Going deep: Infusion of three veterans helps stabilize Tigers' infield
Editor's note: This is the first installment of a four-part series in which The Detroit News explores the depth of the Tigers organization.
Detroit — It’s been a while, and since we have no way of knowing if and when professional baseball is going to start back up again, it might be a good time to reintroduce you to your beloved Detroit Tigers — organizationally.
Over the next few days we’ll take a position-by-position refresher course on which players are here now and which are in the pipeline and coming — beginning with what is expected to be the Tigers' biggest area of improvement, the infield.
Last season the Tigers used seven different first basemen, six second basemen, five shortstops, seven third basemen and four catchers. The addition of established veterans at first base (C.J. Cron), second base (Jonathan Schoop), and catcher (Austin Romine) will, at minimum, provide much more stability.
Even the risk of using relatively unproven Niko Goodrum at shortstop is mitigated by the presence of backup veteran Jordy Mercer.
The only infield battle still left unresolved when the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down was at third base, though it appeared Jeimer Candelario was about to lock it down.
►Austin Romine: He’s 31 and spent parts of eight seasons with the Yankees before the Tigers signed him to a one-year, $4.1 million contract to be their starting catcher in 2020. The idea was that he’d be a stopgap to give Jake Rogers another year to incubate in Triple-A. But based on the strong impression he made this spring, he may end up being hard to displace.
►Grayson Greiner: A back injury derailed him in 2019 and cost him a chance to seize the starting catcher job. And now, though healthy and still 27 years old, it feels the Tigers have consigned him to backup only status.
►Eric Haase: The Dearborn Divine Child product was running neck and neck with Greiner for the backup spot after getting in 19 games the last two seasons with the Indians. He had a strong spring going when the virus hit. He was hitting .417 and blasted two monster home runs to dead center field.
►Jake Rogers: The plan was for the 25-year-old to get a few hundred more at-bats at Triple-A this year to lock in the swing changes that he made starting at the end of last season. With the shut down and uncertainty over whether there will even be a minor league season this summer, that plan may have changed. Make no mistake, Rogers is still considered the Tigers’ long-term catcher of the future.
►Kade Scivicque: Sometimes very solid players never get a true opportunity. Scivicque is a competent and tough-minded defensive catcher who last year between Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo hit .295 with nine home runs. But he’s 27 and, as this list shows, is still four rungs away from getting called up to the big leagues.
►Brady Policelli: The Tigers are intrigued by Policelli, who is entering his age-25 season, largely because he can play third base, first base and corner outfield, as well as being a solid defensive catcher with a laser arm. He hit 11 home runs at High-A Lakeland last season.
►Jhon Nunez: Acquired from the Red Sox for left-handed pitcher Matt Hall, Nunez, 25, has spent the last seven seasons in the minors and has yet to play above Double-A. He does do one thing the other catchers don’t do — hits from the left side. He’s a switch-hitter.
►Joey Morgan: A third-round pick in 2017, hasn’t been able to hit much over .200 (.211) in his three seasons in professional baseball. He did climb from High-A to Triple-A (six games) last season.
►Cooper Johnson: The Tigers brought the 22-year-old Johnson to big-league camp this year, rare for a sixth-round draft pick in 2019. But he was far from overwhelmed. He’s confident, solidly built (6-foot, 215 pounds) and seemed to work well with the young pitching prospects.
►Sam McMillan: A fifth-round pick in 2017 to whom the Tigers paid a sizable signing bonus is entering a move year in his development. He’s 21 and would probably have started at Low-A West Michigan with the goal of getting to Double-A at some point.
►C.J. Cron: At 30 years old and on a one-year, $6.1 million deal, Cron’s stay in Detroit is not expected to be a long one. Except, there isn’t likely to be any first base prospects knocking on the door any time soon. Maybe Cron, who hit 55 home runs and knocked in 152 runs the last two seasons, can prove worthy of a second one-year deal.
►Jordy Mercer: Signed to a minor-league deal this offseason, Mercer is expected to back up all four infield positions this season.
►Miguel Cabrera: He has made no secret of his desire to play defense this year. It was part of his motivation to shred weight and come to camp as lean as he’s been in years. But the damage in his right knee is still there and it wouldn’t be prudent to risk playing him at first base at all.
►Brandon Dixon: Dixon, the Tigers' home run king in 2019 (with 15), was probably going to start the season at Triple-A Toledo, though if the rosters are expanded to 30 or more players, he would be a backup option at first, third and both corner outfield spots.
►Frank Schwindel: The Tigers took a long look at him this spring and he whacked a couple of home runs and a double in 23 plate appearances. But, going into his age-28 season, it’s hard to view him as anything other than organizational depth.
►Daniel Pinero: He’s 6-5 and 230 pounds, but he plays with the agility of a much smaller person. Although he’s a corner infielder by trade, he can play all over the diamond, as he did last year at Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo. At 26, though, he’s caught in no-man’s land — not a prospect and not knocking on the big-league door.
