Why Detroit Tigers' Jeimer Candelario fielding experiment is no surprise

Anthony Fenech
Detroit Free Press

SEATTLE — The move was a matter of when, not if.

And it appears “when” could be right around the corner, as evident by Jeimer Candelario taking ground balls at first base during the Detroit Tigers' early batting practice on Thursday afternoon at T-Mobile Park ahead of the series opener against the Mariners.

The Tigers front office has sent word to manager Ron Gardenhire that they want to see Candelario, a third baseman by trade, get acclimated to first base. Candelario could make his Tiger debut there as soon as this road trip, Gardenhire said.

“We got a guy down there at Triple-A swinging the living fire out of the bat,” Gardenhire said, referencing Dawel Lugo. “He was up here earlier and he’s killing it down there, so you know, we’re trying to shake it up.

“It’s just an option — it hasn’t happened yet — and whether it will or not, I don’t know, but I was asked by my bosses, ‘Hey, maybe this is something we should try, see if he’s willing to do it.’”

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Detroit Tigers third baseman Jeimer Candelario makes a throw to first base for an out during the second inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Comerica Park, July 24, 2019.

But looking beyond Lugo, who is hitting .342 at Triple-A Toledo, the move was going to be in the works sooner or later, for a couple reasons:

♦ Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers’ everyday first baseman entering the season, doesn’t play there any more, due to lingering left knee soreness.

♦ The organization’s top hitting prospect, Isaac Paredes, plays third base, and the team recently drafted third basemen in the second and third rounds of this year’s draft — Arizona’s Nick Quintana and Tennessee’s Andre Lipcius, respectively.

Though he admitted he was somewhat surprised by the move, Candelario said he was cool with it.

“For me, it was a little bit of a surprise, but for me, it would be good to have that versatility, even playing left field or right field, anywhere, because at the Cubs, everybody had to catch fly balls in left field and stuff like that, so it’s better for me and better for everybody. Everybody can play almost every position there, and it’s good for me and the team.”

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Detroit Tigers third baseman Jeimer Candelario dives for a ground ball vs. the Toronto Blue Jays, Friday, July 19, 2019 at Comerica Park.

Candelario, 25, has made strides defensively at third base this season, especially with his first-step reads and reaction times, but is not considered above average there. He is hitting .213 with seven home runs and 23 RBIs this season.

Candelario has played one big-league game at first base, in 2017 with the Cubs. He has played 35 minor-league games there.

“I feel comfortable with whatever I can do to help the team win,” he said. “It’s almost the same thing — the glove is more bigger and you gotta get used to it — but it’s almost the same thing. You’re just not throwing to first, you just gotta toss it or walk to touch the base.”

The move resembles one made two seasons ago, when the Tigers moved Nicholas Castellanos to right field for the final month of the 2017 season in order to get him acclimated for 2018. Though Gardenhire stopped short of explicitly saying Candelario’s future will be at first base, it’s not hard to see why the Tigers are making this move now.

Tigers third baseman Jeimer Candelario makes a throw to first base for an out during the 10th inning of the Tigers' 4-3 win in 10 innings on Sunday, July 21, 2019, at Comerica Park.

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“It gives us more flexibility and ‘maybe moves,’ ” Gardenhire said. “We gotta shake something up and guys are swinging good at Triple-A and find a spot and the one way to keep him in the lineup would be move him over there to take ground balls over there and play first base, which is what he’s done in his career. So it’s not that big.”

The move, as explained to reporters, did not leave Candelario with much of a choice: The Tigers want him to play there, so he will.

“I could play him there tomorrow,” Gardenhire said. “I’ve got the keys right here. I’m the master of the keys, so it could happen tomorrow. Right now, probably playing third base, but sometime on this road trip, he could probably go to first base.”

Contact Anthony Fenech at afenech@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.