By Robert Banas
2018 Record: 64-98 (3rd in AL Central)
2018 Payroll: $130,959,889 (17th)
- 3B Jeimer Candelario, .233 AVG/.323 OBP/.399 SLG, 2.6 WAR
- DH Christin Stewart, .246 AVG/.328 OBP/.449 SLG, 1.6 WAR
- RF Nick Castellanos, .283 AVG/.347 OBP/.500 SLG, 3.1 WAR
- 1B Miguel Cabrera, .283 AVG/.368 OBP/.480 SLG, 2.8 WAR
- 2B Josh Harrison, .258 AVG/.310 OBP/.392 SLG, 1.2 WAR
- LF Mikie Mahtook, .244 AVG/.303 OBP/.411 SLG, 0.2 WAR
- C Grayson Greiner, .236 AVG/.307 OBP/.367 SLG, 1.7 WAR
- SS Jordy Mercer, .252 AVG/.320 OBP/.390 SLG, 1.2 WAR
- CF JaCoby Jones, .225 AVG/.284 OBP/.370 SLG, 0.8 WAR
- Michael Fulmer, 175 IP/4.38 ERA/1.34 WHIP, 2.3 WAR
- Matt Boyd, 170 IP/4.82 ERA/1.35 WHIP, 1.3 WAR
- Jordan Zimmerman, 155 IP/5.09 ERA/1.38 WHIP, 0.9 WAR
- Tyson Ross, 146 IP/4.50ERA/1.39WHIP, 0.9 WAR
- Matt Moore, 90 IP/5.34 ERA/1.48 WHIP, 0.3 WAR
- Daniel Norris 105 IP/4.29 ERA/1.53 WHIP, 0.9 WAR
The Tigers made a few changes to the team this offseason that will hopefully help their rebuild. First, they switched things up at catcher by letting go of the homegrown James McCann. Although McCann is a well-liked guy and has a strong career 37% caught stealing rate, the Tigers decided to go with Grayson Greiner and John Hicks. They also signed Bobby Wilson to serve as depth as a bridge until prospect Jake Rogers is ready for the show. Rogers is a very similar player to McCann, as he is probably the best defensive catcher prospect in the minors, and the Tigers hope he can also develop with the bat.
Jose Iglesias was another player that the Tigers let go of this offseason. His highlight defensive plays will certainly be missed, but the Tigers signed his replacement Jordy Mercer to a 1 year/$5.25 million deal to man shortstop this year. Mercer has been an incredibly consistent, albeit slightly below average player throughout his career, and will afford prospects like the 19-year old Isaac Paredes the time to develop in the minors. Pete Kozma and Gordon Beckham were also signed to minor-league deals for depth in case Mercer gets hurt.
Victor Martinez, a long-time fan favorite, retired at the end of 2018 season, which should open the door for Christin Stewart to fill the designated hitter role. Stewart has a lot of power potential, and the Tigers certainly hope he can fill a spot in the middle of their lineup for years to come.
Alex Wilson, a surprisingly positive asset from the Yoenis Cespedes trade, was also let go this offseason. To replace Wilson, Louis Coleman was given a non-roster invite and the Tigers drafted right-handed reliever Reed Garrett in the Rule 5 draft. Garrett has a strong fastball and posted a sub-4 FIP at both AA and AAA in 2018, and the team certainly hopes he can develop into a useful major league asset.
With respect to the rotation, Tigers let Francisco Liriano walk in free agency. To replace him, the team signed two starters — Tyson Ross and Matt Moore. Ross was one of the more dominant pitchers in baseball for the Padres from 2013-2015 and put up solid numbers in 2018 with a 4.15 ERA, 4.39 FIP, and 4.25 xFIP. Many people within the Tigers organization hope he can post a strong first half of the season, before being flipped to a contender for prospects, much like the Mike Fiers in 2018. The other starter the Tigers signed was Matt Moore. Remember when he was supposed to be better than Bryce Harper? Well, he was signed before Harper this offseason, so maybe he’ll outperform him. Hopefully, he can eat some quality innings for the team in 2019.
Brandon Dixon, a utility player for the Reds last year, was claimed off of waivers this offseason and will compete with Ronny Rodriguez for a bench spot. The bench battle got a bit more crowded last week, however, after the Tigers signed 2-time All-Star Josh Harrison to hold down the fort at second base, reuniting Harrison with long-time Pirates teammate Jordy Mercer. Harrison is a solid base runner that should bring average production and help with infield depth.
The Tigers came into Spring Training with a winning attitude. All the players and manager Ron Gardenhire have the World Series on their minds. In reality, with the current group of players, they are at best a .500 team and at worst, a 100 loss team that nets them another high draft pick and lots of new, young players with the potential to get promoted. It is nice to see that some of the younger players are hungry to improve, especially since they will be pressured to perform, such as Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Franklin Perez, Isaac Paredes, Daz Cameron, Beau Burrows, Jake Rogers, and many more.
On the major league roster, the current starting rotation is not super exciting. Maybe Michael Fulmer could return to his young stud form of sub 4 ERA and FIP. If he performs well, the Tigers could sell high and trade him for more young prospects. Maybe Matt Boyd improves and posts similar stats to Fulmer. Realistically, he will most likely pitch like he did last year — a back-end starting pitcher with a WAR hovering around 2.0. Ross, Moore, and Zimmerman are not the most exciting options at this stage of their careers. Zimmerman has been largely ineffective since joining the Tigers, and one can only hope something clicks next season. Meanwhile, the best case scenario for Ross and Moore is to perform well and get flipped for prospects at the deadline. The one starter that does intrigue me is Daniel Norris. The headline piece from the David Price trade, he is still just 25 and has yet to be given a chance to pitch a full and healthy season. He has bulked up since last year, and if he stays healthy, it is very possible he can perform at the same level or better than Matt Boyd did last year. In 2017 and 2018, his FIP was about 1 run lower than his ERA, so he has been getting criticized a lot more than he should have been.
