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Why Detroit Tigers 2B César Hernández feels 'at ease' in roster competition

LAKELAND, Fla. — Detroit Tigers second baseman César Hernández should feel good about his chances of making the Opening Day roster.

It's not official, but the 32-year-old switch-hitter has seemingly earned his way because of his track record at the highest level and his consistent performance in spring training. He has played 1,186 games across 10 MLB seasons.

"I feel at ease given that I know I've done the job that I've been requested to do," Hernández said. "At the end of the day, it's not my decision. It's somebody else's decision. I have to wait, but I feel comfortable right now with where I'm at."

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The Blue Jays' Wynton Bernard steals second as Tigers second baseman Cesar Hernandez can't field a wild throw during the fourth inning of the Tigers' 18-5 spring training game loss on Saturday, March 4, 2023, in Lakeland, Florida.
The Blue Jays' Wynton Bernard steals second as Tigers second baseman Cesar Hernandez can't field a wild throw during the fourth inning of the Tigers' 18-5 spring training game loss on Saturday, March 4, 2023, in Lakeland, Florida.

The Tigers signed Hernández to a minor-league contract in January. The veteran will earn $1.5 million, plus a potential $1.85 million in performance bonuses, if he makes the big-league roster.

On March 30, the upward mobility clause in Hernández's contract enters the conversation. On June 1, only if Hernández is in the minor leagues, another upward mobility clause kicks in.

If Hernández is not a member of the Opening Day roster, the Tigers must notify the other 29 teams to see if a different club wants him on its roster. If so, the Tigers must either put him on their roster or let him go to the new team. If no team wants him, he will remain in the minor leagues.

"The young guys have to earn the at-bats," Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said earlier in spring training. "They're not just free gifts that we give for no reason. He's here to challenge every player in camp. When you come as a veteran player on a minor-league deal, he's got to do his best to fight his way to get on the team.

"Hopefully, it challenges the younger guys that we have options. We feel like he can help us. That's as big of a message that you can give to the young players. We'd like our young players to get some at-bats, but we'd like them to earn it."

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In 15 games this spring, Hernández has a .270 batting average with seven doubles, zero home runs, five walks and 10 strikeouts in 43 plate appearances. Last season, he hit .248 with 28 doubles, one home run, 45 walks and 114 strikeouts in 147 games for the Washington Nationals.

Hernández launched a career-high 21 home runs for the Cleveland Guardians and Chicago White Sox in 2021. An inconsistent workout regimen during MLB's lockout last offseason contributed to the power plummeting to one homer in 2022.

His doubles power has been encouraging this spring.

"What we've seen is the results of my preparation in the offseason," Hernández said. "I worked hard in the offseason, and to be honest, I'm not surprised about the results we've seen so far because one season (in 2020) I led the league in doubles."

More importantly, Hernández sometimes draws walks and certainly limits strikeouts. His walk rate (7.3%) ranked 88th among 130 qualified hitters last season, while his strikeout rate (18.5%) ranked 53rd on the leaderboard. But his 79 wRC+, a measurement of his overall offensive performance, ranked 127th.

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Hernández expected to play all around the diamond, plus the outfield, coming into spring training, but the Tigers have primarily used him at his natural position — second base — in games.

He has 60 innings at second base compared to 10 innings at third base.

"Second base is the position I've played the most in my career," Hernández said. "Having the opportunity to play another position is a situation that I cannot control, but I got to be ready, and I know I can perform anywhere they put me."

Lorenzen's health

Right-hander Michael Lorenzen, who signed a one-year, $8.5 million contract in the offseason, could miss his final spring training start with a left groin strain. If that happens, a spot in the starting rotation would open up before the regular season begins March 30.

The Tigers scratched Lorenzen from Monday's start. The 31-year-old has started three games this spring.

"He's encouraged by how he feels," Hinch said. "We should have another update after he throws. He's going to play catch today. We got to keep his arm moving. We'll go day to day with where he's at, take the advice of our medical staff, listen to him and see where it takes us. It's going to be down to the wire."

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Detroit Tigers pitchers and catchers went through drills and a bullpen session during Spring Training Tuesday, February 14, 2023. Pitching coach Chris Fetter watches Michael Lorenzen throw during his bullpen session during practice.
Detroit Tigers pitchers and catchers went through drills and a bullpen session during Spring Training Tuesday, February 14, 2023. Pitching coach Chris Fetter watches Michael Lorenzen throw during his bullpen session during practice.

Left-hander Joey Wentz, once expected to begin the season in Triple-A Toledo, would be the most likely candidate to join the Tigers' rotation if Lorenzen is unable to break camp.

Wentz, 25, posted a 3.03 ERA with 13 walks and 27 strikeouts in seven starts for the Tigers last season. In spring training, he has an 8.44 ERA with four walks and 14 strikeouts across 10⅔ innings in four games (two starts).

The other four starting pitchers: left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, right-hander Spencer Turnbull, lefty Matthew Boyd and righty Matt Manning.

No leadoff hitter

The Tigers won't have a regular leadoff hitter in 2023.

Riley Greene, a 22-year-old, was the leadoff hitter for 76 games last season.

"We will not have a singular leadoff hitter," Hinch said. "The guys I've hit leadoff this spring, I've hit (Akil) Baddoo, I've hit Carp (Kerry Carpenter), I've hit (Matt) Vierling. The one guy who I haven't who I promised I would is Riley. (Nick) Maton has led off this spring. He may do that, as well. (Austin) Meadows has done it. ... Those guys are all candidates to lead off at some point."

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers' Cesar Hernandez feels 'at ease' in roster competition