At the crossroads: Five young Tigers facing career-defining seasons in 2019

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Jeimer Candelario

Detroit – It may be a bit theatrical to suggest a player is at the crossroads of his career when he is 25 or 26 years old. But that’s the reality for a handful of young Tigers players. For them, the 2019 season marks, if not a full-on crossroad, then certainly a career-defining campaign.

The organization itself is in transition. It is the second year of the rebuild. The top prospects, the ones tasked with making the Tigers competitive again, are a year or three away from being impactful at the big-league level. Much of the focus now is on laying groundwork – in terms of payroll, infrastructure and stockpiling talent – for late 2020, 2021 and 2022.

So, the players who will comprise the 25-man roster in 2019 represent one of three things – a place-holder, a trade chip or a potential foundation piece. As general manager Al Avila forthrightly pointed out during the winter meetings, there are no untouchables on the current 25-man roster.

“You have to be open-minded,” Avila said. “If you aren’t open-minded in that way, you could be blocking a faster turnaround.”

Nick Castellanos, the team’s most productive player, is one year away from free agency and a trade chip. Young, relatively inexpensive core players like Joe Jimenez, Matthew Boyd and Shane Greene are potential trade chips.

Even Miguel Cabrera isn’t untouchable, though his health issues and the $162 million he’s owed through 2024 make him a tough sell.

“It’s just part of suffering through what we’re going through right now,” Avila said. “It’s not an easy task and it’s not fun. But that’s our job, to get through this.”

That doesn’t mean guys on the current roster can’t play their way into foundation pieces. It doesn’t mean guys can’t play their way into the organization’s plan for the next decade. With that as the backdrop, then, here are five Tigers players who are facing a crossroads season in 2019.

Daniel Norris

1. Daniel Norris, LHP

It’s easy to forget that he was the main guy the Tigers got back in the David Price trade in 2015. It was Norris -- more so than the other lefty prospect they got back in that deal, Matthew Boyd -- whom the Tigers thought could be a top of the rotation starter. It hasn’t worked out that way.

Injuries and inconsistency have limited Norris to 49 starts over the last four seasons. Boyd, meanwhile, has made 89 starts and has firmly established himself in the Tigers rotation. 

And just like the last two years, the Tigers will go to camp not knowing exactly what they have in Norris. Is he a starter? Is he better suited to be a multi-inning reliever? Could he be an opener, the guy who starts and goes one time through a batting order before giving way to the primary pitcher? Or would he be more effective being the primary pitcher, entering the game in the second or third inning and working five or six innings?

More questions than answers, which is not optimal four years into his tenure in Detroit.

The Tigers signed two veteran starting pitchers this off-season – lefty Matt Moore and right-hander Tyson Ross. And if a depth chart had to be done today, Norris would probably be the No. 6 or No. 7 starter. 

Groin surgery cost him most of the 2017 season. It also seemingly took a few miles per hour off his fastball, though that could return as he rebuilds his strength.

He did work his way back to the Tigers in September and made eight starts, but all told, including his minor-league work, 14 innings in the Dominican Winter League and a couple of relief stints with the MLB All-Star team in Japan, Norris pitched just over 70 innings.

So, he’s going to be dealing with an innings limit in 2019.

“He didn’t get a lot of innings and quite frankly, his performance was a mixed bag,” Avila said. “He’s in competition. It depends on his performance, but we will have to manage his innings.”

Norris, who is arbitration-eligible and could cost the Tigers as much as $1.5 million for 2019, has one minor-league option left. So, this is probably his last chance to first define and then establish himself in this organization.

If he doesn’t do it this year, he runs the risk of being swept aside by the tidal wave of pitching prospects due to arrive in Detroit sometime in 2020 – Kyle Funkhouser, Beau Burrows, Matt Manning, Franklin Perez, Alex Faedo, Casey Mize, etc.

Michael Fulmer

2. Michael Fulmer, RHP

Avila made the point emphatically during the winter meetings – to other teams and to the media – that Fulmer and his surgically-repaired right knee were doing fine and he was on pace to be ready at the start of spring training.

And Fulmer said the same in a Detroit News report earlier this month. Still, it was the second time in five years he’s had surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee. This time, frayed cartilage was repaired and a chondroplasty procedure was done to promote better blood flow in the area.

The Tigers are hoping and expecting that Fulmer, the former American League Rookie of the Year, will be healthy and retake his spot at the top of the rotation. But already Fulmer and pitching coach Rick Anderson have talked about perhaps modifying his delivery to take some of the strain off that right knee, his drive knee.

Fulmer generates a lot of force by inverting and pushing off the mound violently, almost jumping at the hitter.

“We will have to tweak something,” Fulmer said. “Just the way I drive off my back side, my back leg, something isn’t right. My knee doesn’t like it. After these surgeries, we are going to have to find a way to tweak some things. That’s why I am going down (to Lakeland) early again.

“I want to find a way to fix this thing before everybody else gets down there.”

Again, not trying to be alarmist. The Tigers are optimistic that the knee will hold up, that Fulmer will continue to fire 96-97 mph bullets and make 30-plus starts. That is the expectation heading into spring training.

But what happens if it doesn’t?

There was talk when Fulmer was first acquired from the Mets that his power stuff might best be used at the back end of the bullpen. The comparison often made was to Wade Davis. If Fulmer’s health falters again, perhaps that talk will be reprised.

