by: Ryan Waldis
Over the next 30 days (March 1st through March 30th), I’ll be previewing each of the 30 MLB teams in reverse order of the 2017 league standings. The series will conclude on March 31st, when I’ll be releasing my predictions for the 2018 season. With that said, let’s jump into the 2nd team preview of the series, featuring the Detroit Tigers.
Manager: Ron Gardenhire (1st season)
2017 Record: 64-98, 5th in AL Central
Run Differential: -159
Top Position Player: Justin Upton (5.2 WAR)
Top Pitcher: Justin Verlander (4.5 WAR)
After an ugly 2003 campaign where the franchise went just 43-119, the Tigers went 13 consecutive seasons winning at least 70 games. That streak ended in 2017 as Detroit struggled in all facets of the game. The offense was stagnant especially after losing Upton and J.D. Martinez, the pitching left a lot to be desired, and the team was forced to be a seller later in the season. The 86-75 record the Tigers posted in 2016 provided a sense of (cautious) optimism heading into last season, but the team was not able to live up to the modest expectations that were set for them.
The Tigers actually played fairly well over the first portion of the season, compiling a 47-57 record by the end of July. The record wasn’t pretty, but the team was still somewhat in contention for a Wild Card spot (eight games back on July 31st) if they could turn things around after the deadline. Instead, the Tigers proceeded to go 17-41 in August and September/October, including a shocking 6-24 record over their final 30 contests.
The main positive to take away from 2017 was the team locking up the number one overall selection in the 2018 First Year Player Draft. With a bottom-tier farm system at this point in time, adding a talented player from this intriguing draft class should make the fanbase at least a little excited at a time when, for all intents and purposes, their team is rebuilding.
James McCann took a big step forward offensively in 2017, setting career highs in categories such as HRs (13), OPS (.733), and wRC+ (94). He also struck out far less, posting a percentage of 22.8 (a six percent improvement from 2016). As promising as he was on the offensive end, McCann’s work behind the plate definitely needs some refining. Per Baseball Prospectus, his -18.6 FRAA_ADJ statistic slotted him at 109th out of 110 qualified catchers.
One of the best offensive players of our generation, Miguel Cabrera did not have a Cabrera-like season in 2017. His .249/.329/.399 triple-slash produced a career-low OPS (.728), and the power surge he experienced in 2016 (38 home runs) completely evaporated last year. He walked less, struck out more, and at 34 years old experienced nagging injuries for much of the season. Miggy’s performance in 2017 has some people thinking gradual decline.
Ian Kinsler was another Tigers veteran who experienced a slight regression in his offensive numbers. His .236/.342/.447 triple-slash was off of his career averages of .273/.342/.447, and the 91 wRC+ he produced was the lowest mark of his career. He still clubbed 22 home runs (down from the 28 he hit a season before), and he posted improved walk and strikeout rates. A .244 BABIP may have been partially to blame, but at 35 the word decline has to at least be considered.
Jose Iglesias isn’t on the team because of his ability at the dish. Aside from an outlier season in 2013 when he benefitted from an extremely inflated BABIP (.356) en route to a career best .303/.349/.386 triple-slash and the only above-average wRC+ of his career (102), Iglesias is below average on his worst days and average on his best. Still, his defensive contributions obviously shouldn’t be overlooked—his 10.7 UZR/150 mark was 8th best in the league among qualified fielders.
It took Nick Castellanos some time to adjust to big league pitching, but over the past two seasons the third baseman has started to break out. While his wRC+ and OPS fell off slightly from 2016 (118 and .827 to 111 and .811 respectively), that’s a negligible decrease at best. Castellanos also increased his power production, hitting 26 round-trippers and setting a career high with 36 doubles and 10 triples. While his walk rate stayed the same, Castellanos actually struck out less than the year before. At only 25, he provided fans with multiple reasons for optimism.
Detroit’s outfield was one of the better ones in baseball over the first few months of the season, when Upton and J.D. Martinez manned the corners and Mikie Mahtook held his own in center. After the former two were traded, the Tigers outfield was laughable. They were forced to send out Alex Presley, Tyler Collins, and JaCoby Jones way more than any team should, and the overall offensive production suffered massively because of it.
One of the better hitters of my generation, Victor Martinez still found a way to perform adequately at the age of 38. The 85 wRC+ was below average, but the .255/.324/.372 triple-slash wasn’t completely awful. His strikeout and walk rates were essentially identical to 2016 (roughly 8 and 14 percent, respectively), but V-Mart experienced a clear drop off from ’16 in regards to his OPS (.826 vs. .697), wOBA (.351 vs. .303) and power (27 homers vs. 10). As they say, father time is undefeated.
