Detroit Tigers spring training: AJ Hinch breaks down position battles, closer, prospects

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Spring training is Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch's favorite time of the year. In less than three weeks, he is going to enter the team's complex in Lakeland, Florida, marking the unofficial beginning of his era in Detroit.

His players will gather for workouts. His coaching staff will share ideas in the same room. And Hinch's leadership will be tested. He hopes to be the "fresh voice" the organization needs to put an end to the rebuild.

"Now it's time to work," Hinch said Tuesday. "It's less talk, more work. You get to see where your team is physically. You get to see where your team is fundamentally. You get to put your stamp on the tone of a workout, the pace of your workout, the intensity of your workout."

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Miguel Cabrera, center, talks to third baseman Jeimer Candelario, left, as they walk towards the field during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Monday, Feb. 17, 2020.

Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report Feb. 17, followed by the first full-team workout Feb. 22. Four days later, the Tigers hold an exhibition before a 34-game Grapefruit League slate begins.

Hinch discussed numerous topics, from position battles to a Rule 5 draft pick, in his spring training analysis.

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Position battles: Outfield, infield, catcher

Some years only grant one big competition to look forward to in spring training. Every season is different for teams across the league, depending on if the team is rebuilding or preparing for a playoff run.

"I can predict our team pretty well, but there's going to be a surprise or two. I would say four of five competition spots," Hinch said. ... "Configuring your team with 13 position players and 13 pitchers, or 14 and 12, all that debate is going to happen in Lakeland."

Most teams, Hinch estimates, enter spring training with two or three spots open.

"Maybe there's somebody highlighted in yellow, that's how I do it, who is not quite on our team, but it's somebody that I'm like, 'I really want this guy to win a job,' " Hinch said. "You can go into a camp with these three outfielders on our team, and this group of four of five outfielders are competing for that fourth or fifth outfield spot."

(From left) Tigers outfielders Victor Reyes, Christin Stewart, Daz Cameron and Jacob Robson in the outfield during spring training on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla.

In the outfield, the Tigers will employ Robbie Grossman in left field, JaCoby Jones in center field and Victor Reyes in right field. Hinch said it's "pretty solidified," considering Grossman signed a two-year, $10 million deal this winter.

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Those competing for the fourth and fifth outfield spots: Daz Cameron, Akil Baddoo (Rule 5 draft pick), Christin Stewart, Travis Demeritte and Derek Hill. Hinch didn't rule out the Tigers adding to the mix with another free-agent. (Joc Pederson, a left-handed power bat, and Marwin Gonzalez, a switch-hitting super-utility player, are available, among others.)

"That's something that will make everybody sit up straight because we have a lot of numbers in that outfield," Hinch said. "Maybe an opportunity is out there. We're not afraid to upgrade, and we'll do it very methodically."

The infield remains a mystery. The Tigers have enough players — third/first baseman Jeimer Candelario, shortstop Willi Castro, third baseman Isaac Paredes, super-utility defender Niko Goodrum and, if needed, designated hitter Miguel Cabrera — but it's unclear where each of them will take the field.

Detroit Tigers second baseman Niko Goodrum (28) hits a two run homer in the third inning of a spring training baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Dunedin Stadium on Feb. 23, 2019.

The Tigers are still searching the market for a second baseman. On Tuesday, they reportedly checked in with Kolten Wong, a left-handed-hitting second baseman. Across eight MLB seasons, Wong is a .261 hitter. In 2019, he logged a .285 batting average, 11 homers and 59 RBIs in 148 games.

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At first base, the Tigers have expressed interest in Mitch Moreland, another left-handed hitter. He hit .265 with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs in 42 games in 2020 between the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres.

"We're fluctuating between having some options we can move around and having some competition," Hinch said. "Where are we going to play Candelario? Where does Goodrum fit in? How many games can Willi Castro play? Is it all of them? The answers that we need are going to have to come on the field.

"We can dictate some of that if we sign an infielder. A little bit of help at first base changes Candelario's usage. You sign a middle infielder, and that brings a lot of questions on where these guys can play. The infield is a specific area we're toying with, but every decision we make is going to impact (more than) just one or two or three players."

The Tigers solved their catching dilemma Tuesday by inking 33-year-old Wilson Ramos to a one-year, $2 million contract. He hit .288 with 14 homers and 73 RBIs — with 44 walks to 69 strikeouts — through 141 games in 2019. Last year, he had a .239 average in 45 games.

