AL CentralAnalysis

2021 Season Preview: Detroit Tigers

As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Scott Bentley takes a look at the Detroit Tigers!

Year five. The Detroit Tigers are heading into their fifth straight year of non-competitive, “rebuilding” baseball. The Houston Astros started their infamous full-blown rebuild after the 2010 season. They had the number one overall pick three years in a row and then took a big step forward in 2014, winning 70 games (“Big step forward with 92 losses? This dude is an idiot!” While that is true, this was a twenty game improvement). In 2015 they were in the ALDS. The Astros also did this with two of their three number one overall picks not ever playing a major league game for them. Two massive busts in three seasons. But their international signings, development, and ability to hit home runs with non-first-round picks made the rebuild a massive success anyways. The Chicago Cubs also used a tear down to build their championship core. They traded away a lot of the previous core at the deadline in 2010, where they’d lose 87 games. In 2011 they lost 91, and in 2012 they bottomed out at 101 losses. In 2013 they would draft Kris Bryant, lose 96 games, and then draft Kyle Schwarber in 2014. They took a small step forward in 2014 and won almost 100 games with an NLCS appearance in 2015.

“This dude just spent the entire first paragraph talking about two other teams in a TIGERS preview! What an idiot!” While this is still true, I’m trying to show comparisons between rebuilds. If our timetables were the same as these two franchises, who won the World Series, this should be a year where we take a massive step forward… and next year, we should be competing for the World Series.

If this team plays its cards right, we’re close to being competitive again, and that’s awesome. That being said, this rebuild has had, and continues to have, a TON of flaws. Ownership and the front office have made many mistakes, and I will never be shy in pointing those out. Why? I believe this team’s fans and the people of this incredible city deserve a lot better than what we’ve received over the last five years. We should be further along in the process, that’s all.

Am I trying to kill optimism? Absolutely not. There’s still a lot of reasons to be optimistic about this team. Heck, I’m still extremely optimistic about the future. The young core is coming, and there’s a lot of reasons to be excited about the long-term outlook of this team. One step at a time, though, as we start with the 2021 season.

2020 Season in Review

2020 Record: 23-35, 5th place in ALC

Team MVP: Jeimer Candelario (.297/.369/.503, .872 OPS, 135 OPS+, 136 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR, 2 DRS at 3B)

Team Cy Young: Spencer Turnbull (3.97 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 118 ERA+, 1.34 WHIP, 1.4 fWAR)

On September 8th, 2020, the Detroit Tigers were 19-21, and with the expanded playoffs format, just a game out of the last Wild Card spot. They’d end the season on a 4-14 stretch, securing the third-worst record in baseball. They were on pace for 98 losses, which makes four straight seasons of 98+ losses for Detroit. This year was slightly different, though, mainly because on August 17th, 2020… time stood still. Am I being extremely dramatic? Absolutely. But it’s true. After four years of an absolute garbage product, three of our top six prospects all got called up on the same day. Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Isaac Paredes all got the call at once. That day was the start of the upward trend for this team’s future.

The small sample size of 2020 leaves many question marks heading into this season for the Tigers. Team MVP Jeimer Candelario had a great season, and three years removed from acquiring him from the Cubs, it looked like he was finally coming into his own. However, with a horrible 2019, and a streaky history, he’s now 27 and still hasn’t put it all together for a full 162. Which version of Candy will we get? 2020 also saw rookie shortstop Willi Castro have a great season at the plate. He only played in 36 games but had an OPS of .932, a wRC+ of 150, and an fWAR of 1.3. This is obviously an amazing find if a low-level prospect we acquired for half a season of Leonys Martin can be that productive at the Major League level. That all being said, there’s also a lot of question marks surrounding Castro. His Baseball Savant page would imply that his success isn’t sustainable: he ranked among MLB’s worst in Hard Hit rate, BB rate, and exit velocity. That, along with a K% that’s almost at 30% in his MLB career, doesn’t give many fans hope that he can stretch that kind of production we saw in 30 games last year throughout a whole 162. He also put together an absolutely horrid defensive season in 2020. With -8 DRS in just 212 Innings at shortstop, there’s also not a lot of faith that his bat can make up for his glove.

