Detroit Tigers' Opening Day roster: Six story lines to watch early in 2021 season

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Evan Petzold, Detroit Free Press
·8 min read
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LAKELAND, Fla. — Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch announced his Opening Day roster Saturday, just three days before the conclusion of spring training and five days before the regular season begins.

The Tigers start the 2021 season April 1 against the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park. Left-hander Matthew Boyd is the first starter in the rotation, followed, in order, by Julio Teheran, Tarik Skubal, Jose Urena and Casey Mize.

JEFF SEIDEL: Akil Baddoo was surprise of spring for the Tigers. It was a no brainer to keep him.

"It would be unlikely for us to maneuver outside of this 26," Hinch said.

Tigers manager A.J. Hinch, center, talks with bench coach George Lombard, front, during the Tigers' 5-3 Grapefruit League win in Clearwater, Florida, Sunday, March 21, 2021.
Tigers manager A.J. Hinch, center, talks with bench coach George Lombard, front, during the Tigers' 5-3 Grapefruit League win in Clearwater, Florida, Sunday, March 21, 2021.

The 26-man roster for Opening Day:

Catchers (2): Grayson Greiner, Wilson Ramos.

Infielders (6): Miguel Cabrera, Jeimer Candelario, Harold Castro, Willi Castro, Niko Goodrum, Jonathan Schoop.

Outfielders (5): Akil Baddoo, Robbie Grossman, JaCoby Jones, Nomar Mazara, Victor Reyes.

Starters (5): Matthew Boyd, Julio Teheran, Tarik Skubal, Jose Urena, Casey Mize.

Relievers (8): Tyler Alexander, Jose Cisnero, Buck Farmer, Michael Fulmer, Bryan Garcia, Derek Holland, Daniel Norris, Gregory Soto.

LOCK IT IN: Tigers set Opening Day roster: Renato Nunez out, Harold Castro, Akil Baddoo in

EX-CLOSER GONE: Tigers option Joe Jimenez to Triple-A Toledo, finalizing 2021 pitching staff

PROSPECTS CUT: Tigers send Isaac Paredes, Jake Rogers to Toledo

Here are the six story lines to follow as the Tigers get ready for the regular season:

The first base situation

Tigers infielder Jeimer Candelario at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida, on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.
Tigers infielder Jeimer Candelario at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida, on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.

After the Tigers cut slugger Renato Nunez, a non-roster invitee, the glaring hole at first base has returned. The 26-year-old wasn't good enough defensively to justify his average of 28 home runs per 162 games over the last two years. So, the Tigers let him walk.

When 37-year-old Miguel Cabrera isn't playing first base — and most days he will be the designated hitter — the Tigers will turn to third baseman Jeimer Candelario, second baseman Jonathan Schoop and utility players Niko Goodrum and Harold Castro.

"He's always been a primary third baseman," Hinch said about Candelario. "But his ability to go over to first is still going to be utilized, depending on how I play the various infielders. I've always viewed him as a primary third baseman. That's where he'll get most of his reps."

[ Miguel Cabrera is 'arguably best first baseman' for Tigers. Here's what this means ]

The four players have a combined 1,273 games at first base, heavily weighted toward one player's experience: Cabrera (1,151 games), Candelario (64), Goodrum (55), Castro (3) and Schoop (0). Going without a regular first baseman seems odd, but Hinch has decided to believe before he sees. Also, Schoop played his first spring training game at first base Saturday.

Miggy's usage in the infield

Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera looks on against the New York Yankees at Joker Marchant Stadium, March 23, 2021 in Lakeland, Fla.
Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera looks on against the New York Yankees at Joker Marchant Stadium, March 23, 2021 in Lakeland, Fla.

For Opening Day, Cabrera might be lined up to start at first base. But he isn't scheduled to play his old position more than a few times per week. After a slew of injuries from 2017-19, the Tigers can't afford to put his health at risk.

Cabrera hasn't played first base in a regular-season contest since June 18, 2019, a couple weeks after he was diagnosed with chronic knee pain. He spent the shortened 2020 season as the designated hitter, competing in 57 of the team's 58 games.

"He's been able to handle the workload that we've given him (in spring training)," Hinch said. "He's going to play first base certainly more than he has over the last couple of seasons."

[ Why Miguel Cabrera's goals with 2021 Tigers stretch beyond reaching 500 home runs ]

If Cabrera's health holds up, and he returns to being a weapon offensively, it wouldn't be shocking if he played the infield three or four times per weekN. Hinch likes the possibilities created by keeping the designated hitter spot open for Candelario, catcher Wilson Ramos and outfielder Nomar Mazara.

And the only way to do that is by putting Cabrera in the field more often.

Pressure still on for Baddoo

Akil Baddoo is a 22-year-old outfielder without experience above High-A. Picked up in the Rule 5 draft in December from the Minnesota Twins, Hinch is prepared to start him in the first series against the Indians to "get those nerves out of him."