The Ramos signing, more or less, is to give prospect Jake Rogers, a .125 hitter in 35 games in 2019, enough experience amid a full season without forcing too much on him. Rogers, Grayson Greiner, Dustin Garneau and Eric Haase will compete for the second opening.

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"When you come to our camp," Hinch said, adding he expects eight or nine catchers in spring training, "you're going to see some competition heating up throughout spring in that infield position and last outfield position."

No closer ... yet

The Tigers finished 2020 with 25-year-old Bryan Garcia as the closer, but he isn't a lock to keep his role. Other late-inning options include Buck Farmer, Gregory Soto and Jose Cisnero. Left-hander Daniel Norris, if he ends up in the bullpen, could contribute.

"Naming a closer in January is not going to happen this year with me, especially on this team," Hinch said, "because we're entering with questions on roles to being with, but we have a couple of options."

Pitcher Bryan Garcia practices during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Monday, Feb. 17, 2020.

Joe Jimenez, 26, lost the closer role in 2020, posting a 7.15 ERA, 22 strikeouts and six walks in 22⅔ innings. Garcia had a 1.66 ERA, 12 strikeouts and 10 walks in 21⅔ innings, and Soto flashed his 100-mph sinking fastball but struggled with command.

Hinch reached out to his players after he was hired in late October, but he doesn't know as much about the relievers yet.

"The closer role is a great distinction," Hinch said. "It's somebody that the team feels like, when it comes in the game, we're about to win. I'm not afraid of the designated closer role, but someone's got to earn it. I think there's going to be a competition for any of these leverage innings. We often build the appeal from the back. The ninth inning is a super sexy role that everybody covets, but you have to do a lot to get there in the sixth, the seventh and the eighth.

"If the starter can do that work, all the better. I'm very pro-starter. If not, then I don't want to lose the game on waiting to use a pitcher. If someone establishes themselves as our best option to close out our wins, that's a perfect scenario. But that means a number of those guys have to do their job before the ninth inning to set the table for that closer."

Torkelson, Greene in big-league camp?

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, minor-league spring training for players at the Double-A and Class-A levels won't begin until the MLB and Triple-A players depart from the team's facility. Esteemed up-and-comers Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, for example, are expected to start in High-A West Michigan and Double-A Erie, respectively, but Hinch is "very optimistic" that "some of the bigger prospects" can attend back-to-back spring camps.

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Detroit Tigers prospect Riley Greene during intstructional league play in Lakeland, Florida, on Nov. 4, 2020.

Here are some of those top prospects who could end up in Lakeland this February, despite not being on the MLB or Triple-A roster to open the season, with MLB Pipeline's rankings: Torkelson (No. 1), Greene (No. 4), Dillon Dingler (No. 8), Daniel Cabrera (No. 11), Wenceel Perez (No. 16), Kody Clemens (No. 18), Gage Workman (No. 21) and Jose De La Cruz (No. 24).

"For the most part, you can expect the major-league team and the Triple-A team to be in camp," Hinch said. "You have to be in camp in order to get to Triple-A, so now you bring in some of those guys that might be on the Double-A, Triple-A bubble. Those guys are going to be invited to some form of major-league camp, as well.

"You pile up those numbers, and we're still going to have a few leftovers. We're very optimistic that the prospects can handle back-to-back camps if we ask them to. I would expect some of the bigger prospects to be in camp. Not all of them. We're going to have to be very specific because of the limitations on how many players we can have in camp and the staffing for that. But I think some recognizable names that will not open up in Triple-A are being considered for big-league camp and will likely be there."

Expectations for Rule 5 pick

This offseason, the Tigers picked Baddoo from the Minnesota Twins in the Rule 5 draft. The 22-year-old outfielder must stay on the team's active roster for the entire regular season or be offered back to the Twins.

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A left-handed hitter, Baddoo hasn't played above High-A Fort Myers in an injury-plagued 2019 season. In 29 games, he logged a .214 batting average, four homers and nine RBIs. He can play all three outfield positions.

"We think he's athletic," Hinch said. "We like the flick in his bat. He's super inexperienced at the upper levels. Not a reason to doubt him but a perspective to have when you put him on the field."

The Tigers recently found Rule 5 success with Reyes, but many draftees don't stick in the majors through 162 games, let alone break camp with the big-league club. To make the Opening Day roster, he needs to keep up with Cameron, Stewart and Demeritte.

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"My expectation for him is to come in and compete," Hinch said. "If he makes our team, that means he has a clear role and an area where I can play him and a confidence that I can use him. It's a look that the organization felt was worthwhile."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.