario’s affinity for hitting doubles. While he is not lacking in the power department, and has grown in this area since arriving in Detroit, his doubles numbers are much more impressive relative to his homers — no third baseman hit more two-baggers (42) in 2021. This led to a solid .271/.351/.443 slash line that really does not lead to many complaints.
It would not be surprising at all to see him add a few home runs in 2022 and continue to revolutionize his game. His good contact numbers and walk rate, along with the second best line drive rate in the American League last year, give him some leeway in trying to drive the ball out a little more without substantially tanking the rest of his profile. Still, even keeping his current trajectory gives the Tigers a very reliable player in the center of the order this season.
Picking some nits
Candelario has in many ways been the ideal player for the rebuild: young enough to give hope for the future, but mature enough to be a vocal presence in the clubhouse. Combining his intangibles with his aforementioned on-field production, it makes it difficult to be too critical of one of the surest parts of the roster.
If there is one area to improve, it could be his defense. Candelario has been better at the hot corner than initially projected, but both DRS (-3) and UZR (-6.1) thought he had a rough 2021. Defensive metrics are still imperfect, but even by traditional measures like errors he was worse last season (9) than in 2019-20 combined (6).
All that said, Candelario is not a liability defensively. Instead of being forced into a move to first (as some were resigned to believe initially), he can hold his own at third — a position without many good alternatives currently on the team — and also cover first base a bit in case there is ever a need. He is probably a below-average fielder at his position across the majors, but his glove is not significantly hurting his overall value.
The larger question for Candelario is if this is his ceiling. He and the organization avoided arbitration and agreed to a $5.8 million contract for this season, but both sides are certainly thinking about something more long-term with him bound for free agency after the 2023 season. Should he hit free agency he would obviously be due for a nice pay bump, so the Tigers would be wise to lock him up for a discounted rate now if they intend to keep him.
However, as with all players, it is a challenge to know exactly what can be expected from him over the next three to five years (or however long an extension would be). Candelario has been great for this roster, but will be ever be more than what he was in 2021? That player is still worth a nice contract, but overpaying could be detrimental with the rebuild starting to accelerate. While he could turn into an All-Star, it cannot be denied that at least part of his perception is boosted by the lack of alternatives surrounding him as of late. For now, the Tigers would be wise to begin exploring an extension while still trying to let this season play out as much as possible, perhaps allowing shortstop prospect Ryan Kreidler to alter the equation with improvement at Toledo.
Back to the present. Spring training lineups indicate that Candelario will continue to hit somewhere near the heart of the order, as he should. With the top prospects due in the majors very soon, perhaps there will be some changes later on this summer, but there is only so many places a high-OBP player with some power can be moved.
The expectations for this season are more of the same. Reaching 20 homers would be great, but the high doubles counts should remain regardless. Candelario should continue to be near the top 10 in average and on-base percentage for third basemen, and it would be great if he could keep his defensive metrics at least at net zero. Overall, few players in Detroit are safer bets to perform at their projections heading into the season.
As long as he does not regress too much, expect a contract extension for Candelario before this time next year, if not much sooner. He is not the flashiest player, but his value is indisputable and his production keeps adding up. It is not hard at all to imagine him as the “veteran” presence on the Tigers’ next playoff roster, whenever that may be.