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Tigers' AJ Hinch: Utility does not mean futility; it's a vital asset

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — As manager AJ Hinch said Tuesday morning, a player being willing to do something isn’t the same as him liking it.

Niko Goodrum, who got the start in center field here in the spring game against the Yankees, is more than willing to do anything he’s asked. But that doesn’t mean he likes it.

The Tigers' Niko Goodrum, foreground, likely will be cast in a super-utility role this season.

“He’s been very open with me,” Hinch said. “I still think he has aspirations to be an everyday player at one spot, but I see his best use for this particular team as being a jack of all trades.”

At this point last spring, Goodrum was the Tigers’ starting shortstop. And his plus-three defensive rating in 31 games there was good enough to be a finalist for Gold Glove honors. But, Willi Castro happened. As Goodrum scuffled offensively, Castro blossomed, essentially forcing the Tigers to move Goodrum back to the super-utility role he played so well in 2019.

“Players all want to be in the lineup,” Hinch said. “And you have to show them a road map on how they can get in the lineup. The buy-in part: Their choices are, don’t buy in and don’t play, or buy in and find a spot to contribute to the team.”

Hinch hasn’t had to break it down that harshly to Goodrum, or any other player, but it is the reality.

“This is playing out exactly how I told him it was going to happen,” Hinch said. “Where he’s able to help us best is by being able to play a couple of different positions and fill in some gaps. And the better he plays, the more I’m going to move other guys around to clear a spot for him.”

For that to happen, though, Goodrum will need to solve the riddle of the high fastball which has confounded him the last two years and be a more consistent offensive threat, especially hitting from the left side.

“The idea is to optimize your roster,” said Hinch, who has used catcher Eric Haase in left field, third baseman Isaac Paredes at second, JaCoby Jones in corner outfield spots and plans to use second baseman Jonathan Schoop at third. “If we lock in guys to one spot, then they’re immovable and we have a very rigid roster."  

So far this camp, Goodrum has played every infield position before his center-field start. Harold Castro also will start getting reps in the outfield.

“I don’t want utility explained as a negative thing,” Hinch said. “Utility traditionally has been defined as a guy who can’t play every day and that’s not true. I caution everybody, it’s not a slight. If you have a guy who is elite at that position, absolutely you leave him there.”

And yet, when Hinch managed in Houston, he didn’t hesitate to use Alex Bregman, an elite third baseman, at shortstop when Carlos Correa was injured. He also turned Marwin Gonzalez into the prototypical seven-position Swiss army knife. As he pointed out, the Tigers wouldn’t have signed Renato Nunez if Jeimer Candelario couldn’t move back and forth from first to third. They might not have moved Paredes to second if Schoop couldn't also plug in at third. 

“Niko playing all around the field is not a big deal,” he said. “We over-dramatize what possibly could happen as opposed to just getting comfortable with the uncomfortable setting. To me, playing Marwin or Niko around the field; look, I’m going to believe before I’m going to doubt.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky