After the 2022 season the Detroit Tigers, frustrated with the up-and-down play of Jeimer Candelario, cut him loose; he caught on with the Washington Nationals, and I wish him success in all his future endeavours. However, that left a hole at third base for the 2023 season, as hot hot-corner prospect Colt Keith isn’t quite ready for the Tall Buildings.
In early January, the Tigers dealt closer Gregory Soto and infielder Kody Clemens to the Philadelphia Phillies for a trio of intriguing players: catching prospect Donny Sands, outfielder Matt Vierling, and infielder Nick Maton. All three split their 2022 season between AAA Lehigh Valley and the Phillies, with Sands earning a mere cup of coffee in Philadelphia; Maton and Vierling each played a few dozen games in the Major Leagues in 2021 as well.
While Vierling will likely be spending most of the upcoming season in the outfield — the Tigers’ outfield corps is lefty-heavy, and Vierling is a right-handed batter — Maton hits lefty-handed and is heavily in the mix for the vacant third base position. He’ll have competition from Ryan Kreidler, minor league addition Andy Ibánez, prospect Andre Lipcius, and perhaps even Vierling himself against lefties. Still, new President Scott Harris clearly likes the left-handed hitting Maton’s tools and didn’t acquire him to sit on the bench. Expect him to get the lion’s share of those reps unless someone displaces him with one heck of a spring performance.
Let’s take a look at Maton’s past two years’ worth of hitting stats, both at AAA and the National League, courtesy of Baseball Reference.
Nick Maton Batting, 2021-2022
While there’s definitely a bit of the Small Sample Size effect going on with Maton’s time with the Phillies in 2022, those 85 plate appearances included five home runs. For both 2021 and 2022, Maton’s walk and strikeout percentages ticked upwards when he graduated to the major leagues, but for both of those seasons his OPS was higher in the majors, compared to AAA. (He also spent a handful of games in 2022 at single-A Clearwater, an injury rehab assignment after a right shoulder injury in July, just after being recalled from AAA.)
In 2019 he spent most of the season at Clearwater (when the Florida State League was high-A) and Double-A Reading, and struggled a bit after the promotion, seeing his OPS dip from .738 to .660. However, he was a bit over two years younger than the average age at the AA level — he was in his age-22 season, when the average age was about 24 — so that’s not too much of a surprise.
After the 2020 minor-league season was washed out, the Phillies placed him at AAA in 2021; despite batting .199 they must have seen something in him that suggested he was ready for the big time, and despite his higher batting average with the Phillies, his ISO (isolated power, or slugging minus batting average) took a big hit. As you can see, his power numbers improved significantly in the 2022 season, both in the minors and the majors.
He’s not likely to develop into a major power threat at this point, but the chance for average power production is still present. More to Harris’ liking is presumably his control of the strike zone and ability to drive fastballs and do some damage. Add in good footspeed and his strong defensive versatility and the Tigers have a pretty intriguing piece here.
Maton’s in the mix for the third base job, but how much has he played there recently?
Nick Maton Fielding, 2021-2022
|Season||Level||G at 2B||G at SS||G at 3B||G in OF|
|Season||Level||G at 2B||G at SS||G at 3B||G in OF|
A bit of context is needed here. In 2022, Alec Bohm played 135 of the Phillies’ games at third base, with Johan Camargo, Edmundo Sosa and Matt Vierling getting most of the rest of the reps there. But, as the old saw goes, if you’re good enough to play shortstop — which Maton did for the majority of the time in the past two years — you’re good enough to play third base.
Besides, there are plenty of examples of young players moving all around the infield and turning out just fine. Lou Whitaker’s first couple of years in the minor leagues were largely spent at third base before moving to second; Cal Ripken Jr. bounced back and forth between third and shortstop before becoming an everyday shortstop (to say the least); Travis Fryman, Alan Trammell’s heir-apparent at shortstop, cooled his heels at the hot corner before taking over as the primary shortstop in 1992, as Tram battled injuries most of the year.
So, can he play third? Sure. He might need some refresher work on some of the specific finer points of the position, but the skills to be above average there are clearly present already. The Tigers have already given him a start at second base, with Jonathan Schoop at third this spring. That’s perhaps just an experiment, but Maton is likely capable of playing pretty well anywhere but catcher and center field, so it just depends on how deep the Tigers want to go putting his versatility to the test.
I can’t see Maton, or Wolfie, as he’s otherwise known, not making the team unless he has a disastrous spring training. On Sunday he got off to a solid start by smacking a home run in his first February plate appearance. We’ll see how March plays out, but so long as nothing goes disastrously and surprisingly wrong in the field and/or at the plate, my guess is that he’ll be the starting third baseman on Opening Day but will still move around a bit, helping A.J. Hinch to put the best possible lineup on the field. Maton is a high energy player and should be fun to watch out there. Hopefully he takes the opportunity and seizes a full-time role.