Niko Goodrum’s lone brush with free agency lasted all of eight days. Cut loose by the Twins at the end of the 2017 season after eight largely uninspiring seasons in the minors, Goodrum signed a minor league deal with the rebuilding Tigers. A last-place club signing a little-known non-prospect drew about as much attention as you’d expect: virtually none. Goodrum got a quick 115-word write-up here at MLBTR after his agents announced the signing on Twitter. You’d be hard-pressed to find any sort of lengthy column penned at the time of the signing. It was a garden-variety minor league depth pickup.
Goodrum somewhat surprisingly broke camp with the Tigers in 2018 and received sparse playing time that April (19 games, 10 starts). By mid-May, he was hitting under .200 with a sub-.600 OPS. It wouldn’t have been a surprise to see the Tigers cut bait, but the versatile switch-hitter slowly began to turn things around. After his OPS bottomed out at .597 two years ago to the day — Goodrum bounced back with a .253/.320/.450 slash in his final 428 plate appearances. Along the way, he played all four infield positions and both outfield corners. He finished out the season with a slightly above-average batting line, per wRC+, coupling that with good baserunning.
An average hitter whose manager feels comfortable slotting him pretty much anywhere on the diamond would be a shoo-in for most rosters, and given the state of the Tigers, it was clear that Goodrum had punched his ticket to a 2019 roster spot. Goodrum added center field to his defensive resume early in the 2019 season, but as the year wore on and Jordy Mercer struggled with injuries, he found himself seeing more and more time at shortstop.
The Tigers surely value Goodrum’s versatility, but his strong work at short in sporadic batches this past season should ensure that he opens the year as the Tigers’ everyday option at that position. In just 326 innings there, Goodrum tallied 4 Defensive Runs Saved, a 3.2 Ultimate Zone Rating and 6 Outs Above Average. Among the 38 players who played at least 300 innings at shortstop this past season, Goodrum’s 8.6 UZR/150 ranked seventh.
With the bat, Goodrum took a slight step back but still turned in a solid enough .248/.322/.421 with 12 homers and 12 steals apiece. There’s some reason for additional optimism, too, as Goodrum had an above-average hard-hit rate and upped his walk rate from 8.5 percent in 2018 to 9.7 percent in 2019. And despite an unassuming stolen base total, Goodrum ranked in the 92nd percentile of MLB players in terms of average sprint speed. He’s been successful in 77 percent of his career stolen base attempts (24-for-31), so there’s room for him to create some additional value on the basepaths. Making consistent contact has been a problem for Goodrum, though it’s also worth pointing out that his spike in punchouts last year coincided with some knee and groin injuries over the summer. He still whiffed in 26.8 percent of his 2018 plate appearances, so contact will probably continune to be an issue, but last year’s near-30 percent mark might be higher than should be expected.
If there’s work to be done for Goodrum, it’s in handling certain pitches. The 28-year-old feasted on fastballs (.320/.412/582) and curvevalls (.280/.321/.460) but took home a participation award against most other offerings. Changeups befuddled him (.193/.230/.337), and sliders were downright unfair to him (.157/.214/.216). Given those woeful slash lines, it’s not surprising to see that Goodrum had a swinging-strike rate greater than 20 percent against both those pitch types.
Goodrum clearly isn’t a star, but the Tigers can control him for four more seasons and he won’t be arbitration-eligible until this winter. A plus defensive shortstop with high-end speed and even average skills at the plate is a nice piece to have, though, and if Goodrum can maintain his stellar glovework at short over a larger sample, he’s the type of player who could surprise a lot of onlookers with a three- or four-WAR season. The Tigers have reportedly received trade interest in him in the past, and given the positives laid out here, that’ll likely continue in the future.
Goodrum’s trajectory in some ways mirrors that of Marwin Gonzalez (sans the trash can, presumably), as he’s slowly risen from a versatile defender without much bat to an average switch-hitter who can be be played pretty much anywhere. With the Tigers, that’ll continue to be shortstop, but if he’s eventually traded, he could resume his jack-of-all-trades role. We hear a lot about some of the Tigers’ misses and missed opportunities these days, so it’s only fair to give them credit here for finding an asset that the Twins probably wish they hadn’t let slip through their fingers. They’re the ones who ultimately signed Gonzalez, after all. While it hasn’t been a bad signing, that $21MM might’ve been spent elsewhere if Goodrum were still in the fold.