The Tigers pitching staff finished with a 5.36 cumulative ERA, by far the worst in the league (the Reds were 29th with a 5.17 mark). Outside of two starting pitchers (one of which was traded), the rest of the Detroit rotation was laughably bad. Those two pitchers were Verlander and Michael Fulmer, a 24-year-old with top-of-the-rotation upside. Verlander’s season started out rough, with the lifetime Tiger sporting a 4.96 ERA after an early July start against the Indians. Before getting traded at the end of the August to the Astros, Verlander rattled off 11 starts where he pitched to a 2.31 ERA and allowed opposing batters to hit just .190 off of him. Fulmer’s sophomore campaign featured the expected ups and downs for a young arm, and he battled an elbow injury toward the end of his 2017 campaign. Regardless, he kept the ball in the yard (0.71 HR/9) and he flashed intriguing strikeout potential at times throughout the season (16.9 strikeout percentage) while limiting his free passes (5.9 walk percentage).
There were five other pitchers who started double-digit games for the Tigers in 2017, and all five of them were not very impressive. Jordan Zimmermann has not been able to find the level of success he had with the Nationals. The good news is that his FIP was almost one full run lower than his ERA. The bad news is that his ERA was 6.08. He’s not striking out batters at a reasonable clip anymore, he’s allowing more walks, and he’s letting the ball leave the yard more than before. That is not a recipe for success.
Matt Boyd (25 starts) and Daniel Norris (18) each pitched to an ERA over five, although their FIP totals were considerably lower (4.51 and 4.39, respectively). Of the two, Norris flashed more upside at times but his strikeout percentage (18.7) was lower than expected and he allowed much more Hard Contact (41.7 hard-hit percentage) than before—his previous high in that category was 33 percent. To keep things simple, Anibal Sanchez and Buck Farmer were awful.
The Tigers bullpen was also god-awful last year, finishing dead last in the league in ERA (5.63). For context, the 29th place team—the Mets—finished with a 4.82 ERA. Southpaw Justin Wilson pitched to a 2.68 ERA and stranded 83.9 percent of runners before being traded to the Cubs, and former Yankee Shane Greene rebounded after a difficult 2016, finishing with a 2.66 ERA despite posting a career high walk rate (12 percent). Guys like Alex Wilson (4.50 ERA/4.17 FIP) and Daniel Stumpf (3.82/4.49) were okay in a low-leverage role, but when Chad Bell, Blaine Hardy, Joe Jimenez, and Drew VerHagen are making close to 30 appearances each out of the ‘pen, it’s probably going to be a rough season.
Realizing that they’re in the midst of a rebuild, the Tigers were pretty quiet in the offseason. Detroit seemingly went after reclamation projects on the free agent market, signing names like Leonys Martin and Mike Fiers to see if they can salvage some type of value from them in order to trade them at the deadline. They also signed multiple arms with the goal of stabilizing the bullpen, with Caleb Thielbar probably the best of the bunch.
The most notable departure was second baseman Ian Kinsler, who was traded to the Angels in exchange for a couple of lottery ticket arms in Wilkel Hernandez and Troy Montgomery. They let players like Anibal Sanchez and Alex Presley hit the free agent market, but those aren’t exactly big losses.
All Additions: Niko Goodrum, Leonys Martin, Derek Norris, Mike Fiers, Phillippe Aumont, Pete Kozma, Brayan Pena, Alexi Amarista, James Russell, Caleb Theilbar, Travis Wood, Francisco Liriano
All Departures: Ian Kinsler, Bruce Rondon, Tyler Collins, Andrew Romine
Best Case: In their first official rebuilding season, the Tigers manage to win close to 70 games and trade some of the veterans and free agent signings on the team for intriguing prospects. Players like Castellanos, McCann, and Fulmer continue to take steps in their individual progressions, and prospects such as Christian Stewart and Michael Gerber receive calls to The Show and provide some reasons for hope for 2019 and beyond.
Worst Case: Cabrera struggles again making his contract even more difficult to move, the younger players with promise on the roster stall out or take a step back, and the Tigers struggle to avoid losing over 100 games. Some of their top prospects are either unable to be called up for whatever reason or struggle mightily in their debuts, creating more questions than answers for the next several years.
PECOTA Projected Record: 68-94, 723 RS, 855 RA