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Niyo: Tigers' Jeimer Candelario knows he has to step up or step aside

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit – They can sense the season is getting closer now, playing nine-inning games under the lights with real umpires and piped-in crowd noise.

We can see the Tigers’ prospects getting brighter, too, even if it’s only a short-term glimpse at a far-away future we’re seeing when 19-year-old Riley Greene makes a diving grab in right field and then hammers an opposite-field shot over the fence in left during an intrasquad scrimmage at Comerica Park.

In the here and now, though, there’s a different kind of reality that’s setting in – with the start of Major League Baseball's 60-game sprint only a week away – and we saw some of that Wednesday night as well.

Jeimer Candelario doubles during an intrasquad game at Detroit Tigers Summer Camp at Comerica Park on Wednesday night.

There was Matthew Boyd – the projected Opening Day starter next Friday in Cincinnati – successfully tinkering with his four-pitch repertoire, a day after missing a bullpen session due to self-reporting a brief encounter with an asymptomatic COVID-19 patient – all part of the “new normal,” as he calls it.

But there was also Jeimer Candelario, continuing with what has been a strong showing for him in this Spring Training 2.0 in Detroit, helping to solidify his position as the Tigers’ starting third baseman this season. And offering some more hope that the Tigers’ bridge to the great beyond could be a little sturdier than it appeared last summer.

A year ago, he was just one more symbol of how far away the Tigers really were. Candelario, acquired from the Cubs along with youngster Isaac Paredes at the 2017 trade deadline, made a good first impression in Detroit, including 19 homers in his first full season in the majors in ’18.

But he seemed lost at the plate last spring and was optioned to Toledo in May. After getting recalled, he then was moved to first base in late July so the Tigers could take a longer look at Dawel Lugo at third. By season's end, Candelario's numbers looked a lot like the Tigers' record: He finished with a.203 batting average and a .643 OPS in 94 games.

Still, after a strong showing from Candelario in winter ball in the Dominican Republic, general manager Al Avila insisted in January the a 26-year-old switch-hitter was “a good candidate to get back on track.” And while Candelario’s slow start in spring training probably didn’t do much to bolster that opinion with the Tigers' brass, the last couple weeks here in Detroit just might.

Higher gear 

Candelario has been hitting the ball hard in intrasquad games, including a couple extra-base hits that were taken away by highlight-reel catches from Greene and Derek Hill last week. Wednesday, he added two more doubles in three plate appearances, and this time it was Candelario’s turn to take the extra base.

In his first at-bat of the night, Candelario found himself in an 0-2 count against veteran starter Ivan Nova. He worked the count full, then hit a grounder up the middle that found a hole. And as he rounded first base, Candelario found another gear, churning toward second base and just beating a throw from the outfield to turn a routine single into a hustling double.

“I always play hard, I always want to take the extra base,” said Candelario, whose second at-bat produced a line-drive shot that bounced off the top of the wall in left. “That’s what our manager and staff want us to do, to be aggressive on the bases. And taking that extra base there, you’re gonna help the team win.”

Jeimer Candelario

Never mind that they’re all on the same team here.

“We’re playing against each other, but in my mindset it’s competing all the time,” he added. “I just want to win all the time, you know? That’s my mentality right now.”

And in that sense, at least, Candelario’s reaction in the moment – punctuating his hustle play with a brief but intense celebration at second base – spoke volumes.

“He’s a pretty happy guy – always has been,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “But he got real excited tonight and took an extra base on a ball through the hole and that was fun to watch. And then he pumps his fists, so he’s into it.

“He knows what’s at stake: It’s time. It’s time for him to step up and get back to being the guy that we hope he’s gonna be. And that’s driving the ball around and playing with that enthusiasm. He’s an excitable kid, and we like that. It’s gonna help our baseball team if he can step up and kind of rise to the occasion.”

'You have to be ready'

So maybe that’s the message Candelario is sending here in summer camp. He clearly has won the third-base job over Lugo to start the season, and it sounds as if he doesn't plan to give it up without a fight.

After spring training was halted in mid-March, Candelario headed back to the Dominican to work out with his friend and mentor, Robinson Cano, spending several hours every day hitting, fielding and running at his baseball compound in San Pedro de Macorís. 

More: With a week before season begins, Tigers' 30-man roster starting to take shape

“We worked really hard, we worked on a lot of stuff and I’m seeing the results,” Candelario said. “I really put in a lot of work on my routine and trying to be consistent, you know? Because I need to produce on the big-league level.”

He needs to because he’s out of minor-league options and he’s running out of time to prove to the Tigers he can be a useful part of the rebuild going forward, either as an everyday player – they're going to need some to surround these recent draft picks we're all waiting for – or even a trade asset.

Paredes isn’t in camp right now for undisclosed reasons, but the 21-year-old is a borderline top-100 prospect in baseball who was expected to spend this season playing third base for the Mud Hens. And now the Tigers also have added No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson, a premium talent they notably drafted as a third baseman last month. Someone eventually will be moved over to first base, where C.J. Cron is holding down the job in Detroit for now on one-year deal for 2020.

Maybe that’ll be Candelario if he shows some of that consistent production he’s talking about. Or maybe he’ll stay at third, where his defensive metrics improved last season even as his offensive numbers took a dive. Either way, he knows it's up to him if he wants to stick around.

"You have to have a mindset, you have to be ready," Candelario said. "Not (just) physically, but mentally. So I put in a lot of work."

And now he'll get a chance to see if it pays off.