20 for 20: Spring Training

Only fitting that in the year of 2020, we take a look at 20 questions facing the Tigers as the season gets underway.

Harold Castro

Harold Castro at the plate (Tigs

Spring Training is the time of eternal optimism for baseball fans. Even the fans of a team coming off a 114 loss season. While 2020 is unlikely to be the season the Tigers approach .500, let alone compete for a playoff spot, that doesn’t mean the spring won’t be interesting to follow. A number of questions (20 in this case, in honor of the year 2020) surround the Detroit Tigers as they prepare for another spring in Lakeland.

  1. How will the rotation shake out?

It is pretty safe to assume Matthew Boyd, Jordan Zimmermann (I know), Spencer Turnbull and Ivan Nova will make up the top four spots in the Tigers rotation. For one reason or another, money, prior performance, or the ability to eat innings, these four make the most sense to be penciled in to the rotation when camp breaks. The fifth spot however should be something of an open competition. Daniel Norris is potentially the front runner given he likely has the highest ceiling among the available options and has been a starter at the MLB level. Tyler Alexander started eight games at the end of the 2019 season and will be in the running too. Rule 5 pick Rony Garcia may have a shot as well given he has to remain on the roster all year to stay in the Tigers organization. It is even possible the Tigers start the opener with a bullpen game or piggyback (two starters each pitch around 3 innings) route to start the year. Given the uncertainty and the different options, it should be an interesting competition to monitor during the spring.

2. How long is Jordan Zimmermann’s leash?

The answer to this question could mean the initial answer to the above question is far less relevant. Zimmermann is in the last year of his five-year, $120 million contract and at this point is something of a sunk cost. After a year in which he threw 112 innings with a 6.91 ERA and a 1-12 record, if his results don’t improve the Tigers could decide to cut bait (remember sunk cost) and give an opportunity to a younger pitcher opening a spot to the second place finisher in question one. His stuff early in spring training along with his performance may go a long way in determining the answer to this question. Another factor that could come into play here is the overall performance of the younger pitchers. The Tigers will need innings out of their starters so if the younger pitchers are not ready to compete it becomes more likely even an underperforming Jordan Zimmermann remains with the team.

3. Who wins the third base job?

It was an almost even split between Dawel Lugo and Jeimer Candelario starting at third base during the 2019 season. Lugo started 73 games at the position while Candelario started 68. The offensive performance of the two players was similar with Candelario sporting a 70 OPS+ while Lugo came in at 69. The Tigers were able to get both at-bats late in the season by moving Candelario to first base, however those opportunities will be reduced this year with the signing of CJ Cron (to play first) and Miggy eating most of the at-bats at designated hitter. The other intriguing factor is the signing of Jonathon Schoop, which means 2019 darling Harold Castro won’t be the everyday second baseman. This adds him to the fray as a potential option as well. Any way you look at it, third base has the making of a spring training competition for Detroit as opportunities elsewhere have been limited.

4. How does Miguel Cabrera look this spring and can he rebound?

Four more years and over $100 million remain on Cabrera’s contract. Getting something out of the former superstar would greatly improve the Tigers chances of having a better offense in 2020. Injuries have sapped much of Cabrera’s former power, however when healthy he can still get the barrel of the bat on the ball and control the strike zone. Meaning even if he isn’t going to hit 30 home runs, he could post a solid average/OBP (something this lineup struggles with otherwise). But the key here is health. Multiple injuries and potentially being out of shape have made it difficult for Cabrera to be in the lineup and be fully healthy which is necessary for him to perform. We should know pretty quickly if Cabrera took his off-season conditioning seriously and is ready to compete early in spring training.

5. Can Niko Goodrum actually play a passable shortstop?

Goodrum has started all over the diamond for Detroit during his tenure with the Tigers. However, that plan appears to have changed as for now he is penciled in as the opening day starter at shortstop. He has proven to be a capable offensive player (94 OPS+ last season) but the jury is still out on his defense at short. On a positive note, in 326 2/3 innings at short last year, he did put up 11 defensive runs saved, indicating it’s possible he can pass the test defensively at shortstop. But, a strong performance at the six during spring training would make everyone feel a little better.

6. Are Christin Stewart, JaCoby Jones, and Victor Reyes locked in as the starting outfielders?

These three players will come into spring training with the inside track on the starting jobs in the outfield. But each player has room to improve if they want to be considered long-term options. Stewart has exciting power potential but during his first season in the big leagues it didn’t fully manifest itself. Will he show a more advanced ability to use his power in game situations? Jones has shown some signs of life offensively (and he appears to be a passable defender even if defensive metrics are mixed on his performance), but can he continue to show progress and lock down center field? Reyes needs to prove his second half wasn’t a fluke. So a strong spring is important for him as well. Otherwise, Travis Demeritte or another outfield candidate could step in and grab playing time.