JaCoby Jones put together the best offensive season of his career as well, but again… it was only in 30 games due to an injury. Christin Stewart probably played his way out of the future of this team, and Niko Goodrum proved that he’s probably a really good super-utility player but not an everyday starter. Twenty-one-year-old Isaac Paredes debuted and showed great bat to ball skills but ultimately struggled to adjust to the MLB level. And lastly, Miguel Cabrera was the definition of average at the plate. The offense in 2020 was far from good. It was honestly even far from average, but there are a few players who did well in the small sample size and could solidify themselves as long-term options as the team slowly starts to become more competitive.

Pitching was the story of the year for this team. Mostly because of top prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal getting their call to the show. Both of them struggled early, but Skubal saw himself settle into a decent groove to end the shortened season. Mize, on the other hand, never found that groove. Simply put, he wasn’t ready. The stuff was fantastic, and the movement on his famous splitter was as advertised, but his command was nowhere to be seen. “All over the place” was an understatement for the former number one overall pick’s first MLB stint. That being said, his command is developable. Side note, I just learned right now that developable was a word. Seriously, I was like, uhhhh, well let’s try this out. There’s no red line under it. Seriously? If you’re laughing at me for not knowing developable was a word, then I have one thing to say. Do you see my ring? I’m a Hall of Famer baseball person.

Anyways, back to this beautiful article featuring the word developable: command can be taught. I’m of the belief that command is easier to teach and develop than stuff is. Mize’s stuff is undeniable, but so are his mechanical flaws. I think given time to sharpen those up, we will see the as-advertised, former top 10 prospect in baseball. Skubal looks like he is going to be incredibly solid at the MLB level. His stuff is electric, and by the end of last year, he was painting rather nicely as well. He definitely has command issues to work on, but he is undoubtedly further along than Mize is going into 2021. Spencer Turnbull had a very on-brand year last season. He walked a ton, but he also got a lot of outs. Throw Turnbull into the same “if he has decent command, he’s going to be elite” camp that Skubal and Mize are in as well. Matt Boyd shouldn’t be on this team because he should’ve gotten traded in 2019, but he was here last year… unfortunately. The Ace had an ERA of almost 7.00 and gave up 15 home runs in 60 IP. The slider still has the potential to be solid, and his K/9 was 9.0, but the front office will never be able to justify holding onto him at the 2019 deadline. The rest of the starters aren’t even worth talking about as they were either beyond-repair-horrible (Fulmer) or will never wear an Old English D again (Nova).

The bullpen was a very pleasant surprise, and I’ll save my full breakdown for my projected pen part of this beautiful article featuring the word developable. Still, Gregory Soto had a breakout season and looks to build towards being a top-end reliever. Bryan Garcia also had a great year, but he doesn’t strike people out… which is weird. A reliever with a 5.0 K/9 that had a sub 1.70 ERA? It seems like that’s not replicable, but regardless he was great in 2020. Buck Farmer did solid Buck Farmer things, and Jose Cisnero seems to be a diamond in the rough find for this team. The only major negative to come out of the pen in 2020 was Joe Jimenez. The former rookie All-Star was nothing short of terrible in 2020, and I swear if he points to the sky and yells “pop-up” when the ball is a 430-foot home run one more time, I’m gonna lose it.

Off-Season Review

Key Losses from 2020: CJ Cron, I guess?

Notable Free Agent Additions: AJ Hinch, Nomar Mazara, Jose Urena, Robbie Grossman, Wilson Ramos, Akil Baddoo (Rule 5), Renato Nunez.

Notable Trades: LOL.

First off, I want to yell at my boss Jordan Lazowski for forcing me to write about “notable trades,” knowing darn well that my team is run by Al Avila. May as well put “notable unicorns” or “notable abominable snowmen.” I am furious. Next up, key losses. Also… hard to have a “key loss” when you have the third-worst record in baseball and have been a bottom-five team for four years in a row. CJ Cron was hurt and barely played last year, but Romine, Nova, and Zimmermann were all terrible. So I guess Cron was the biggest loss, just because I didn’t want to put “none.”

