Opportunity knocks, and Tigers' Jorge Bonifacio makes a compelling answer

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit – At the mention of his brother, Jorge Bonifacio’s eyes lit up.

“He is everything for me,” he said. “He’s always been on top of me, telling me to work this way, saying this is good for you, this is not good for you. He helps me a lot.”

Non-roster invitee Jorge Bonifacio singles with an RBI during an intrasquad game at Detroit Tigers Summer Camp at Comerica Park on July 15, 2020.

Jorge and his older brother Emilio find themselves in similar predicaments. Both are non-roster players fighting long odds to win an extra outfielder spot on an Opening Day roster – 27-year-old Jorge with the Tigers and 35-year-old Emilio, a 11-year veteran who hasn’t played in the big leagues since 2017, with the Nationals.

The Dominican-born brothers spent the shutdown in Florida working out together, both pushing each other and propping each other up, as need be.

“It was tough for me, tough for everybody,” Jorge said of the three-month shutdown. “But I was able to train with my brother. Just did the best I can to be ready.”

When the Tigers closed camp in Lakeland back in March, Bonifacio looked to be very much on the outside looking in. The Tigers had signed veteran Cameron Maybin to either start in right field or be the fourth outfielder. They also were giving a long look to Travis Demeritte, who they acquired from Atlanta for Shane Greene last July.

Utility man Harold Castro can play all three outfield positions, as well. 

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But things look a little better for him presently. The outfield ranks have been thinned considerably. Center field prospect Daz Cameron has been on the injured list all camp. Demeritte, out with soreness in his groin and quad, has only played in one intrasquad game and starting center fielder JaCoby Jones is out with tightness in his oblique.

With teams allowed a 30-man roster to start the season, Bonifacio is suddenly very much in the mix.

“That’s good for me,” he said. “That’s what I want. I have an opportunity to play. I am just trying to do my best out there. I feel this is a good opportunity for me to make this team.”

Detroit Tigers' Jorge Bonifacio looks skyward as he approaches home plate after his two-run home run during an intrasquad game Thursday, July 16, 2020, at Comerica Park.

Bonifacio started his ninth straight scrimmage game Friday. He was in right field Friday but also gotten reps in center and left.  After getting five hits in 19 Grapefruit League at-bats – four doubles and a home run – he’s 6 for 21 with four RBI, including a long home run to left-center off Dario Agrazal Thursday.

“I’ve been working on elevating the ball,” he said. “I’m feeling great at the plate. I saw the pitch sinking in and I just threw the barrel to it and it went out.”

The long-ball is part of the Bonifacio package. He broke into the big leagues with the Royals in 2017 and hit 17 bombs with 40 RBI in 113 games. But his quest for power took him down a bad path.  He was suspended for 80 games in March of 2018 for violating the league’s policy against performance-enhancing drugs (boldenone – an injection commonly used to treat horses).

He was back with the Royals that June but never regained his traction with the organization. He hit 20 home runs at Triple-A last year but the Royals called him up for only five games before designating him for assignment.

Bonifacio told The Detroit News in February: “Let me say, I think I lost my timing a little bit. It was hard for me, all the time off from the suspension. I just felt like I was trying to get it, trying to get it. Last year was a tough year for me, but this year I feel like I am getting back to being myself.

“I played winter ball and I felt like I’m there, the timing is back.”

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The Tigers scouted him playing, with his brother, for Licey in the Dominican Winter League. In 31 games he slashed .330/.391/.548 with four home runs and a .938 OPS.

Bonifacio didn’t ask for any promises, but he told general manager Al Avila before he signed that he was coming to Detroit to be the starting right fielder. That might have been ambitious, but he has played himself into the conversation for a roster spot.

If the Tigers keep five outfielders, he and Derek Hill would be the frontrunners for that role.

“I saw an opportunity here and that’s why I came here,” he said. “Right now I am just trying to make the team and go from there. I spent last year at Triple-A and I really put some work on it. That’s all I’m trying to do, work as hard as I can to do my best on the field.”

Around the horn

There are four relief pitchers, all of them on the roster bubble, making it awfully hard for the club to put them on the taxi squad. Over the last seven intrasquad games, Beau Burrows (five innings, two runs, three strikeouts), Bryan Garcia (three innings, one run, four strikeouts), Nolan Blackwood (three innings, one run, three strikeouts) and Kyle Funkhouser (five innings, five strikeouts) allowed four runs in 16 innings with 15 strikeouts.

... Manager Ron Gardenhire mixed things up Friday. He started first overall pick Spencer Torkelson at third base on Team Maybin and pitching prospect Franklin Perez was the starting pitcher. Dawel Lugo got the start at second base with prospect Riley Greene getting another start in right.

... On Team Miggy, Harold Castro got his first start in center. JaCoby Jones is still out with a tight oblique. 

... Tigers third base prospect Isaac Paredes, who has missed the entire camp, was cleared for baseball activities Friday. He took batting practice in the cage before the game. 

... Veteran Jordan Zimmermann was on turn to pitch. It is unclear if he was held out for any physical reason. Gardenhire had intimated earlier in the week that he was dealing with some soreness after his last start Sunday. 

Twitter @cmccosky