Caputo: Tigers depth equals trade pieces

The comedy bit, “Who’s on First,” doesn’t pertain to the Tigers.

Of course, Spencer Torkelson is, but moving forward, what about second and third, and perhaps shortstop? How will the outfield shake out?

What we’ve learned during the first season with Scott Harris as general manager is the Tigers have much more hitting talent than anticipated.

But having pieces is one thing, fitting them together into a viable lineup is another.

The Tigers don’t have a regular third baseman. They have two excellent Triple-A prospects, Justyn-Henry Malloy and Colt Keith, who play third base. They are both potential big-time hitters, who have put up gaudy statistics this season.

Defensively, though, there are questions. In the case of Malloy, it’s his range and arm accuracy. For Keith, it’s his arm after suffering a shoulder injury diving into first base on a pick off attempt in 2022.

Keith, who has average MLB speed, also plays second base. Malloy, a below average runner, has played some outfield.

Obviously Malloy, who has incredible strike zone discipline and underrated power, and the sweet-swinging Keith, should be able to hit well in MLB, perhaps exceptionally, but can they play passable defense?

Infield defense is crucial, particularly since the shift has been eliminated.

The Tigers can’t just put three statues on the dirt with Javy Baez and anticipate success. Even if they are blessed by  Baez opting out of his horrific contract, they do not have a shortstop in their prospect pipeline remotely ready to take his place.

Torkelson, for all the genuflecting about his ability to dig throws out of the dirt, has alarmingly poor fielding metrics. He has a minus 1.7 WAR defensively. His range is ranked in the bottom three percentile of MLB players, and his arm strength in the bottom five percentile, according to Baseball Savant. Makes you wonder what the Tigers were thinking on draft night 2020 by announcing him as a third baseman.

Also, ‘22 first-round pick Jace Jung has emerged as a top-flight hitter, and it’s come with surprising power. He hit one home run in ‘22, but has gone off this season. A lefty, he has a funky set up at the plate, but good discipline. But again, he is a below average runner and lacking range as a second baseman.

The outfield seems set, right? Riley Greene in right, Parker Meadows in center and Kerry Carpenter in left. With Miguel Cabrera on his way out, you can mix and match those three with Akil Baddoo and Matt Vierling at DH. All five have above-average speed. In the case of Vierling, Baddoo and Meadows it’s top-end.

Yet, four of the five are left-handed hitters. It’s yet another balance issue.

Not mentioned enough is Eddys Leonard (pronounced LEO-nard). He is by trade a shortstop, reputedly not a good one defensively, and a wild swinger. But there was a reason the Dodgers hung onto Leonard until they had to remove him from the 40-man roster because of acquisitions at the trade deadline. The right-handed hitter has been sizzling since being acquired for cash, even though advancing from Double-A to Triple-A in the process.

Like with Keith and Malloy, the Tigers have been moving him around the field. He’s even spent some time in center field for Toledo.

This is under the guise manager A.J. Hinch’s strength is using players at multiple positions. It’s been true this season.

But Hinch isn’t a miracle worker. You can’t hide subpar defenders. The ball always seems to find weak links at the worst times.

There is depth, though. It just so happens to be similar type players manning the same spots.

That can be good news, if Harris is able to parlay it into trades.

The Tigers’ winning percentage and 2022 trip to rock bottom would normally preclude trading younger talent for veteran players, but the weakness of the American League Central makes it an exception. Their payroll is low. There seems like endless talk about how the Tigers should pursue free agents, and that’s true in regard to pitching, especially if Eduardo Rodriguez opts out.

Yet, they’d be better served, given the poor crop of free agent position players and their own internal strengths, to change the complexion of their roster via trades for younger veterans, who are arbitration eligible and approaching free agency in the next year or two.

The cards Harris inherited are better than anticipated, albeit far from ideal.

But he does have a decent hand to play in an unexpected regard.

We’ll see if he can make the most of the circumstances.

Featured Image Photo Credit: (Photo by Mike Carlson/MLB Photos via Getty Images)