7. Who are the reserve outfielders going to be?

If the above three outfielders hold on to their starting spots throughout spring training, the real roster battle will be for the reserve roles. There is a lengthy list of players who will be showcasing their skills trying to claim a spot on the big league roster. Demeritte joined the organization as part of the Shane Greene trade last July and had 169 at-bats with the Tigers (65 OPS+) and is likely one of the front-runners to land a spot. Jorge Bonifacio signed a minor league deal with Detroit this off-season and while he is a few years removed from his solid MLB debut, he could force his way into the mix. Harold Castro spent time at every position on the diamond last year (except catcher) and will likely be in the mix in a utility role (if he doesn’t win a full-time job somewhere). Troy Stokes Jr. was claimed off waivers from the Brewers and spent the last season at Triple-A San Antonio in the Pacific Coast League, where he showed a nice power/speed combo. And you can’t forget about players like Daz Cameron, Jacob Robson and Danny Woodrow, who will most likely start the season at Triple-A, however they will be in camp and with an impressive spring could push for time.

8. Who wins the battle for the two catching spots?

The Tigers didn’t sign Austin Romine this off-season to not give him a spot on the opening day roster. Romine is going to be the team’s starter on opening day unless injuries force him out. The backup spot is going to be an intriguing battle given the depth acquired during the winter. Grayson Greiner and Jake Rogers are the candidates from last year’s roster but they will face competition from Eric Haase and Jhon Nunez, both of whom were acquired via trade to improve the depth at the position. They have each spent all or the majority of their careers in the minors but were brought in to create competition during spring training. Haase in particular has outstanding power and could show well this spring if his difficulty making contact isn’t too pronounced.

9. When they get their shot how long do the Tigers put up with an underperforming Rogers or Stewart?

Stewart seems more likely to start the year in Detroit than Rogers but they are similar players in that there is hope they will prove to be legitimate big league regulars. Both were consistently among the Tigers top prospects during their time in the minors and were certainly among the Tigers best bets to produce as everyday position players. However, both also come with serious question marks (defense for Stewart and contact ability for Rogers) which places a greater importance on the development of their strengths. Stewart needs to show this spring (and early in the season) he can use his raw power in game situations at the highest level. Rogers has to demonstrate the defensive skills which made him among best defenders at any position in the minors. Spring training is going to be an important first step for both players in showing they are ready to fulfill the expectations of Tigers fans. If not, they could get passed as opportunities go to other players.

10. Will the opening day bullpen produce any surprises?

The bullpen is an area where many teams end up with a surprise name coming out of spring training. Given the back end of the Tigers bullpen is pretty open, this is certainly an area to watch. Any of the players still in the organization who pitched in the bullpen last year have a shot this year as well. But there is also long list of names who are a little more off the radar who could be in contention. Some of the more interesting names to keep an eye on are David McKay, Bryan Garcia, Shao-Ching Chiang and Wladimir Pinto. Each of these players possesses traits which could lead to productivity out of the pen and if those show up during the spring they could surprise and make the team. Alex Wilson has also returned to the organization (minor league deal with an invite to spring training) and given his past experience could be an option if he shows well.

11. Can Rony Garcia (Rule 5 pick) stick with the team?

The Tigers had the first pick in the Rule 5 draft and selected New York Yankees right-hander Rony Garcia. To stay in the organization he has to remain on the 25-man roster throughout the upcoming season. Garcia has been a starter throughout his minor league career but hasn’t pitched above Double-A making it tough to see him spending a full season in the rotation. Can he spend the year as a long reliever? The Tigers haven’t indicated how they plan to use him but have every intention of keeping him around. Watching how he is deployed during the spring (and of course his effectiveness) can provide some answers to the likelihood of him remaining with the Tigers throughout 2020.

12. Which Matthew Boyd will the Tigers get in 2020?

Last season was a tail of two halves for Matthew Boyd. There was the outstanding first half which led to consistent speculation he would be moved at the trade deadline (for a strong return) and then there was the second half that saw his ERA rise more than 1.5 runs per game and his WHIP jump from 1.12 to 1.38 (he did maintain his strong strikeout rates). Home runs seem to be a primary culprit in Boyd’s second half swoon (14 in 32 2/3 August innings, wow) and it will be interesting to watch this spring if he is able to avoid the long ball.

13. Who is Jonathan Schoop and what should be expected?

Schoop was signed for 1 year and $6.1 million to be the Tigers starting second baseman during 2020 season (well, until the trade deadline anyway). He has been a full-time big leaguer since the 2014 season (Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Minnesota) and has produced one well above average season (2017 when he posted a 5.2 bWAR) and five seasons with a bWAR in the 1.3 to 2.4 range, which was mostly driven by his power production and steady defense. In other words, Schoop likely isn’t going to be a superstar but he should be a capable second baseman who provides moderate value both offensively and defensively. During the spring, the thing to notice is that there isn’t much to notice. After a year in which the Tigers received minimal production at second, Schoop should be a steady contributor at the keystone.