 “We have to just get him healthy before we decide what we’re going to do with him,” Anderson said. “We need to get Michael Fulmer back to who Michael Fulmer is. Guys like him don’t come around every day.”

“A couple of years ago he was an All-Star and dominant as a starting pitcher. Good starting pitchers like him are very hard to come by. Me as well as the rest of the Tigers staff and front office hope we can get Michael Fulmer back to being the starter that he was.”

JaCoby Jones

3. JaCoby Jones, CF

If ever there was an athlete born to play center field at Comerica Park, this is the guy. Superior instincts, quick burst from a standstill position, sprinter’s speed and a hunger to catch every ball hit.

Jones led all big-league outfielders in defensive runs saved last season. According to data compiled by Baseball Info Solutions, he saved 21 runs -- 11 in 452 innings in left field and 10 in 558 innings in center. BIS has been keeping track of that stat since 2003 and Jones was one of five players ever to save at least 10 runs at two positions in the same season.

His Gold-Glove defensive talent alone will keep him in the big leagues for a long time. Whether he is the center fielder on the next Tigers’ championship-level team, though, depends on how he hits. Or if he hits.  Avila said it two years ago, if Jones can hit, he’s a multi-year All-Star. If he doesn’t, he’s a fourth outfielder.

To be fair, Jones only has 649 plate appearances at the big-league level, far from a finished product. But he’s struck out in 33.7 percent of those – even though he actually improved his strikeout rate last season – down to 30.4 percent from 42.2 percent in 2017.

His line drive rate increased to a career-best 27 percent, and he hit 11 home runs and six triples. But the Tigers need him to get on base more often. His 5.1 percent walk rate won’t cut it. His .266 on-base average and .273 wOBA (weighted on-base average) won’t cut it.

If there is one player on the current roster with a skill-set dynamic enough to accelerate the rebuilding process, it’s Jones. But he needs to show significant progress soon. The Tigers are likely to make an organizational decision after this season – is Jones a potential All-Star or fourth outfielder?

Because coming soon are another crop of speedy athletes who are vying to be the center fielder for the next title run – led by Daz Cameron, and including Dustin Peterson, Jacob Robson, Jose Azocar, Parker Meadows and Danny Woodrow.

Jeimer Candelario
(Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

4. Jeimer Candelario, 3B

So much to like. He had a 10.7 percent walk rate last season, and a .317 on-base percentage. He hit 19 home runs. He improved defensively at third base from minus-7 defensive runs saved in 2017 to a minus-1 last year.

So much still left to prove. He struck out 160 times (26 percent) last season and hit just .224 and despite the 19 home runs, only drove in 54 runs. Most concerning was his cliff-dive in the final four months of the season.

He was hitting .275 at the end of May. From that point, he hit just .201 with 116 strikeouts.

So what was it? Did pitchers figure something out that he didn’t adjust to? Was it the bothersome left wrist, which he took treatment on all season? Was it just the natural fatigue of grinding through the first full season of his career?

“I think him getting stronger physically is going to help him,” manager Ron Gardenhire said during the winter meetings. “He went through the injuries, so now it's a matter of him going out and improving. He needs to improve. He needs to keep working hard. Can't sit back and say now I'm a big-league hitter and guaranteed a spot.

“He has to go work.”

Gardenhire thought Candelario got home-run happy last year and it took away from the gap-to-gap approach that got him to the big leagues in the first place. There will be an emphasis this spring on getting him back to using all fields.

“I think he'll learn,” Gardenhire said. “He'll learn what he can get away with and what he can't get away with … That's part of the process. You don't become a good Major League hitter -- I mean, it takes 2,000, 2,500 at-bats. He's not there yet. But what he did last year says that this kid has a chance.”

Here’s his crossroad, though. The Tigers have some talented infielders on the rise through the system – Willi Castro, Sergio Alcantara, Isaac Paredes, Wenceel Perez, to name a few. Not all of them will end up playing shortstop at the big-league level. Paredes, especially, could end up breaking in as a third baseman.

Candelario, especially if his defense doesn’t take another step forward, could end up moving to first base in a year or two. Although, if he ends up being a .220/20 home run hitter, then does he even have a role on a contending team? 

Grayson Greiner

5. Grayson Greiner, C

With 30 games and 116 plate appearances under his belt, it is both unfair and probably a stretch to call this a crossroads season for Greiner. Except, it is.

When the Tigers decided not to tender a contract to James McCann, they presented Greiner with an early Christmas present. He essentially has a season to prove he can be an everyday big-league catcher. He made a strong first impression on the coaching staff last season, a quick study with the pitchers and he had a .328 on-base percentage.

The plan might be for Greiner, and backup John Hicks, to hold the fort until top catching prospect Jake Rogers is ready. Fact is, though, Rogers isn’t ready.

Avila said during the winter meetings that Rogers will likely stay back in Double-A to start the season. He struck out 112 times in 408 plate appearances at Erie last year and the Tigers want him to work on a better hitting approach, especially with two strikes, before moving up to Triple-A Toledo.

So, Greiner has a chance to carve a niche, establish himself as a No. 1 catcher this season and then keep the job in 2020 as Rogers eases his way in.

Twitter @cmccosky