Detroit — Jeimer Candelario hasn’t completely played himself out of the Tigers’ plans for 2020 and beyond. But he’s trending toward that eventuality.
“My mindset right now is just finish strong and not worry about stuff I don’t control,” Candelario said before Saturday's game against the White Sox. “I just have to be able to control what I can control and do my best to help the team win.”
It’s been a controllable variable, though, that’s pushed him to this career crossroad — his performance.
He started the day hitting under .200 (.198) and slugging just .324. After a productive offensive stint at Triple-A Toledo, his big-league struggles continued — hitting .205 with four extra-base hits (no home runs) and three RBIs in September.
“He’s got to find his swing again,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He hasn’t put too many good swings out. He’s been kind of scuffling through it. Whether it’s mental or physical, I don’t know. But it’s just about trying to get back to where he was a couple of years ago.”
When the Tigers traded Alex Avila and Justin Wilson to the Cubs for him in 2017, they thought they were getting their third baseman of the future. Nick Castellanos was moved to right field to accommodate him.
Now, halfway through this season, he’s been moved to first base to accommodate another possible third baseman of the future — Dawel Lugo.
“We’ve had some ups and downs,” Candelario said. “I’ve been through a lot. But it’s part of the game. You’ve got to be able to trust the process and keep working hard. I’m that guy (who believes) if you work hard something good is going to happen.”
The thing is, Candelario isn’t being judged on a small sample size now. He’s 25 years old and he’s played in 259 games, with 1,089 plate appearances, with the Tigers over the last three years. But for a couple of impressive months, his productivity has been in steady decline.
“He hit 19 home runs (last year) and it looked like he was on his way,” Gardenhire said. “He hasn’t really been the same since.”
In his first 74 games with the Tigers (314 plate appearances), he hit .294, scored 45 runs, knocked in 38 runs and had 20 doubles, three triples and 11 home runs.
In the 185 games since (775 plate appearances), he’s hit .198, scored 81 runs, knocked in 56 with 30 doubles, two triples and 17 home runs. He’s also struck out 206 times in that span.
“I don’t want to think about that stuff,” Candelario said. “There’s nine games left. I don’t want to worry about numbers right now. It is what it is. I just want to be able to finish strong and go to my house, get a little break and then start to figure out how to get better and go from there.”
One thing he is adamant about, though, is he will play winter ball in the Dominican Republic this offseason. Because of a wrist injury that bothered him throughout the 2018 season, the Tigers advised him to take last winter off.
“I wanted to play,” he said. “Winter ball is really good for us. You look at (Padres shortstop) Fernando Tatis. Last year he played winter ball and look where he’s at. Harold Castro played winter ball. Miguel Cabrera played winter ball, no matter that he was in the big leagues, and look at the hitter he is.
“For a young guy, you want to play winter ball.”
The Tigers certainly won’t stop him if he’s healthy.
“It would be good for him,” Gardenhire said. “He has to find his swing. He’s not really driving the ball. He hit a bullet (Friday night), one of the hardest balls he’s hit and that was good to see. But he hasn’t been putting the barrel on it.
“He’s been swinging through a lot of balls. I don’t know if he’s guessing (at pitches). It probably goes to a lot of that. When you start getting into the habit of guessing pitches, you are going to miss a lot.”
Candelario has a chase rate of 31.3 percent, per FanGraphs, which is his worst as a Tiger. Curveballs and sliders have been a problem for him. He’s hitting .155 on those pitches, per Statcast, with a 45 percent strikeout rate and a 37 percent swing and miss rate.
“I’ve just been working on trying to get my load right so that I can fire through my swing,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get to the hitting position quicker so I can fire through. But mostly, I just want to see the ball and hit it, and not worry about too much.”
The Tigers aren’t likely to carry an average-fielding corner infielder who has a wRC-plus (weighted runs created, ballpark adjusted) of just 67 and a weighted on-base average of .276 for too much longer. Spring training, as it will be for many, will be huge for Candelario.
“They have gained some experience up here and they know what they’re doing,” Gardenhire said, speaking in general terms about the younger players on the roster bubble. “Now can they bring it to spring training to make the ballclub.
“We’re so young, we’re not going to have many positions set. There’s going to be openings, so come to spring training ready — ready to make a statement.”