The rest of the off-season went about the same as the last three have. All one-year plug-ins. Robbie Grossman is the first contract given out by this team that is more than a one-year deal in FIVE years. FIVE. That is the definition of not wanting to win. Anyways, it’s not all bad! I really like several of these moves. Starting with the aforementioned Grossman. This is one of my favorite Al Avila moves of all time. Robbie gets on base. He’ll sport a decent batting average, but is in the 90th+ percentile in walks every year. Having that at the top of the lineup will be so valuable for a rebuilding team. Taking pressure off of the kids behind him and offering solid trade bait now that he’s locked up for two years. Amazing move. Mazara is an interesting one. Everyone knows about his power. It’s elite. Pure raw power that is unmatched by almost anyone else in the sport. That being said… his launch angle SUCKS. Nah, like seriously bad. He crushes the ball but spikes it into the ground. In last year’s sixty-game season, he hit one home run. He’s also only twenty-five years old, which means if he can put it all together, this could end up being a long-term option. That’s super exciting! We don’t have a lot of those at the MLB level. It’s far from a guarantee, as he still has a lot to work on, but we’re so hungry for any amount of potential in Detroit that I’m super excited about it.

Another fun one is 1B Renato Nunez, who hit twelve home runs in 2020 and thirty-one in a full 2019. Nunez is also only 26, which means he’s another potential “future of the team” candidate if he can take another step forward. The home runs are there, and the Barrel % is there, but the rest is pretty weak. Over thirty home runs with a .771 OPS is… something. There’s still a lot of room to grow, but he’s relatively young and finds barrels, which is more than most players on this team can say. Urena is fine, I guess. He’s nothing more than an innings eater, as he’s almost thirty and, simply put, not very good. Wilson Ramos is the last free-agent acquisition of note. This one frustrates me, honestly. This team has a ton of holes. A TON. We’re one of the worst defensive teams I’ve ever seen, the offense is weak, and the rotation isn’t good either. So, the Ramos signing helps the offense. Sadly, Wilson Ramos will immediately be one of our better hitters. That being said, the offense is still bad even with him. So why not get a defensive-minded catcher? Ramos is weak behind the plate and one of the worst pitch framers in baseball. With all of the young pitching talent we have on the way, I think it’s vital we have solid defense behind the plate. The last thing Mize, Manning, and Skubal need is a catcher who can’t receive.

Yet, here we are. Yes, the signing will help the offense, and that’s good. But honestly, I would’ve rather we got a high-end defender behind the plate. His plus on offense is not worth the poor defense and potential of altering pitchers’ development behind the plate. Now the super fun one. Rule 5 pick Akil Baddoo, aka Spring Training Barry Bonds. Baddoo was a Rule Five pick from the Minnesota Twins organization. He was an average hitter at the low levels of the minors, which kind of left Tigers fans confused the day of the draft. I obviously don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, because it’s still Spring… but wow. What can’t Akil (Bad)DO(o)??? Get it?? Ha! For real though, the kid looks incredible. He’s drawing walks, hitting for power, and showing great speed. I think at this point, it’s pretty much impossible to leave him off the Opening Day roster. At a bare minimum, we’re going to send the Twins some cash so we can officially acquire him. There’s no way he’s going back to Minnesota.

The biggest addition by far is new manager AJ Hinch. The Detroit Tigers tripped and fell into one of the best managers in the sport, basically by default. That’s awesome. We’ve never had an analytically inclined manager like Hinch at the helm, so seeing him already talk about things Gardenhire doesn’t even know how to spell is amazing. Yes, he cheated, no, he won’t cheat here, yes, he deserved the suspension, but he also served his team while the players didn’t… get over it. It’s over. He won’t be able to get away with anything ever again. He’s going to be put under the biggest microscope in the history of the sport. Stop being weird. It’s over, and it’s been over.

As a whole, this off-season was fine. A lot of people that will likely not be apart of the future when we’re (hopefully) good again. However, we do see more potential than years past, and at a minimum, that’s exciting!