Moving on to the bullpen, there are a couple of intriguing players to watch this year. If all goes well, the back end of the bullpen could be a strength for the Tigers this year. Shane Greene, with his electric slider, will open the season as the closer. His home run to fly ball ratio dramatically increased from 5.7% in 2016 to 10.7% in 2017, to 16.4% last year. Hopefully he can cut those numbers back to around the average of 10%. Joe Jimenez, the only Tigers All-Star last year, averaged a strong 11.20 K/9. His FIP was very good at 2.91, despite the bloated ERA. He is still only 24 and can be a lights out reliever for years to come. Drew VerHagen and Blaine Hardy aren’t going to put up mind-blowing numbers; however, they can certainly pitch at an above-average level for the team next year. After the top four relief arms, things get a bit hazy. Buck Farmer does not inspire a lot of confidence, but he should pitch a decent amount of innings. Victor Alcantara somehow had a 95.8% LOB percentage in 2018, which means he is probably due for some regression. Zac Houston excites me, but only has one good pitch as of now. If he develops a secondary pitch by the end of Spring Training, look for him to be a great reliever for the Tigers.
Now onto the position players. The lineup will not be deadly for the Tigers in 2019. The days of hitting tanks with Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, JD Martinez, Torii Hunter, and Victor Martinez are long gone, unfortunately. Jeimer Candelario provided solid production with 2.5 WAR and 19 home runs in his first full major league season. Staying healthy is essential, but the Tigers’ projected leadoff hitter has a lot of potential and should post a good season for the team.
The middle of the order could have some decent pop for the Tigers this year. Stewart, Castellanos, and Cabrera should all post around 25 home runs. Although Stewart is a bad defender, he projects to have above average hitting production with a WRC+ around 120, and a wOBA around .345. The same can be said about Castellanos. Despite being one of the worst outfielders in baseball in 2018, he still posted a high WAR thanks to great batting numbers. There is no reason he cannot do the same this year and be one of the Tigers most valuable players. Cabrera is one of the most feared hitters of the decade and if he stays healthy, he could easily post a 30 home run/100 RBI season. (My hot take for the 2019 season is Cabrera hits his 500th career home run and earns another trip to the All-Star game).
From there, the lineup goes downhill. The new Tigers (and former Pirates) middle infield of Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer should provide average to below average production both at the plate and in the field. Harrison adds a solid element to the base paths, as he has had a positive BsR every single year of his career except 2011. Grayson Greiner, the tallest catcher in MLB history, will man the catcher’s spot while waiting for Jake Rogers to develop. Although he is not expected to be a future starter, there is hope that Greiner can eventually be a solid backup for the Tigers long-term.
Niko Goodrum was a surprising positive addition to the team, quickly earning the title of Tigers Rookie of the Year. Goodrum will get spot starts everywhere for the team and can be a great utility man. Dare I say the next Don Kelly? There will never be another Don, but Goodrum could possibly become a fan favorite bench player for us for years to come. Lastly, the player I am most excited for this year is JaCoby Jones. Arguably the best defender in the league last year, if he can become an average hitter, he will be a fantastic player for the rest of his prime.
All in all, the Tigers still have a lot of holes. Many of these, mostly pitching, can be fixed and filled by farm-grown talent in a year or two. When this occurs, the Tigers can be big spenders like they were in the Dombrowski era and fill in the other gaps that they have. Barring a ton of injuries, I can see this team winning 70-80 games in a weak central division due to increased depth and more potential on offense. Give it a couple more years and the Tigers will be roaring once again.
Predicted Record: 75-87
Player to Watch: OF/DH Christin Stewart
Tigers fans are praying that Stewart is not the next Steven Moya. In case you don’t remember, Moya hit 35 home runs in Erie in 2014 and people thought he would be the next all-star outfielder for the Tigers. Stewart has also flashed power in the minors as he has 93 career bombs in the minors. A career .363 OBP in the minors, he could be a solid addition to the offense for the Tigers this year. Fun fact: Stewart has had a WRC+ over 100 at every level of his career so hopefully this trend will continue in his first real MLB season.
Player to Watch: RP Zac Houston
Let me just write down Houston’s K/9 statistics at every level in the minors: 17.10, 13.73, 13.79, 15.43, 12.98, 13.03. Boasting a powerful fastball and standing at 6’5, 250 pounds, Houston is an absolute beast on the mound. Houston has never posted a FIP above 2.91! He has been virtually unhittable this far in his career. If Houston develops a secondary pitch, look for him to crack the major league roster and be a force in the Tigers bullpen for years to come.
Player to Watch: CF JaCoby Jones
JaCoby Jones had a WRC+ of 35 in 2017. 35. He was 65% worse than the average hitter. In 2018 he doubled that to 70… still 30% worse than an average player. With a 30.4% strikeout rate and terrible offensive stats, you wouldn’t expect his WAR to be even close to positive. He had a 2.0 WAR, due to his solid baserunning (13 steals in 2018) and elite defense (1 error all season and a ridiculous 21 DRS). With all his athleticism, if he can become an even league average hitter, he can easily be a 5 WAR player. It has been reported he has changed his swing and got rid of his uppercut so hopefully he improves.