14. Who is CJ Cron and what should be expected?

Like Schoop, CJ Cron was signed for 1 year and $6.1 million to be the Tigers starting first baseman during the 2020 season (again, until the trade deadline anyway). Cron has also been in the majors since the 2014 season and has also been with three teams (Angels, Rays, and Twins). He has consistently contributed slightly above average offense with an OPS+ above 100 in each season except one (and that was a 98). Unlike Schoop who is also a solid defender, Cron isn’t likely to add value on defense (given he has never posted a positive dWAR per Baseball-Reference) but his overall production should be in the 1-2 win range which is would be an upgrade for Detroit. Spring training isn’t going to reveal much but his power in the lineup should be a noticeable improvement and should be fun to watch as the spring progresses.

15. Which non-roster invitee(s) has/have the best chance of making the team?

Some of the players in contention for roster spots have been (or will be) mentioned in the responses to other questions. Naturally, bullpen arms have the best chance to make the team (noted above) so Shao-Ching Chiang and Wladimir Pinto probably have the best shot to surprise. But, on the offensive side, Bonifacio could certainly be in the outfield mix. Brandon Dixon and Jordy Mercer, who will be in camp on a minor league deals (yes, these aren’t the most attractive names), could provide depth at a number of positions giving them a chance of making the 25-man roster. The most interesting names in camp will be the some of the Tigers top prospects but most expect them to start the season in the minors.

16. And speaking of those prospects, which will be in camp?

Many Tigers fans are placing their hope in the strong group of pitchers the team has assembled in the minors. This spring should give fans a chance to see several of them pitch live even if they are eventually returned to the minors to start the season. Top pitching prospects Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, and Joey Wentz were all non-roster invitees to spring training and should get several chances to pitch before being sent back down. Willi Castro, Beau Burrows, Kyle Funkhouser, Anthony Castro, Derek Hill, Daz Cameron and Isaac Paredes highlight the prospects on the 40-man roster who should get a number of chances in the early stages of the spring.

17. And just how close are those top pitching prospects, could they break camp with Detroit?

Al Avila has stated that he has no intention of playing games with service time for top prospects. In other words, when a player shows themselves to be ready, they will get their shot without significant consideration to service time (which impacts when players eventually become free agents). Even if it seems unlikely, this could impact the Tigers if one of the top pitching prospects shows they are ready to compete during spring training. Each of the pitching prospects listed above finished last season at Double-A and are likely to start the year in the Toledo rotation. Meaning, they would be just a couple successful starts from being called up if the need arises. Given that proximity, it is possible Mize, Manning, Skubal, or Wentz has a stellar spring and forces their way into the rotation (but likely look for them to debut later this summer).

18. Can Harold Castro produce offensively?

As mentioned above Castro is likely to revive his utility role for the Tigers in 2020. Castro has strong versatility and can, at least passably, play almost every position on the diamond defensively (with the exception of catcher). Offensively however, the jury is still out. Castro became somewhat of a phenomenon last season when he got scorching hot for a stretch and even continued to post a solid batting average throughout the season (.281). The issue is Castro is an extreme free swinger (86 strikeouts to only 9 walks in 369 plate appearances and that is consistent with his minor league performance) and that profile makes it difficult to continue to hit for a high average. Watching Castro at the plate this spring could give a glimpse into what can be expected this year. Hopefully, he can either demonstrate he is the rare player who can be productive without any patience or we start to see some improvements in his pitch selectivity.

19. With a big first half, which players could become the next trade piece for Detroit?

To become a legitimate trade chip (well, one that will produce a decent return anyway) two things are needed. First, naturally, the player has to be productive. Second, the player has to be controllable at a reasonable price given their production. This is what has made Matthew Boyd the subject of so many trade rumors. Several players have the potential to develop along these lines but the two most likely are Daniel Norris and Spencer Turnbull. Both pitchers have good stuff and have multiple years of control remaining so with a strong first half they could become trade targets for contenders looking to bolster their rotations. One more name who could enter the discussion come mid-summer is Joe Jimenez. Teams have started to value strong bullpen production at a higher level in recent years and Jimenez would be the type of young, controllable arm teams are looking to acquire at the deadline.

20. Finally, can the Tigers lose less than 100 games?

That is really the ultimate question since fans are hoping last season was the bottom of the rebuild. Improving to only 99 losses would represent a 15 game improvement over last season. To make that type of jump, Detroit will need positive performances in a number of areas. But most importantly, the starting pitching needs to lead this club. Boyd will need to pitch like he did in the first half all season. Norris or Turnbull will need to solidify themselves as a legitimate big league starters (and both pitching well would be huge). And likely, one of the prospects needs to come up and provide an improvement over Zimmermann/Nova at the back-end of the rotation. Offensively, Cabrera needs to play 130-plus games and deliver strong on-base results (since OBP is a massive deficiency for this team) with his power returning to some extent. I would imagine the third base competition needs to be resolved positively as well. Meaning, Candelario or Lugo (or someone else) will need to win the job and perform to a respectable level (let’s say 2 WAR). For all of that to happen isn’t impossible but does seem unlikely right now. The sheer number of things that would have to go right coupled with another likely trade deadline sell-off probably means the Tigers lose triple digits again. But, that doesn’t mean it won’t be fun to have real baseball games and start to get real answers to all the questions above because, hey, another season always brings optimism.

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