2021 Season Preview

Projected Opening Day roster

Lineup:

  1. LF Robbie Grossman
  2. 3B Jeimer Candelario
  3. DH Miguel Cabrera
  4. 2B Jonathan Schoop
  5. C Wilson Ramos
  6. 1B Renato Nunez
  7. RF Nomar Mazara
  8. SS Willi Castro
  9. CF JaCoby Jones

Bench: C Grayson Greiner, UTL Niko Goodrum, OF Victor Reyes, OF Akil Baddoo

Rotation:

  1. LHP Matt Boyd
  2. RHP Spencer Turnbull
  3. LHP Tarik Skubal
  4. RHP Jose Urena
  5. RHP Casey Mize
  6. RHP Michael Fulmer

Bullpen: (No roles for at least the first two months) RHP Jose Cisnero, LHP Gregory Soto, RHP Buck Farmer, RHP Bryan Garcia, RHP Joe Jimenez, LHP Daniel Norris, LHP Tyler ALexander, RHP Michael Fulmer.

I’m going to start this with two very important comments. First off, this team is still very far from good. Just from a pure player value standpoint, we’re still quite a ways away (a ways away looks funny lol, this article featuring the word developable is so beautiful), but the ceiling is starting to very slowly get higher. The other thing I want to make very clear is predicting a “lineup” for this team is impossible. We will see a million different lineups and people at a lot of different positions at that. AJ Hinch knows what he has on this roster. He’s not an idiot. We’re going to see so many different combinations, and the best I can do is predict the Opening Day card.

First off, Grossman’s walk rate instantly puts him at the top. His BB% and OBP the last several years would comfortably be at the top of the team, making him the obvious candidate for the leadoff hitter. After that… it’s a toss-up. I have Candy at the two spot currently, as he was easily the team’s best hitter last year. Candelario’s position on the field may determine his position in the lineup some days as well. If he’s at third, that opens up a lot of possible players to play first, and vice versa. I have Miggy at three. This is purely because we don’t really have obvious middle-of-the-lineup bats. As stated, this team is still pretty weak. That being said, they want to get him as many accolades and milestones as possible, so even as Cabrera declines, he’ll likely stay in the middle of the lineup.

Schoop (there it is!! HAHA! IT’S FUNNY. LAUGH) is another interesting one. Bringing him back was a pretty clear sign that the organization doesn’t believe that Isaac Paredes or Kody Clemens is MLB ready to play second base. Schoop has good pop but is a horrible OBP bat. It makes it hard to determine where he’ll end up. Add on the fact that he and Hinch have talked about playing other positions in the field; it’s super likely that he will bat all over the lineup card by the end of the season. I’d imagine most people think Ramos is a little high, and you’re probably right. I believe his consistency will give you something that not a lot of others in the lineup provide. He doesn’t have the ceiling as others but has one of the highest floors in this lineup (this is sad btw). Nunez is a candidate to move into the three or four spot if he plays well, as is Mazara. Putting them next to each other is nothing more than me just thinking, “this would be fun.” Both of them could go up or down and likely will quite a bit before seasons end. Willi Castro has one of the lowest floors on this team but, as shown last year, also one of the highest ceilings. He’ll never be a middle-of-the-lineup bat, but if he gets hot, you could see him in the two-hole very quickly. Lastly, we have elite nine-hole hitter JaCoby Jones… in the nine-hole. This lineup from 2-8 will move around a LOT, but Jones and Grossman will likely be put in stone.

Pitching! This is the fun one. Look! Young top prospects! Yay! Boyd will be at the top because Turnbull is missing the first few games due to a two-week quarantine, and there really isn’t another option. Skubal’s end of 2020 and solid enough Spring will land him a rotation spot out of camp, and the rest is weird. Urena kind of has to make it; we signed him for over three million dollars, so he’s going to get his innings. Julio Teheran may sneak his way onto this rotation if the Tigers don’t feel that Mize is ready, but with the month delay to MiLB, I think Mize will likely start in the show. Hinch has also talked about a six-man rotation. Boyd and Turnbull both have histories of starting strong and struggling in the second half of seasons, and Mize and Skubal have had injury concerns coming up through the system. Between all of those and Michael Fulmer not being able to go past the third inning, I think this could be something that would be beneficial for everyone in the rotation. Fulmer comes in at pitcher number six, and as you noticed, also in the bullpen. Yes, this is on purpose. I’m not that dumb (this claim has been disputed).

