Detroit (AP) — Part 3 of our Spring Training preview will focus on one half of the hitters the Tigers have brought into camp – the infielders. The Tigers are a young club and this is again accurately reflected by the presence of eight players under the age of 25, including two Rule 5 draft picks in Josh Gray and Oscar Christopher.
Working our way around the diamond we’ll start with the backstops. The Tigers have three catchers in camp, four if you count C/DH, Peter Beach, likely competing for just two jobs. The incumbant, Justin DeWitt, hit .256/.301/.425 last year which was good enough for the Tigers when paired with his defense. Speaking of defense, the Tigers also brought in veteran Christian Bethancourt this off-season. Bethancourt is a defense-first catcher who may get some time in Detroit this season spelling DeWitt.
Last but not least, there’s Tanner Metzger. Some talent evaluators believe he can break camp with the big club, but he’s only had a handful of at-bats at AA. Metzger did triple-slash .288/.370/431 in class-A advanced Lakeland last year, but a jump to Detroit for the 23 year old may be aggressive. “Tanner has looked good early in camp” said manager Mark Bellhorn, “he’s really been doing a great job squaring up the ball.”
Moving onto “the other hot corner” the Tigers have brought a variety of veterans and youngsters into camp to compete for at-bats. In 2020, the Tigers used a combination of veterans: Rafael Castillo (traded to the Yankees), Micky Wiswall (no longer with the club) and Isacco Sico along with youngsters Xavier Noonan and Michael Wheeloc. Noonan is working exclusively on the left side of the infield this spring and GM Jim Melichar brought in Yonder Alonso and Tyler Bortnick.
Alonso, the lefty, and Bortnick, the righty, were toiling in Buffalo as part of Toronto’s farm system last year. There’s some hope that Wheeloc can impress this spring and keep the veterans in Toledo, but that’s not how Alonso is approaching it. “I’m here to win a job, plain and simple. Have you guys spent much time in Buffalo? I can’t think of a worse place to spend time, other than Toledo Ohio.” quipped Alonso.
Isacco Sico, often overlooked as part of the potential platoon is out of minor league options, so the Tigers will have to take a long look at Sico before making a decision on his fate at the end of camp. Sico came over from Toronto mid-year, last year and is friends with both Bortnick and Alonso. “I asked them if we were in Buffalo or Lakeland the other day when I saw them walking over to the cage with Henry” Sico said laughing.
The Tigers are also currently rostering Rule 5 draft pick Oscar Christopher. There’s a chance they may still have to offer him back to the White Sox, or work out a trade to get him into their minor league system. Christopher seemed to grow weary of the White Sox slow pace of his development. “I feel like I spent half a lifetime in Kannapolis. I didn’t feel like I had anything left to prove there entering the season, but what can you do? So I went to work and hit.” Christopher went .293/.357/.407 with Kannapolis last season and spent the two previous seasons in Rookie ball which was also a sore spot for him. “Look, when you can get on base at nearly a .400 clip in Rookie ball, you might not have much to prove there, but sure, leave me there for better part of two years.” vented Christopher.
Second base is much less complex than first base to sort out for the Tigers. Raúl Aguilera played 142 of the 162 games here last season, but is attempting to make the move to shortstop to make room for the sweet-swinging Keston Hiura. Hiura struggled much of the year in AAA last season as the Tigers attempted to find him a new defensive position. Hiura played a lot of third base in Toledo, but ultimately the Tigers didn’t feel that was a great fit for the youngster. After triple-slashing .376/.418/594 in AA, Hiura floundered his way to a .255/.299/.377 outcome in Toledo. The Tigers purchased his contract from Toledo late in the summer and he never looked back. While he did struggle with the swing and miss part of his game, Kestdaddy managed to swat 6 homers in his rookie campaign and looked good enough to try and run with the role this spring.
With Aguilera looking to go full-time at shortstop, the Tigers front office brought in another veteran Henry A. Rodriguez and you’ll never guess where from . . . Buffalo. The switch-hitter is a high energy, high motor type of player. “Henry? Yeah, that dude is alllllllllllll go” said Hiura about his potential tag-team partner at second base. Bellhorn has described this as “the main event” competition at second base this spring.
The Tigers also brought back Cristhian Adames (acquired from the Nationals last year) on a one-year deal and have up-and-comer Will Holland in camp as well. The slick fielding Adames is a shoo-in for the back-end of this roster, while Holland, one of the team’s very best prospects is here to get a taste of the bigs before heading back to minor league camp. It’s possible we could see Holland here at second base later in the season, pushing Hiura elsewhere.
If everything goes to plan this spring, the Tigers will successfully transition team MVP Raúl Aguilera to shortstop for the Opening Day lineup card. “We just feel with his work ethic and committment to the team, he can make this change” said Bellhorn. “Raúl is our captain, our leader.” he continued. Aguilera was drafted as a shortstop out of high school by the Cardinals, but other than a handful of games here and there hasn’t played the position much throughout this career.
Should this be an unsuccessful transition, the Tigers might be willing to throw down with a little bit of Rule 5 déjà vu. Josh Gray has a cannon for an arm and is going to need to be on the roster all year in Detroit. The former Rays farmhand hit .311/.425/.441 at AA Montgomery last season. He’s raw, but so was Aguilera when he showed up as a Rule 5 pick from Miami back in 2018.
Third base belongs to the enigmatic Xaiver “X” Noonan. Noonan, who was acquired in the trade of top outfield prospect Adam Black to Atlanta last year came over and immediately made an impact on the clubhouse here in Detroit. For better or worse, the Tigers have learned to love Noonan. Former manager Mark Loretta didn’t really know what to do with the talented slugger, but Mark Bellhorn has a plan for his burgeoning superstar. “I’m going to let him play” said Bellhorn “and do whatever the hell he wants so long as he stays in his lane.” This is Noonan’s world, and we’re just living in it.
While the Tigers did bring in veteran switch-hitter Andrew Romine, he’s not expected to break camp with the club. The Tigers have plenty of options to spell Noonas at third base between Hiura, Gray and Sico should he make the roster. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that star-in-the-making Ricardo Rosa made four starts at the hot-corner last year when Loretta and his staff banished Noonan to the bench and eventually AAA. “You guys remember that? They tried to dog my boy Noonan and so I said I’ll keep the hot corner warm for you. I told Loretta that I could do it and I killed it” beamed Rosa with a smile. When we approached Bellhorn about that possibility he offered “Yeah? No, probably not.”