(Reinhold Matay, USA TODAY Sports)
by Ralph Durgham
2020 Record: 23-35 (.397 win%, 5th in AL Central)
2020 Payroll: $43,164,880 (22nd in MLB)
Projected 2021 Lineup (All projections from Steamer and Rotochamp):
1. LF Robbie Grossman, .254 AVG/.354 OBP/.411 SLG, 1.1 WAR
2. 3B Jeimer Candelario, .245 AVG/.336 OBP/.434 SLG, 1.8 WAR
3. SS Willi Castro, .264 AVG/.315 OBP/.417 SLG, 1.6 WAR
4. DH Miguel Cabrera, .266 AVG/.342 OBP/.438 SLG, 0.5 WAR
5. 2B Jonathan Schoop, .253 AVG/.301 OBP/.452 SLG, 1.2 WAR
6. RF Nomar Mazara, .252 AVG/.316 OBP/.443 SLG, 0.5 WAR
7. C Wilson Ramos, .279 AVG/.337 OBP/.451 SLG, 1.2 WAR
8. 1B Renato Núñez, .242 AVG/.314 OBP/.448 SLG, 0.5 WAR
9. CF JaCoby Jones, .228 AVG/.296 OBP/.388 SLG, 0.1 WAR
2021 Projected Rotation:
1. Spencer Turnbull, 147.0 IP/4.49 ERA/1.39 WHIP, 2.1 WAR
2. Matthew Boyd, 172.0 IP/4.49 ERA/1.28 WHIP, 2.4 WAR
3. José Ureña, 141.0 IP/5.26 ERA/1.47 WHIP, 0.6 WAR
4. Tarik Skubal, 118,0 IP/4.37 ERA/1.31 WHIP, 1.6 WAR
5. Julio Teheran, 85.0 IP/5.97 ERA/1.58 WHIP, 0.0 WAR
Coming off another last place finish in the AL Central, the Detroit Tigers are looking to wrap up the rebuild soon and continue the development of their top prospects. Al Avila, their general manager since 2015, charged former Astros manager AJ Hinch with the task of taking this team back to a World Series. Although his name has been tarnished due to the Astros’s sign-stealing scandal in 2017, Hinch nevertheless brings a level-headed presence and a sense of optimism to a team that has been in the cellar for the past several seasons.
With hopes of adding a reliable outfielder, one of the Tigers’ first offseason moves was to sign Robbie Grossman to a two-year, $10 million contract. For Grossman, this will be his fourth team in his seven-year MLB career as he looks to take advantage of playing time in a weak outfield group in Detroit. Grossman displayed a good offensive showing last season in Oakland with a slash line of .241/.344/.482. In addition, he hit eight home runs in 166 at-bats, demonstrating that he is a threat to hit for power. In Detroit, he’ll likely find himself as the leadoff option, given his speed and ability to steal bases.
Additionally, the Tigers inked free agent outfielder Nomar Mazara, who last played for the division rival Chicago White Sox. On a one-year deal, Mazara is looking to bounce back after a subpar season. In 2020, he hit only one homerun in 42 games played, while generating a slash line of .228/.295/.294. In the past however, he had established himself as a power threat after hitting 79 home runs over the course of four seasons with the Texas Rangers. If he can return to that form, there’s no reason that he shouldn’t become an everyday player. If he struggles early however, the Tigers may give another outfielder a chance instead.
The Tigers also addressed a glaring hole at the catcher position by signing veteran Wilson Ramos to a one-year, $2 million deal. Ramos, coming from the New York Mets, will almost certainly assume the starting duties behind the plate this coming year. Ramos suffered through one of his worst offensive campaigns last season, slashing .239/.297/.387 with the Mets. However, he is only a couple years removed from his last All-Star appearance, so the club is hoping that Ramos can return to his previous self.
Shifting gears to the infield, the Tigers brought back second baseman Jonathan Schoop on a one-year, $4.5 million deal. Schoop established himself as one of the Tigers’s most consistent overall players as he finished with a 1.2 WAR, second on the team in the shortened season. In addition to bringing back Schoop, the Tigers also signed former Orioles first baseman, Renato Nunez, to a one-year deal. The first base job is Nunez’s to lose, as he put the league on notice for his power game when he slugged 31 home runs in 2019. Last season, he hit 12 home runs in 216 at-bats, while batting a slash line of .256/.324/.492. If he continues to play well in spring training, he should become Detroit’s first baseman on opening day.
Adding depth to the pitching rotation, the Tigers signed both starting pitchers Julio Teheran and José Ureña on one-year deals. Teheran, a two-time All-Star, is another player that is looking to get his career back on track. With the Atlanta Braves, he proved to be a reliable presence in the starting rotation, boasting a 3.67 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and a total of 19.7 WAR in nine seasons. However, he struggled last season with the Los Angeles Angels, as he put up zero wins and a 10.05 ERA in nine appearances. On the other hand, Ureña has established himself as a bottom-of-the-rotation pitcher during his five seasons with the Miami Marlins. Thus far in his career, he has thrown for a 4.60 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP. In Detroit, Ureña will have to compete to stay in the rotation with some of the young prospects in the system.
2021 Season Preview:
The Tigers showed a lot of improvement last season, finishing with a winning percentage of .397. This came after only 47 wins in the 2019 campaign. With new free agent signings and continued player development, the Tigers should find themselves with another year of an improved record.
