Candelario, the back-to-back Tiger of the Year winner, wrapped his arms around his skipper and embraced him with a hug. They hadn’t seen each other since the 2021 season ended in Chicago.
“Last year, there was a little more tip-toeing,” said Hinch, entering his second year as the Tigers’ manager. “This year, we have a common bond of experiences. They know what to expect from me. I know what to expect from them. … These guys are coming ready to go.”
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The Candelario-Hinch bear hug was supposed to happen in mid-February, but the MLB lockout — which lasted 99 days, from Dec. 2 until March 10 — canceled more than three weeks of spring training.
Because of the lockout, a product of now-settled labor negotiations, players on the Tigers’ 40-man roster had to prepare for an unknown start date on their own. Without access to team facilities or communicate with their coaches.
On Sunday, the Tigers officially reported to spring training.
“We got to take them for their word on where they’re at physically and what they’ve done,” Hinch said. “Our guys have done a good job communicating. Since the end of this lockout, we’ve gotten a ton of information on where they are physically.”
The Tigers’ 19-game Grapefruit League schedule starts March 18 against the Philadelphia Phillies in Lakeland and concludes April 6 against the Baltimore Orioles in Lakeland. Opening Day is set for April 8 against the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park.
This timetable gives the Tigers four days to prepare for their first game.
“The pitching has obviously got to get up and running pretty quickly,” Hinch said. “You’re looking at four starts per starter. We got to get them into games a little faster. We’re not going to get a ton of looks at our younger guys in camp. But it is what it is. It’s 30 teams that have the same thing.”
Pitchers have thrown up to four live batting practices. A few of them, however, haven’t faced live hitters yet. Hinch expects a handful of pitchers to make three-inning starts out of the gate in spring games.
“What none of them have done is PFP (pitcher fielding practice),” Hinch said. “Normally, you spend the first 10 days getting their legs under them, getting the soreness out. Our outfielders standing in the outfield for a 15-minute inning, as simple as that sounds, it takes a toll on getting into playing shape. We don’t have those 10 days, so we’ll have to gently walk our way into it. It’s simple stuff — pop-up communication.”
Catcher Tucker Barnhart, a newcomer from the Cincinnati Reds, would normally have played 18-20 games behind the plate in spring training. Instead, he will play just 11-13 games because of the condensed schedule.
Also, Barnhart has to catch every pitcher on the staff.
The 31-year-old, despite his eight-year MLB resume and pair of Gold Glove awards, needs to learn about his pitchers and build relationships with them ahead of Opening Day.
“These guys can play a baseball game and be perfectly fine,” Hinch said. “I feel better when we’ve practiced everything prior to that. We don’t have time to do that necessarily, nor are we in perfect baseball shape to accomplish that. We’ll do our best.”
If the Tigers add to their roster, general manager Al Avila appears most likely to acquire a starting pitcher. A reliever isn’t out of the equation, but a reliable starter would best suit the Tigers entering 2022.
But the quality on the free-agent market isn’t flashy: left-hander Tyler Anderson; right-hander Matt Harvey; lefty Danny Duffy; righty Johnny Cueto; righty Michael Pineda; lefty Matthew Boyd; righty Zack Greinke and righty Garrett Richards.
“I was here when the lockout was lifted,” Hinch said, “and the front office went immediately into the area to contact teams and contact players. … It’s been busy, but at the same time, my job is going to be to now shield all of that winter meetings feel to this clubhouse.”
Since the lockout ended, five starting pitchers have flown off the board: left-handers Martin Perez (one year, $4 million to Texas Rangers), Carlos Rodon (two years, $44 million to San Francisco Giants), Clayton Kershaw (one year, $17 million to Los Angeles Dodgers), Yusei Kikuchi (three years, $36 million to Toronto Blue Jays) and right-hander Jordan Lyles (one year, $7 million to the Baltimore Orioles).
So far, the Tigers are standing pat.
“We have a lot of guys that we need to get through to get up and running and ready for the season,” Hinch said. “The front office will probably around the clock try to figure out if there’s any sort of transaction ahead. We as a coaching staff, me as a manager, we’re going to operate with the group that we have. If there’s an addition, great. If there’s not, then we’ll go to battle with the group we have.”
Unless the Tigers make a move, left-hander Tyler Alexander is the frontrunner to take over as the fifth starter in the rotation.
“Tyler Alexander is the guy,” Hinch said. “He could do just about anything on a staff that we need. He did a good job last year when we asked him to step in. He also can be a very valuable Swiss Army knife in the bullpen. If we were going to break today, I think Tyler is the leading candidate to be in the rotation.”
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After Alexander, Hinch can only wonder about his starting pitching depth.
The organization is looking forward to evaluating 24-year-old left-hander Joey Wentz (Tommy John surgery in March 2020) and 26-year-old right-hander Alex Faedo (Tommy John surgery in December 2020). Both pitchers have returned to full health, and while they aren’t candidates to break camp with the Tigers, Wentz and Faedo seem lined up to make their MLB debuts this season .
Other depth options: 28-year-old Ricardo Pinto, 27-year-old righty Logan Shore and 24-year-old righty Rony Garcia. Beau Brieske, an advanced 23-year-old righty, earned a non-roster invitation to spring training. He could reach the big leagues at some point this season.
“They will not get long looks because we don’t have a lot of time,” Hinch said. “But there’s some names that are going to pop up that we’re not expecting, and then we’ll see if we have a chance to add to the depth and competition.”
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So, what does Hinch think about dipping into the post-lockout free-agent or trade markets for another starting pitcher?
He deferred to Avila and the front office.
“I’ve got a group in there to motivate,” Hinch said. “I would never tell Tyler Alexander that we need a new pitcher, right? I have a lot of respect for the group that we have. If we feel like we can make our team better, then we certainly will dive into that. It’s one thing to want it. It’s another thing to actually have it be a reality and us be able to do it. We’ll look at everything.
“Al and the group has been diving into a lot of different names and a lot of different possibilities. I got to prepare this team as if this is the only group of guys that we’re going to have, and we’ll get them ready.”
There are 56 players on the Tigers’ spring training roster, including 18 minor-league players joining as non-roster invitees.
“I’ve seen almost everybody,” Hinch said. “They filtered in either yesterday or today, or they’ll get here today. I don’t anticipate too many delays. I mean, obviously, there’s bound to be one. Other than a couple guys, I’ve almost seen the whole group in its entirety.”
Hinch has texted with Scoop.
“The Scoop watch is legit,” Hinch said. “Haven’t seen Victor. But I know when their timeline is, so I’m not fearful of anything.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers’ Tyler Alexander eyes open rotation spot