The bullpen has the potential to actually be really solid. At its peak, I truly think this could be a bright spot for this team. A potential top half of the league pen isn’t out of the question. Soto is on his way to being elite, Alexander and Norris were solid lefties that can provide several innings, and Cisnero had a great season. Bryan Garcia also looks to try and prove the world wrong and have a sub-two ERA with a 5.0 K/9. Buck Farmer is as consistently above average as it gets, and with this new and improved coaching staff, maybe, just maybe, Joe Jimenez can be good again. Fulmer is here too, as stated earlier. I’m sadly of the belief that his days as a starter are done. He can’t make it past the third, and even in those three innings, he’s getting absolutely crushed. That being said, I don’t think a solid reliever is out of the question. His velocity is back into the mid-90’s this spring, and he has the repertoire for it. It’s far from a guarantee, but I think his path to being productive again is way easier there than it is as a starter, so I expect him to be in the bullpen relatively early into the season. Jimenez will have to prove his worth, but with new top-end pitching coach Chris Fetter in the dugout, I think that this is… developable (Let’s go, used it again). Besides that, this bullpen is surprisingly pretty well put together with lefties and long relievers, as well as powerful one-inning options.

Record Projections

FanGraphs Projected Record: 72-90, 5th AL Central

PECOTA Projected Record: 65.5-96.5, 5th AL Central

Scott Bentley Projected Record: 61-101, 5th AL Central

There’s a lot of discrepancy between these projections. FanGraphs has us almost at sub-90 losses, PECOTA has us around where we were last year, and I have us as still one of the worst teams in baseball. I think this is actually a great representation of the three possible outcomes for this team. Best case scenario? We end up in the mid-70’s in wins, and the young pitching figures it out. Mize, Skubal, and Turnbull all pitch their shoes off, the bullpen is solid, and the offense still struggles, but good pitching gets us more wins than expected. Hinch proves that managers matter. The most likely scenario? We end around where we did last season. Some players take big steps forward, some prove they won’t be apart of this team’s future plans, and the pitching is still very inconsistent, showing its youth. Then there’s my scenario. Most people I talk about this team with call me a pessimist. I disagree with this, and I think this fanbase is just so deprived of any talent that they don’t realize very few of these players would be valuable to a playoff team.

That being said, I would be blind not to see the bright future the team has. A lot of those bright spots are going to make the majors. Mize, Manning, and Skubal will all be in the show by the end of the year, and that is beyond exciting. That being said, this team is still not very good, and even worse, it’s thin. We’re two pitching injuries away from Tyler Alexander being put out there every fifth day, and the offense has a lot of “super-utility” types, but they’re an injury away from those players being forced to be everyday starters. Given our injury history and just the fact that we aren’t very talented, I see this as a situation that could go downhill fast. That’s not to say that it will! I like how different every projection is because, again, it shows just how much variance there is here. That all being said, this isn’t a season where we should be caught up in wins and losses. We are going to lose a lot, regardless of anyone’s projections. Individual development is the key this year, and hopefully… maybe, just maybe… next year, we can start caring about the win column again.

Final Thoughts

This season will be fun! In the past, we’ve been bad and had no signs of improving. This season, we will struggle but have a lot of extremely fun players to watch. The ceiling is starting to get raised, and slowly but surely, you are seeing a winning product being built. A lot slower than it should be, but we’re still headed in a positive direction. Manning will be up by the end of the summer, and we have some young bats that have potential for the first time in quite literally years. I urge you to not pay too much attention to the win-loss column but rather the development of players. They are building the foundation. AJ Hinch is here with an elite staff, and he is developing this team into something special. This team is something currently that it hasn’t been in a long, long, long time…

Developable.

Scott Bentley

Detroit Tigers writer and contributor at Diamond Digest

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