Lakeland, Fla. — When the season ended last year, the Tigers had one specific offseason request for third baseman Jeimer Candelario.
Go home and rest your body, and your mind.
Candelario, despite a persistent and at times debilitating soreness in his left wrist, played in a career-most 144 games and had 619 plate appearances last season. The Tigers asked him not to play winter ball, which is akin to asking a priest not to preach.
There had been only one offseason since 2013 that he hadn’t supplemented his regular season by playing in either the Dominican Winter League or the Arizona Fall League. But, he did what they asked, and, as he made his first appearance in the clubhouse Saturday, it was clear he was glad he did.
“It was good for me, not playing in the winter,” he said. “I’ve always played. I’ve never been off, where I could work on my body and work on what I need to do to get better and be more consistent at a high level.”
Candelario spent a lot of time at his father’s academy in the Dominican, working along with a group of professional players that included Marcell Ozuna, Jean Segura and Jimmy Paredes, all under the mentorship of veteran second baseman Robinson Cano.
“Cano is the captain,” Candelario said. “He’s always trying to encourage guys to get better. He wants you to get better and to be successful. He’s very humble and generous. It was a great experience working with him.”
Candelario said he spent a lot of time working on overall body strength and flexibility. With Cano’s help, he also worked on his swing, trying to start his separation and weight shift a little sooner so, as he put it, he can “be in a good position to hit the ball all the time.”
On several levels, Candelario’s first full season in the major leagues was a success: a 10.7 percent walk rate, .317 on-base percentage, 19 home runs and a six-run improvement defensively (from minus-7 defensive runs saved in 2017 to a minus-1).
But, on the negative side, he struck out 160 times (26 percent) and hit just .201 for the final four months of the season.
“After the season was over, I sat down and went through it all,” Candelario said. “The things I did good and the things I got to get better at. I am concentrating on a lot of little things that I know are going to help me be more consistent.”
His work with Cano is a good start. Candelario proved he can turn around even the hardest fastballs. His walk-off home run against the Cardinals came off a 102.1 mph fastball from Jordan Hicks — it was the fastest pitch hit out of the park in baseball last season.
Hitting breaking balls, however, was his kryptonite. Against sliders and curve balls (per Statcast), Candelario hit just .139, with a .193 weighted on-base average and a 53-percent strikeout rate.
Being able stay back and stay balanced, staying in a hitting position longer, should help him see and stay on breaking balls more efficiently. That's the theory, anyway.
“It’s just growth,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “You learn from it. That’s what all young hitters are going to go through. We say this too many times and I am sure you are tired of hearing it, but you really need a lot of at-bats in this league to figure out who you are and what you need to do.”
Candelario, Gardenhire said, is still trying to figure out whether he is a power hitter, or a high-average, high-on base guy who can drive the ball to both gaps.
“For a young hitter who’s still growing, I thought he did really well last year,” Gardenhire said. “He takes his walks. On-base percentage was a struggle for us as a team and he was one of our better guys in that department.
“I thought he got a little goosy trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark at times, but that’s what young guys do, guys who are trying to figure out the league, and the league is trying to figure them out. I thought he was fine. We’ve got a good-looking player here.”
The other factor in Candelario’s four-month cliff-dive last season, Gardenhire believes, was fatigue. Mental and physical fatigue. Gardenhire literally had to force Candelario to stay out of the batting cage at times, especially late in the season.
“That first year is a learning experience, how to take care of yourself,” he said. “Taking so many swings. You have to learn to back off and give your hands a break every once in a while. That’s one thing he never wanted to do. He wants to hit every day.
“Well, your body tells you to back off. He will grow from this.”
Gardenhire was encouraged by what he saw from Candelario on his first day back.
“He’s gotten healthy,” he said. “He looks great, he says he feels great. He did what we asked. And I think he’s excited to be here. Talking with him today, he feels great. The goal was to get him back in camp feeling good and starting fresh.
“Seems like we’ve done that.”
Candelario was with Cano on the day he was traded to the New York Mets. The Tigers not only play the Mets this spring (Feb. 26), they also play them in New York in May.
“Oh yeah, he knows,” Candelario said with a smile. “I’m going to hit some dingers.”