This spring, Baddoo is 11-for-35 (.314) with two doubles, four home runs, nine RBIs, 10 walks and 12 strikeouts (and three stolen bases) in 19 games. The Tigers must keep him on the active roster for the entire season or offer him back to the Twins.

"His job is not done yet," Hinch said. "I’m going to use him. We didn’t put him on the roster just to sit back and be the 26th guy. We’re going to test him, and the next test is going to be in the big leagues in a real game."

[ Jake Rogers, finding solace and chasing his goal of being 'the guy' ]

The fifth player in a crowded outfield, Baddoo is expected to be used less as a starter and more as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. But the Tigers are determined, if he produces, to carry him for the year.

"He should never be comfortable," Hinch said. "He needs to continually learn, and (bench coach) George Lombard is going to wear him out on the defensive side to keep him sharp. He's going to get some playing time."

Defensive versatility

Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera, left, plays around with Harold Castro while the two were warming up for a spring training exhibition baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, in Lakeland, Fla., Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera, left, plays around with Harold Castro while the two were warming up for a spring training exhibition baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, in Lakeland, Fla., Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Castro made the Opening Day roster instead of Nunez because Castro has already played seven positions — as has Goodrum — over parts of three seasons. He has a career .298 batting average.

[ AJ Hinch explains his affinity for utility players, and how to manage them ]

By carrying five outfielders, none of which can handle the infield, Hinch needed a surplus of versatility on his bench to shuffle his lineup and create pathways for players, such as recently demoted infielder Isaac Paredes, to return from the minor leagues. Also, it's clear the Tigers kept Victor Reyes because he can play all three spots in the outfield.

Of the six infielders on the roster — including Harold Castro and Goodrum — only shortstop Willi Castro, a former American League Rookie of the Year candidate, is expected to stick at one position.

How often everyone else plays, and where they play, remains a mystery.

"It'll give you something to track while you try to figure out how all the different scenarios can play out," Hinch said. "I'm doing it, you guys can do it, too."

When Turnbull returns

Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull throws a during the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays, March 4, 2021 in Lakeland, Fla.
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull throws a during the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays, March 4, 2021 in Lakeland, Fla.

There are two things the Tigers must do once right-hander Spencer Turnbull returns from the non-baseball injured list for COVID-19 reasons. First, they need to create a spot on the 40-man roster. When Turnbull went to the IL, Teheran joined the 40-man squad. (Turnbull doesn't count against the 40-man while on the COVID injured list.)

Second, the Tigers have to decide which player to remove from the active roster. Whenever Turnbull returns, the Tigers will likely adjust to a six-man rotation, so don't expect Mize or Skubal to suffer.

"We're hoping we can get through the protocols relatively soon," Hinch said. "It's a toss-up whether or not we see him physically in the building before we break camp. There's a chance that we do, but right now, he's still away from the club."

If the Tigers decide to use 14 pitchers (six starters, eight relievers), one of three position players — Goodrum, Harold Castro or Reyes — could be removed from the 26-man roster. If the Tigers stick with 13 pitchers (six starters, seven relievers), one of two relievers could be at risk: Tyler Alexander and Bryan Garcia.

Chasing high-leverage roles

Tigers pitcher Gregory Soto throws against the Royals during the seventh  inning of the Tigers' 4-3 win at Comerica Park on Tuesday, July 28, 2020.
Tigers pitcher Gregory Soto throws against the Royals during the seventh inning of the Tigers' 4-3 win at Comerica Park on Tuesday, July 28, 2020.

Four relievers are in the mix for high-leverage roles: Garcia, Gregory Soto, Jose Cisnero and Buck Farmer. Ex-starter Derek Holland's refined 95 mph fastball makes him a wild card for one of these spots. Another former starter, Michael Fulmer, could also find himself in this group if he can repeat his last relief appearance.

Hinch will not name a closer before Opening Day.

"They're hungry," Hinch said. "There's a determination to race to the leverage roles. Some have vocally said it, some are doing it by performance. But I like the aggressiveness of our bullpen. I like that a lot of them have adapted to the execution mindset, but also how to use their pitches."

[ Tigers' relievers will have defined roles but AJ Hinch wants them to be versatile ]

Assuming Soto continues to pound the strike zone with his 100 mph fastball and get swings-and-misses with his slider, he should be the first choice to earn the esteemed closer label. But it might be a process for the 26-year-old to receive that title.

If the Tigers have a one-run lead entering the ninth inning during the first couple of games, it will be interesting to see which player Hinch calls from the bullpen. Maybe 31-year-old Cisnero is the early choice until Soto proves he is ready.

Or Hinch goes directly to his promising lefty.

"We need him in the strike zone," Hinch said about Soto. "Stuff has been really, really good the entire spring. He's been concentrating on strikes, the bigger parts of the plate and putting guys away when he gets to two strikes. He's doing all that.

"I expect him to pitch in leverage, I just don't define that as the ninth inning only."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers' Opening Day roster: Six storylines to watch