Gardenhire says key to Tigers lineup is production from Jeimer Candelario, Christin Stewart

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Cincinnati — Manager Ron Gardenhire had toyed with using second basemen Jonathan Schoop in the fifth spot, to give another layer of protection to run producers Miguel Cabrera (third) and C.J. Cron.

But, in the end, he decided to move Schoop up to the No. 2 spot behind leadoff hitter Niko Goodrum.

“We thought, Schoop is another guy who can get on base and do some things,” Gardenhire said before the game. “We figured we’d move him up and create more traffic ahead of Cabby and Croney.”

Tigers' Jeimer Candelario

The most optimal way for that strategy to work over the long run, Gardenhire acknowledged, is if the Nos. 5 and 6 hitters produce. That would be left fielder Christin Stewart and third baseman Jeimer Candelario.

“We moved Stew up ahead of Candy,” Gardenhire said. “We need Candelario. The biggest thing for me in our lineup is Candy has to have a good year. He needs to step up and get it done. Same for Stew. He’s been swinging good and feels good.

“We really need those guys to have a year for us.”

Candelario is entering his third full season with the Tigers. Two years ago, he hit 19 home runs and knocked in 54 runs 144 games. With that kind of run production, the Tigers could live with his .224 batting average, especially with his 11 percent walk rate.

But last year, as he battled injuries, the run production fell off dramatically (8 home runs, 32 RBIs), to the point where he was moved to first base in September so Dawel Lugo could audition at third base.

Candelario, healthy and more fit than last year, regained his third base job with a strong showing offensively and defensively both in Lakeland and during camp at Comerica this month. But the clock is ticking.

Not only can Gardenhire supplant him with roster veterans Castro and Jordy Mercer — Lugo is also on option though he struggled through camp — but prospects Isaac Paredes and Spencer Torkelson won’t be in the minor leagues very long.

Stewart, after struggling in his rookie season (10 home runs, 40 RBIs) and again in Lakeland, might have been the club’s most consistent hitter other than utility man Harold Castro throughout camp. But, again, Gardenhire has options if he should falter — namely, Castro, Victor Reyes and on the taxi squad Jorge Bonifacio.

The Tigers' Christin Stewart

Speaking of Castro and Reyes — they hit at or just under .300 last season and weren't in the opening day lineup.

“It’s a hard situation,” Gardenhire said. “Reyes was a .300 hitter last year, but he’s been scuffling a little here toward the end of camp. I’m not worried about him. He’s going to play all of them (outfield positions). Harold Castro will play out there and on the infield.

“Those are two bats I’d like to see in the lineup, believe me. I will get them both in the lineup. (Cameron) Maybin is a veteran who we brought in here coming off a good year last season. They’ll all get plenty of playing time.”

Agrazal in rotation

Gardenhire said Friday that right-hander Dario Agrazal will get the fifth spot in the rotation for now and will likely get the ball on Tuesday against the Royals at Comerica Park.

“With Danny Norris not ready to do this right now, and Michael Fulmer (starting Monday in tandem with Tyler Alexander), we like Aggie,” Gardenhire said. “He’s got major league service time as a starter (with the Pirates last year) and we like what he can do.

“He can spin the ball, he reads hitters well and he can pitch backwards (throw off-speed pitches in fastball counts or vice versa). We have him in the rotation now and we’ll go from there.”

Norris, Gardenhire said, still needs to get his game legs under him, pitching live batting practice and simulating up-and-downs between innings with the taxi squad in Toledo.

“He thinks he’s ready now and that’s the problem,” Gardenhire said. “We have to pull the reins back on him and give him some more time here. We have to be smart so we don’t get him hurt.”

Roster explained

Gardenhire was asked if some of the roster decisions made Thursday were related to the lack of 40-man roster spots. Pitchers Nick Ramirez and Shao-Ching Chiang, plus outfielder Jorge Bonifacio — all non-roster players — were sent to the taxi squad despite strong showings in camp.

“Obviously, it’s about the roster,” he said. “But we wanted depth, too, and we’ve got depth working down in Toldeo. This is the way to start and we will see how this goes and move from there.”

General manager Al Avila hinted at the same thing in his video conference earlier in the week.

“It is difficult,” he said. “We’re not only battling the possibility of injuries, but possible cases of the virus…Trying to manage the roster is very tricky. We want to start the season on the right path and see where it goes. But we know as the season develops, there will be roster moves.

“The important thing is to keep your depth with roster guys and non-roster guys.”

Roster sizes will be cut to 28 players in two week and down to the regular 26 players in four weeks.

Tigers at Reds

First pitch: 5:10 p.m. Saturday, Great American Ball Park, Cincinnati

TV/radio: Fox Sports Detroit, 97.1 FM

Scouting report

RHP Ivan Nova (0-0), Tigers: The durable right-hander is one of three Major League pitchers who in the last four seasons to throw at least 160 innings and allow less than 50 walks. Others on that list — Mike Leake and former Tiger Rick Porcello.

RHP Luis Castillo (0-0), Reds: Tough customer here. He won 15 games last year and struck out 226 in 190 innings. He has one of the best change-ups in baseball (opponent average .128 with a 48 percent swing-and-miss rate) that he throws off 96-mph heaters, both four-seam and two-seam.

Twitter: @cmccosky