Unsure Of Future With Tigers, Candelario Eyeing Strong Finish To 'Difficult' Year

He no longer looks like a centerpiece of the rebuild.

Will Burchfield
September 25, 2019 - 5:06 pm

© Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Categories: 

A few hours before the first pitch of the last home series of this long Tigers season, Jeimer Candelario sat by his locker and watched baseball highlights on his phone. Fellow big-leaguers smacking line drives and home runs. Commentators gushing in the background. Such highlights have been rare this season for Candelario himself. 

He began the year as Detroit's third baseman of the future and will end it at first base, in danger of becoming a prospect of the past.

First he struggled at the plate, which led to a demotion to Triple-A. Then he was beset by injuries, which may have caused his struggles to begin with -- struggles that date back to the second half of last season. Then he was moved to first. And now Candelario is here, far from where he once was, trying to salvage the final games of a lost season in the bigs. 

He was in a hurry to get in some pregame work Tuesday afternoon, and not all that inclined to chat. He didn't want to be late. The ever-agreeable 25-year-old offered to talk later, maybe tomorrow. Then, figuring he had a minute or two, he turned off his phone and faced a few facts. 

"It’s been difficult for me this year," Candelario said. 

It was a telling admission from someone whose attitude is unfailingly upbeat. Mired in a second-half slump last year, Candelario laughed off the idea of frustration. Who, me? Sent down to Toledo in May, he talked only about returning quickly to Detroit. I'll be back. And he remains a smiling presence in the clubhouse.

But if Candelario's outlook is bright, so has it turned blurry. Ask him to look a couple years down the line here, and he's not so sure he's still in the picture. 

"I can’t tell you if I’m going to be part of this," he said, "but my mind is I’m going to be part of this. Trying to learn from the mistakes I make and prove that I want to be here for a long time."

To do that, Candelario needs to start hitting again. It's why the Tigers acquired him from the Cubs in the first place and why he immediately looked like a centerpiece of the rebuild. He has a smooth line-drive swing and a discerning eye. He posted an .875 OPS in his first 71 games in Detroit, over 2017 and 2018. Through May of last season he had a case to be an All-Star. 

Then came the first injury, a re-aggravation of the wrist tendinitis he's battled for years. Fatigue in his first full big-league season followed. In the final 100 games of last season, starting June 1, Candelario hit .201 with an OPS of .625. 

With an offseason to rest and heal, hopes were high for Candelario entering 2019. Ron Gardenhire said he was one of Detroit's two young hitters poised for a breakout year. (Alas, he said Christin Stewart was the other.) But Candelario's struggles spilled into the start of this season, and soon he was in Toledo. He hit well in Triple-A and made good on his word to return. 

Then came the second injury, inflammation in his left shoulder. More rehab, more time in Triple-A. Candelario looked like himself for a short stretch when he came back, posting a .959 OPS over 20 games in June and July, only to disappear yet again. And then came the third injury, a sprained left thumb. 

As he toiled for most of the summer in Toledo, Candelario was supplanted at third base in Detroit by Dawel Lugo. It was at the start of his spiral, back in June, that general manager Al Avila admitted Candelario's future with the organization was starting to come into question. 

“Jeimer is still young enough where there’s still optimism that he can become the player that we think he can become. However, anytime a player struggles you do get concerned," Avila said. "It’s a work in progress. Right now, we’re giving guys opportunities and the guys who take advantage of it will rise.”

Lugo didn't exactly run with the opportunity right away. But he took hold of the everyday job at third base in early August and hasn't let go of it since. He's impressed the Tigers, in particular, with the strides he's made on defense. 

"We didn’t know if that was going to work out, but he’s come a long, long ways," Ron Gardenhire said. 

When Candelario was recalled from Toledo early this month, he was sent across the diamond to first. Maybe this is where he fits in the long-term picture. Miguel Cabrera's days in the field are done, and the Tigers don't have a clear replacement for him in the pipeline. If Candelario can start producing again like a corner infielder, the Tigers would surely love to give him the job. 

And Candelario would surely be happy to take it. 

Asked where he sees himself in the field, he said, "For me, right now, I’m playing first. I can play first and third. Now they give me an opportunity to play another position. It’s good for me, valuable for the team, and anything that can help the team win, I will do it."

While Candelario might not have the home run power befitting a first baseman, he does have the ability to get on base. The Tigers -- admittedly bereft of better options -- had visions of placing him atop the order this season. If there's any positive to be drawn from Candelario's year-long swoon, it's that he hasn't lost his eye. His walk rate of 11.0 percent leads the team. He's boosted that to 16 percent in September, good for an OBP of .373. 

He's still not squaring the ball like he's shown he can, like he knows he can, but he continues to believe that he will. 

"You don’t want to lose confidence," he said. "Not all the time you’re going to do good, you’re going to have some ups and downs. You have to keep your confidence level and try not to get frustrated. Look the positive way and go from there." 

As to where he goes from here, that's a question Candelario and the Tigers must answer. He doesn't look like a third baseman anymore, not with all the infield prospects the Tigers have added to their system. If Lugo isn't the answer at the hot corner, Isaac Paredes is next. There are others on the way. 

Candelario smiled on Tuesday at the mention of Victor Martinez, a big-brother figure who helped him through his second-half struggles last season. Martinez often reminded Candelario that he endured the same kind of slumps at the start of his career. He told Candelario to stay patient. He told him to trust that things will work out. They worked out just fine for V-Mart. 

Whether they work out or not for Candelario, at least one thing is certain. He won't fail due to frustration.

"Right now, just having fun with my teammates," he said. "I don’t want to worry about negative stuff right now. It is what it is. Six more games. Just looking forward to finishing strong and then seeing what next season has."