Tigers eye options to shore up infield
This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.
DETROIT — Jonathan Schoop was an AL Gold Glove Award finalist at second base. Not only has he led all Major League second basemen in Outs Above Average, Statcast’s primary defensive metric, he has led all Major League defensive players in the category. He had twice as many Outs Above Average as the next-best second baseman. He made second base one of just three positions where the Tigers had a positive number in Defensive Runs Saved, another defensive metric from Sports Info Solutions.
So why would the Tigers consider moving Schoop off of second base? Because if the Tigers are going to get better, they have to think about their entire infield, which needs a lot of help aside from second base.
While Detroit’s decision last week to non-tender third baseman Jeimer Candelario didn’t come as a surprise given Candelario’s struggles this past season, it also didn’t come with an obvious solution for a replacement. Ryan Kreidler made 11 of his 22 starts at third base as part of his late-season audition and registered 2 Outs Above Average in that limited time, but he also hit just .178 (13-for-73) with six walks and 22 strikeouts in 84 plate appearances. Kody Clemens also made 11 starts at third and posted 1 Out Above Average, but hit just . 145 (17-for-117) with eight walks and 33 strikeouts. The next-closest potential solutions in the farm system has yet to play above High-A, though No. 6 prospect Colt Keith impressed in the Arizona Fall League despite six errors in 10 games at third.
No wonder the Tigers were in talks right up to Friday’s non-tender deadline to try to re-sign Candelario at a lower salary than his arbitration projections. At that point, however, it made sense for Candelario to see what might be available on the open market first.
That leads Detroit to the free-agent and trade markets, where the options at third base drop off quickly. Justin Turner and Evan Longoria are multi-time All-Stars — and in Longoria’s case, a three-time Gold Glove Award winner — but they’re both 37 years old, have spent recent years on the West Coast and are likely tied to contend in search of a World Series ring. Brandon Drury is in the prime of his career coming off a 28-homer season, but he also played at hitter-friendly parks in Cincinnati and San Diego in nearly doubling his previous career best in homers, leaving teams having to decide if they believe him can repeat it with a fly-ball rate doubling his line-drive percentage. He also has battled high strikeouts and low walking rates in his career, though his swing-and-miss rate was among the top third of Major Leaguers this year.
The next tier of free agents could provide an opportunity for president of baseball operations Scott Harris to take a calculated risk. Brian Anderson, not-tendered by the Marlins last week, was a budding young hitter with a 20-homer season in 2019 before back and shoulder injuries limited him the last couple of years. His 9.3 percent career walking rate is almost a point above the MLB average, while his struggles with strikeouts this year belied a pursuit rate that is below average for his career.
All of the above are right-handed hitters; Harris has said the Tigers want to add a left-handed hitter to their infield. If they’re going to do that at third, their best option might be former Brewer Jace Peterson. His defense at third was worth 7 Outs Above Average for Milwaukee, and he has a 12.5 percent walk rate over the past three years. The 32-year-old has essentially been a slightly below-average hitter in that span, with a 97 OPS+ and 96 wRC+ despite above-average hard-hit and barrel rates. The Dodgers non-tendered former third base prospect and Triple-A slugger Edwin Rios, though he has battled strikeouts all the way to Triple-A.
Expand the infield search from third base to second base, and the options expand a bit. Adam Frazier has been one of baseball’s better pure left-handed contact hitters and tougher at-bats (7.6 percent strikeout rate) the last couple of years among Pittsburgh, San Diego and Seattle, though the soon-to-be 31-year-old’s Low exit velocity and hard-hit rate show limited power. His defense at second was worth 6 Outs Above Average. César Hernández is a veteran switch-hitter in a similar mode, though he has been well below average in weighted runs created and OPS the last couple of years. Jean Segura has a career 14.1 percent strikeout rate, eight points below his MLB average, though his walking rate could improve. Brandon Lowe could be a trade option if the Rays deal with him ahead of the heavy years of his contract; he’ll make $14 million over the next two seasons, with team options for $10,500,000 in 2025 and $11,500,000 in 2026.
The Tigers have looked at left-handed-hitting middle infielders, according to sources, even before non-tendering Harold Castro. With both Harold and Willi Castro gone, it would not be a surprise if Detroit signed multiple infielders. The more open the Tigers are with Schoop positionally, the more options Detroit has.
Defensively, MLB’s new restrictions on infield positioning also play a role. Detroit’s infield positioning was worth 24 Defensive Runs Saved in shifts, and -4 without. Only the Dodgers had a wider gap. Schoop’s defense was worth 4 DRS in shifts, and -2 without, according to Sports Info Solutions. With infield shifts all but gone, manager AJ Hinch will have to take a look at his entire defense regardless of who Detroit brings in.