Slick-fielding Navarro knows his role: trustworthy insurance policy

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Efren Navarro grounds out in the fifth inning of the Detroit Tigers' 8-0 win over Florida Southern on Thursday.

Lakeland, Fla. – Put yourself in Efren Navarro’s shoes for a minute.

You are a 30-year-old first baseman. You spent nine seasons fighting your way up the ranks in the Angels’ system only to find Albert Pujols holding fort at your position once you finally get to the big-league level.

You became a free agent this offseason and your two offers were minor-league deals with Arizona and Detroit. Paul Goldschmidt is entrenched at first base in Arizona and Miguel Cabrera is locked there in Detroit.

Talk about picking your poison.

“I feel like the Tigers give players opportunities,” Navarro said on why he accepted a non-roster invite to Lakeland, instead of Salt River, Ariz. “And there are a lot of veteran guys here and for my growth as a player, that can be a plus for me.

“I’m only 30 years old. I don’t consider myself old. I still think I can play five or six more years.”

Understand that this is no scrub player. A left-handed hitter, he’s hit .246 in parts of four big-league seasons, but his calling card is his glove. This is a guy who, by Major League standards, is an elite defender at first base. He can also play left field.

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“He’s a heck of a first baseman, defensively,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “He’s one of the best I’ve seen around the bag with his hands and his feet. He’s really, really good. He’s right up there for me with J.T. Snow, Don Mattingly, Mark Grace, Anthony Rizzo, that’s how good he is.”

Ausmus, when he was a special assistant with the Padres, scouted Navarro playing at Triple-A and the memory of his defensive ability stayed with him.

“That’s how much he stood out,” Ausmus said. “I remembered him and when we signed him I knew exactly who he was.”

Navarro is under no delusions here this spring. He knows barring injury he is likely opening the season in Toledo.

“My mindset is to grow,” he said. “I still have so much to improve on. And to have Miguel Cabrera in front of me, and not just that, but to pick his brain – obviously, he’s a future Hall of Famer.

“I’m coming in with a fresh mind, a clear mind. Whatever the team needs me for. You can I saw I know my role coming into this camp. I am glad to be here.”

He admits it’s been out of necessity that he’s learned to be patient. He played parts of four seasons with the Angels, but he’s been in professional baseball for a decade and is still waiting for his first full opportunity in the big leagues.

“It’s out of my control,” he said. “When I was with the Angels, I had Albert Pujols in front of me. I was able to control my emotions and control the way I go about my business. If I control myself, there’s going to be an opening at some point.

“Being patient, you know – my time clock is ticking. But I feel at some point it’s going to work out for me.”

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Navarro, who was born in raised in California, has been selected to play for Team Mexico in the WBC. As much as he was honored to be selected, he was torn. Staying in camp would have afforded him extended playing time at first base with Cabrera gone playing for Team Venezuela.

“I thought a lot about it,” he said. “I talked to my agent about it. It’s a new team. They know me, but obviously they want to see me play here. It was a tough choice. But honestly, to represent Mexico, that’s where my family is from, it’s a big accomplishment.”

As for his role with the Tigers, Navarro has accepted that he’s an organizational insurance policy. But those policies have been cashed plenty of times over the years. (Remember Marc Krauss in 2015?)

“It depends on how I go about things at Triple-A,” he said. “If I do my job down there, who knows? I hope Miguel stays healthy the whole time. I hope the whole team stays healthy and they call me up when the whole team is healthy and I can be a part of that group.

“I just have to go about it one day at a time.”

Twitter @cmccosky