On opening day, the Tigers will send out Matthew Boyd, the former All-Star, who has struggled mightily the past two seasons. Last year, he posted a 6.71 ERA, giving up the league-most 15 home runs in just 12 starts. Although Boyd has shown glimpses of being a positive presence in the rotation, his continued struggles may lead the Tigers to consider moving on from the southpaw. The top of the rotation will also feature Spencer Turnbull, who started off with a strong first half of last season and ultimately finished with a 3.97 ERA. While Turnbull specializes in generating great movement on his pitches, he struggled with his control as the year went on. By the end of the season, he walked 29 batters, the fifth-worst statistic in the league. If Turnbull can improve his command, he should establish himself as Detroit’s most reliable pitcher.
As of the final week of spring training, the rest of the rotation is still up in the air. Both Teheran and Ureña have performed well enough in Florida to have a spot in the rotation. The last spot in the 5-man rotation is a battle between Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize, Daniel Norris, and Michael Fulmer. Based on spring training, it seems likely that Skubal will be the last man to fill the rotation, sending Norris and Fulmer to the bullpen and leaving Mize off the 26-man roster. However, Mize and fellow top prospect Matt Manning should still find themselves getting a fair amount of starts in Detroit this season. It’s likely that at some point, Detroit will expand their rotation to six and they could possibly trade Ureña or Teheran if they exceed expectations.
Turning to the bullpen, it should look similar to last season. Bryan Garcia, who emerged as a reliable bullpen piece by boasting a 1.66 ERA in 21 2/3 IP, will likely assume the closer role to begin the season. Joe Jiménez, a former All-Star, will look to find some consistency after another troubling season. In 2020, he posted a 7.15 ERA along with a 2.8 HR/9. The Tigers have had hopes that Jiménez could be their long-term closer option, but he might have lost the organization’s trust after only converting 60.7% of his save opportunities since coming to the league. Additionally, Fulmer and Norris should start the season in the bullpen, as they both continue to look to get their careers back on track following a multitude of injuries. Overall, the Tigers have some solid arms to take over the game after the starters.
Offensively, the Tigers significantly improved its production at the plate last season. This is due mostly to the contributions of Jeimer Candelario, Schoop, Willi Castro, and CJ Cron. Despite Cron heading to Colorado in free agency, the Tigers should still be able to maintain their effectiveness at the plate. Candelario, one of the Tigers’s bright spots last season, started off in a forgettable slump, but he bounced back to finish with the best offensive season of his career. He batted .297/.369/.503 along with seven home runs and led the team with 2.0 WAR. Candelario will have plenty of chances this year to solidify himself as a key piece in the rebuild as he’ll likely be set in the front end of the lineup.
The back end of the lineup will be comprised of newly-signed Mazara, Ramos, and Núñez along with returnee Jacoby Jones. Once again, the Tigers enter the season with a weak core of batters at the end of the lineup. The productivity of this half is dependent on whether or not the new free agents can return to their former selves. Additionally, Jones, after a hot start in 2020, will need to find a way to be consistent at the plate. While he is a trustworthy fielder, his production at the plate has always been shaky. If he can establish himself as a dependable batter, then Jones will be able to keep his starting job for the season without a problem.
Record Prediction: 70-92
When comparing this year’s team to last year’s, it’s difficult to imagine that they won’t finish with a better winning percentage. The addition of a World Series-caliber coach, proven free agents, and an extra year of experience for the young players will certainly contribute to a level of success this season. However, the uncertainty in the pitching rotation and the back end of the lineup will prevent this team from making any kind of noise in the AL Central. Once again, I expect a lopsided record, but the rebuild is nearing the finish line. Tigers fans can expect that this will be the last season in which they finish towards the bottom of the league. If Al Avila can take advantage of the strong free agent group in the next offseason, the Tigers could turn some heads in 2022.
Player to Watch #1: 1B/DH Miguel Cabrera
In a season that may be difficult to watch, Miguel Cabrera’s chase for two significant milestones offers some excitement. In his Hall of Fame career, Cabrera is only 134 hits away from 3000, and only 13 home runs away from 500. If he can repeat what he did last season, he should be able to reach them. Last year, Cabrera batted a .250 batting average, with 51 hits and 10 home runs in 57 games played. The biggest obstacle standing in his way this season would be his ability to stay healthy. In 2020, Cabrera only missed three of the 60 games played and if he can remain healthy for this upcoming season, then it will be exciting to see if he can surpass both milestones by the year’s end.
Player to Watch #2: SP Tarik Skubal
In 2019, the 24-year-old threw for 5.63 ERA in seven games started. Although that stat alone may not look promising, Skubal showed that he belonged in the MLB. With a strong fastball and breaking balls with plenty of movement, Skubal was able to generate an elite 10.4 K/9. Due to the strength of his pitching arsenal and ability to make batters miss, Skubal is one of the most promising prospects in the league. In 12 spring training innings thus far, he’s only given up two earned runs while having an impressive 11.3 K/9. Skubal will find himself in the starting rotation to begin the season, giving him plenty of chances to prove he is a centerpiece of this team’s future.
Player to Watch #3: SS Willi Castro
Castro emerged as the Tigers’s most consistent hitter last season. In 2020, Castro played like an All-Star caliber player with a .346 batting average and six home runs, which would average to 17 home runs in a 162 game season. In spring training, Castro is continuing to perform at an exceptional level, batting .300/.333/.625 in 16 games played. It will be interesting to see if Castro’s success in the shortened season can translate into a full 162 game season. If he can contribute the same level of productivity at the plate, then the Tigers have found an infielder for the future.