Gardenhire Expects Breakout Years From Two Tigers Sluggers In 2019

"We've got some guys that are going to step in and get great opportunities."

Will Burchfield
December 13, 2018 - 3:25 pm

© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Categories: 

The fun part of a rebuild -- or the frightening part, depending on your perspective -- is the depth of the unknown. For the Tigers, the second season of a new era offers little in the way of sure things. 

You can count on healthy production at the plate from Nicholas Castellanos, assuming he doesn't get traded. You can count on burly work on the mound by Michael Fulmer, assuming he doesn't get hurt. And you can count on manager Ron Gardenhire to wear a smile through everything else. 

That leaves a whole lot of room for surprises. So, Gardenhire was asked Wednesday at the Winter Meetings on MLB Network, is there a younger player being overlooked who's poised for a breakout year?

"Well, we've got some guys that are going to step in and get great opportunities," Gardenhire said.

His first candidate? 25-year-old Jeimer Candelario. 

"Candy, you saw him last year. He had some up-and-down parts of the season, but the kid can hit, he can drive a baseball. And he had some injuries, so I think he's going to get better and better. I look forward to that," Gardenhire said.

In his first full season in the bigs, Candelario hit .224 with 19 homers, 54 RBI and a .710 OPS. Those numbers don't exactly jump off the screen, but they did early on. Candelario was hitting .286 with a robust .889 OPS on May 12, 35 games into the season. It was on that day that he re-aggravated the tendinitis in his left wrist, an issue that has nagged him for a few years. 

A couple days later, the Tigers sent him to the DL. They were hoping a little rest would help the wrist heal. Candelario returned on May 25 and hit .207 with a .655 OPS over the final 107 games of the season. 

As it was, he finished with some pretty impressive totals relative to hitters his age. Among players 24 and under with at least 400 plate appearances, Candelario was tied for 13th in home runs, tied for ninth in doubles (28) and tied for seventh in walk rate (10.7 percent of plate appearances). The latter stat speaks to maybe his defining trait at the plate -- the guy can get on base. 

Gardenhire's second candidate for a breakout year? Fellow 25-year-old Christin Stewart. 

"He came up from Triple-A, we saw him. We wanted to see him a lot earlier and they kept him down in Triple-A, but this kid can flat-out hit, too," Gardenhire said. "I'm excited to see him get a full season in and see what he can do, because he can drive a baseball." 

Stewart spent most of last season drilling homers for the Mud Hens. 23 of them, to be exact, which was tied for first in the Triple-A International League. He also finished fourth in OPS (.844). The Tigers held off on calling him up until the rosters expanded in September, wanting him to work on his defense in left field. It's still his most glaring deficiency. 

The bat, of course, is his strength. He showed off his power at Comerica Park with a two-homer night shortly after his call-up, one of 17 games he played for the Tigers down the stretch. He finished with a .267 average and a .792 OPS. 

Stewart projects as Detroit's starting left fielder next season, with JaCoby Jones moving over to center. He underwent core surgery earlier this offseason, but the Tigers expect him to be ready to go for spring training. 

As for Candelario's wrist, he may eventually need surgery himself. It's the only way to fix the issue for good. For now, though, the plan is for him to play through it, likely taking some rest whenever it flares up.