Tigers' 2021 roster appears set; Joe Jimenez optioned to Triple-A Toledo
Detroit — AJ Hinch had a rough morning.
Not only was he processing his own grief over the death of his friend and Minnesota Twins bench coach Mike Bell, but he also had to break the hearts of two veteran players.
Hinch broke the news first to reliever Joe Jimenez, a former All-Star, that he’d been optioned to Triple-A Toledo. Then he had to tell non-roster first baseman Renato Nunez, who hit 43 home runs the last two seasons with the Orioles, that he did not make the club and was free to exercise his opt-out and seek other opportunities.
Those hard conversations were followed by a batch of happier ones, as reliever Tyler Alexander, outfielders Victor Reyes and Rule 5 rookie Akil Baddoo, and utility player Harold Castro were all informed they had made the Opening Day roster.
“I can say this is our roster on March 27 and it could change on March 28,” Hinch said, referencing the possibility of the Tigers adding another player or two that gets cut late from another team. “I don’t have any expectation that it would change, but I don’t know all the opportunities that would open up over the next couple of days that might spark an interest.
“But it would be unlikely for us to maneuver outside of these 26 players right now.”
So, here is your 2021 Opening Day roster:
STARTING PITCHERS (5): Matthew Boyd, Julio Teheran, Tarik Skubal, Jose Urena, Casey Mize.
RELIEF PITCHERS (8): Right-handers Bryan Garcia, Buck Farmer, Jose Cisnero, Michael Fulmer; left-handers Gregory Soto, Daniel Norris, Derek Holland, Tyler Alexander.
CATCHERS (2): Wilson Ramos, Grayson Greiner
INFIELDERS/UTILITY (6): Miguel Cabrera (first base/designated hitter), Jonathan Schoop (second base), Willi Castro (shortstop), Jeimer Candelario (third base), Niko Goodrum (utility), Harold Castro (utility).
OUTFIELDERS (5): Robbie Grossman, JaCoby Jones, Nomar Mazara, Victor Reyes, Akil Baddoo.
“It was a very difficult conversation with Joe,” Hinch said. “He handled it very professionally, but he was obviously unhappy.”
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Hinch said Jimenez afterward went out and ran the outfield at Joker Marchand Stadium, foul pole to foul pole, to sweat out and sort out his emotions.
“In the short term, it was a punch in the gut to not make a team out of spring training and be told to report to the alternate site in Toledo,” Hinch said. “But the long view is, we’ve got to get him back to not just making a team, but to being a leverage reliever.”
Jimenez is going through somewhat of an identity crisis as a pitcher. In June of 2018, he was the Tigers’ closer and had an average velocity on his fastball of 97 mph. That velocity has dropped steadily, to 95 mph in 2019, 94 mph last year to 92-93 this spring.
He’s tried, with limited success, to pitch more off his slider.
“He’s a big-league pitcher who has gotten caught in-between on how to pitch and how to approach hitters,” Hinch said. “And ultimately he’s been inconsistent in getting his outs. I love the person. I believe in the person. But to get him back to being a leverage reliever, he needs more time to hone his approach.”
The composition of the bullpen now is intriguing. Not only because of the four lefty-four righty balance, but also because of its blend of veterans and youth and the mixture of power and pitch-ability.
“We do want to cover every scenario, long, short and in-between,” Hinch said. “We do have a very versatile bullpen. We have guys who can do a lot of different things. It will evolve into having a relatively normal set-up and expectations for which guys are going to pitch.
“But we have the makings of a very unique bullpen and a very productive one.”
As for the closer, Hinch basically said, may the best man win.
“They’re hungry,” he said. “There is a race to the leverage roles. I like the aggressiveness of our bullpen.”
As for Nunez, ultimately his lack of versatility cost him a roster spot. The best way to optimize this roster, Hinch said, is by being able to mix and match lineups and move players around the diamond.
Nunez limited that flexibility.
“We felt versatility to start the season was very important,” Hinch said. “Being able to move Niko and Harold around the field is important and that ultimately hurt Nunez’s chances of breaking with us.”
If he kept Nunez, a first baseman/designated hitter only, he could not, for example, plug Ramos in at DH on the days he’s not catching and Cabrera is playing first. He could not use the DH spot to get one of the five outfielders some at-bats on the days Cabrera is playing first base.
And, he probably couldn’t keep a second utility player.
“I told (Nunez) that really, the hardest part of this is that we’re turning away an offensive player that can help us,” Hinch said. “He’s a big-league player that has put up numbers and we said no to him. It’s hard news to deliver and it’s hard news to hear as a player.
“He was disappointed and rightfully so.”
The other side of that coin, too, is that Baddoo and Castro, both left-handed hitters, performed and earned their spots.
“Harold is easy to like and easy to appreciate when it comes to being an answer to a lot of different questions,” Hinch said. “The versatility of this roster is really good and it’s not just being able to do it, but be good at it. Guys like Harold and Niko, you can ambush those guys as a manager with whatever the game presents.
“His attitude and approach to that job has been very positive. Quite honestly, it’s why managers fall in love with him.”
Hinch was very forthright, too, that Baddoo didn’t make the roster because of the Rule 5 designation. Hinch wasn’t forced to keep him. Baddoo, with his play, forced his way onto the roster.
“Yeah, he earned it,” Hinch said. “This was not something the organization demanded. We had a wait-and-see approach and everything we were expecting on the front end, he exceeded even the best of expectations we had for him coming in.”
The next challenge for Baddoo will be to adapting to a bench role. He’s been getting regular at-bats and regular reps around the outfield during spring. That won’t be the case going forward.
“He made the team but his development is not done,” Hinch said. “It shifts from having everyday reps to being a role player. He needs to be available to pinch-run at any given moment, go in for defense and get at-bats here and there.
“But I am going to use him. We didn’t put him on this roster just to be the 26th guy and try to ‘carry him’ through the season. We’re going to test him.”
Hinch also said Saturday that he expected veteran pitcher Erasmo Ramirez to stay in the organization and start the year at the alternate site in Toledo. Veteran infielder Greg Garcia, however, was given his outright release.
Hinch carried a heavy heart all through the morning. He gave Bell his first big-league job, hiring him to manage the Diamondbacks Class-A affiliate in 2007, and the two remained close. Bell, the son of former Tigers manager Buddy Bell and brother of Reds manager David Bell, was 46 when he died Friday (cancer).
“Life is so fragile,” Hinch said. “It’s so difficult to even talk about. Our thoughts and prayers are always with the families when something like this happens. It’s remarkable what the Bell family has meant for baseball. But it goes beyond baseball with relationships that are built over time.
“Just really sad for (wife) Kelly and the kids and the entire Bell family. The baseball world is the biggest support system that I’ve ever been around, and it will continue to be so for that family as they try to process this.”