►Josh Lester: Lester, 25, hit 19 home runs last season between Erie and Toledo, and plays both third and first. He also bats left-handed — left-handed power hitters are scarce in this organization. He needs to show more consistency on both sides of the ball, though. His average dropped to .225 last year.
►Jonathan Schoop: Like Cron, his teammate in Minnesota last season, he signed a one-year, $6.1 million deal. He’s coming off a 23-home run season last year and is just three years removed from his career year in 2017 when he hit .293 with 32 home runs and 105 RBIs.
►Harold Castro: This is a valuable piece of the Tigers' present. He was slated to be the primary backup at second base, third base and center field this year. And though he doesn’t draw a lot of walks, he batted .291 from the left side in 97 games last year.
►Kody Clemens: He’s entering his age-24 season and is rated the No. 18 prospect in the system. And judging by how much time he spent at big-league camp as a non-roster player this spring, he’s coming quick. A left-handed hitter, he hit .333 in 18 Grapefruit League plate appearances. Before the shutdown, it was expected that he would start at High-A Lakeland but spend the majority of the season at Double-A Erie.
►Andre Lipcius: The Tigers’ third-round pick last year out of Tennessee is already ranked No. 24 on the club’s prospect list, largely because of his bat. He hit .300 in three seasons at Tennessee, including 17 home runs in his junior season. He can play first and third base, as well as second.
►Jack Kenley: An eighth-round pick out of Arkansas last year, he dominated the Gulf Coast League before scuffling a bit at both short-season Connecticut and West Michigan.
►Jose King: The youngest player the Tigers got from the Diamondbacks in the J.D. Martinez trade, King has moved around the infield from short to third to second. He’s one of the fastest players in the organization but he has, through A-ball, struggled to get on base with any regularity.
►Jeimer Candelario: It appeared that he was winning the battle for the starting third base job, though he got off to a slow start with the bat. His defense has steadily improved, though he spent the second half of last season at first base. There is a productive hitter somewhere inside this 26-year-old — a switch-hitter capable of 20-home run seasons. He just needs to get out of his own way and let it happen.
►Dawel Lugo: He, like Candelario, is out of minor-league options. So if he doesn’t make the club, he will be exposed to waivers. It’s hard to predict these things, but it’s a good bet he’d be claimed by another organization.
►Isaac Paredes: A shoulder injury derailed his first big-league camp, but the No. 5-rated prospect is probably 400-500 Triple-A at-bats away from making his debut in Detroit. He’s only 21, but he’s got a grown-man’s body. Last year, one of the youngest players in Double-A, he hit .282 with 13 home runs, 23 doubles and 66 RBIs.
►Nick Quintana: Picked second after Riley Greene in last year’s draft, Quintana is ranked 21st in the system and is an intriguing offensive prospect. His slash-line in three seasons at Arizona — .317/.424/.565 with 35 home runs and 170 RBIs.
►Niko Goodrum: It wasn’t meant to be an audition, but Goodrum looked so comfortable and capable at shortstop in the 38 games he played there last season — minus-2 defensive runs saved — the Tigers made the decision to give him the job full-time. He’s been a revelation since the Tigers signed off the Twins’ scrap heap in 2018. It’ll be fun to see what his ceiling ends up being.
►Jordy Mercer: At 33 and coming off an injury-plagued season in 2019, Mercer didn’t draw much interest on the free agent market. But the fact is, when he was healthy last season he produced, hitting .322 in the last 41 games. The Tigers did well to bring him back on a minor-league deal.
►Willi Castro: His September debut didn’t go well last year, particularly defensively. But, working with Ramon Santiago over the winter, he looked much smoother and confident this spring. The No. 6-ranked prospect also hit .320 this spring. The expectation was for him to spend 2020 primarily at Toledo.
►Sergio Alcantara: Though he’s been primarily a shortstop throughout his baseball life, he may end up making his big-league debut as a second baseman. He’s 23 and coming off his best spring since the Tigers got him in the J.D. Martinez trade (he hit .444 in 20 plate appearances). He and Willi Castro were expected to play at Toledo this season, which means Alcantara would play second.
►Wenceel Perez: Still only 20 years old, the No. 14-ranked prospect struggled some at West Michigan last year — .233/.299/.314 in 516 plate appearances. Plus, he made 33 errors in 118 games at shortstop, which may eventually lead to a position change. Though, we are always reminded that Derek Jeter made 56 errors in A-ball in 1993 and he turned out OK.
►Adinso Reyes: Just 18 and signed last year out of the Dominican Republic, he’s already the No. 20-ranked prospect in the system. He burst on the scene last summer hitting .331/.379/.508 in 269 plate appearances in the Dominican Summer League.
►Cole Peterson: He’s 24, got to Triple-A for four games last year and who knows if he can climb any higher. But he can flat-out play shortstop. He’s only 5-11 and 160 pounds, but he has tremendous range and a strong arm.
►Ryan Kreidler: The Tigers’ fourth-round pick last year out of UCLA was probably going to play most of the season at West Michigan.