Light can now be seen at the end of the tunnel for the Tigers. A brutal rebuild that has led to seven seasons without a playoff appearance on the heels of four straight division titles is finally starting to pay off. Detroit’s 77 wins last season were the second-most in that seven-year span, trailing only the 2016 season that felt like the team’s last hurrah with its aging (and very expensive) core.
When Chris Ilitch inherited the team from his late father in 2017, the Tigers were in the top five in payroll and had very little to build around in the minor leagues. Since then, Detroit has shed payroll and focused more on development from within as opposed to inflated free agent contracts. Feeling ready to start competing, the Tigers went out and signed Javier Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez this past offseason, which will end a several-year stretch of cost-cutting. Detroit also only has $70 million left on Miguel Cabrera’s contract, which ends after the 2023 season and will create additional payroll flexibility.
For a team that was three games over .500 after a disastrous 8-19 start in April, the Tigers are about ready to be a challenger in an AL Central that sorely needs another formidable ballclub.
The pitching side of the ledger is much more advanced than the hitting side. The Tigers were dead last in fWAR last season, finishing 23rd in wOBA. Detroit’s overall position player value was dragged down by being awful on defense, but this was a bad lineup as well. The Tigers struck out too much, didn’t walk enough and were one of nine teams with a SLG under .400.
Of the top 14 batters in plate appearances, only five graded average or above by wRC+ . Jeimer Canderlario and Robbie Grossman were the two best, but both guys also carried double-digit walk rates. Grossman walked nearly 15% of the time and Candelario over 10%. Candelario actually had a nice year all the way around with a .344 wOBA and led the team in fWAR with 3.2, as he followed up a strong 2020 campaign. His contact quality improvements over the last two seasons lead me to believe there’s staying power to his numbers.
Maybe the most important development for the Tigers last year was the leap from Akil Baddoo, who made it to the majors and was an above-average bat in his 461 plate appearances. He hit 13 homers and stole 18 bases. His high walk rates from the minors transferred over as well, as he had a 9.8% BB%. He was really productive on the fat side of the platoon against righties – hitters face a right-handed pitcher about 70% of the time on average – so I’d expect solid production again, at least in those plate appearances.
While Detroit has embraced salary reduction over the last few years, the Tigers are adding on again. Javier Baez was signed to a six-year, $140 million deal that does include an opt-out after 2023. The bat should be a little bit above average, even for a free-swinger who strikes out a ton and almost never walks. Baez still has 30-homer power, but is also an elite defender for a team that desperately needed help up the middle. He’s a good fit in Detroit and a player that should yield a positive ROI for however long he’s there. He also steals bases, which makes the Tigers a more athletic team, something that they really haven’t been for a very long time.
The cash-rich Ilitch family was right to shed payroll and reshuffle the deck, but we may see the depth of their pockets on display this season with Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene. Both guys are legitimate top-10 prospects and it appears that the Tigers are toying with the idea of letting both players break camp with the ballclub and start their service time clocks. It would cost additional money down the line, but would get some much-needed pop and pizzazz into the lineup.
Torkelson, ranked as the No. 5 prospect by FanGraphs, left Arizona State as one of the best college hitters in quite some time. He slashed .238/.350/.531 at Triple-A last season to end the year. He’s not going to immediately reach his peak at the MLB level, but given what I mentioned above about the number of below-average hitters in the lineup, he’d represent a big upgrade. He walks, hits for power and hits fly balls and line drives. There’s a reason why he’s the second choice to win the AL Rookie of the Year at + 450. (author's note: Torkelson has indeed made the team)
Greene, the No. 6 prospect by FanGraphs going into 2022 is also in the mix for the Tigers. Greene is a little riskier as a high school kid that was taken in the 2019 MLB Draft, but he hasn’t looked overwhelmed at any level. He strikes out a lot, but also walks a lot and hit 24 homers across two levels last season. He combined for a .301/.387/.534 slash while striking out over 27% of the time. Even with a high strikeout rate, he represents an upgrade from what Detroit was putting on the field last year. (author's note, Greene is out until June after foot surgery)
Torkelson would likely play at first base, which would push Jonathan Schoop back to second base and Miguel Cabrera to DH. Second basemen for the Tigers collectively posted a 74 wRC+ . Schoop was an above-average hitter and Torkelson would be as well. Tigers OF posted a 95 wRC+ and that was with Baddoo and Grossman, which gives you an idea of how bad the rest of them were. All of the sudden, we’re talking about a Tigers lineup that could actually make a huge leap and be above average. Even if the kids don’t crack the Opening Day lineup, they won’t be in the minors for long.
Two free agent signings and three homegrown talents make up a rotation that I believe to be a lot better than people realize. Detroit was in the middle of the pack in starter ERA last season, but 21st in FIP due to a low strikeout rate. This is more of a pitch-to-contact team, which I don’t love in the current high-strikeout environment, but there is always room to grow when you have guys like Casey Mize and Matt Manning. Tarik Skubal was the only regular starter to post over a strikeout per inning.
Much like I talked about with regards to the lineup and upgrades to below-average players, the Tigers have cut some of the fat this year. They got 18 starts from Wily Peralta, who had a 3.12 ERA, but a 4.96 FIP. They got 18 starts from Jose Urena, who had a 5.96 ERA and a 5.23 FIP; most of those starts now go to Eduardo Rodriguez and Michael Pineda.
Rodriguez is an outstanding addition to this rotation. He had a 4.74 ERA last season with a 3.32 FIP, as the Red Sox did him absolutely no favors by being one of the worst defensive teams in baseball, especially on the infield. E-Rod had a career-best K% of 27.4% and also a career-best BB% at 7.0%, yet still posted the highest ERA of his career. Two stats to use when looking for positive or negative regression are BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and LOB% (left on base percentage). Rodriguez had a .363 BABIP against when the league average was .290. He also had a 68.9% LOB% when the league average was 72.1%.
Given that Rodriguez missed all of 2020 with myocarditis, some struggles were to be expected, but there are several encouraging signs for the Tigers. First, E-Rod had a 5.95 ERA at Fenway Park in 62 innings, but a 3.95 ERA in 95.2 road innings. Second, he got better as the season went along, going from a 5.52 ERA before the All-Star Break to a 3.71 after, while cutting his HR/FB% in half. Comerica Park will be friendlier to Rodriguez and so will the lineups in the AL Central. Expect a big boost in his numbers and value.
Pineda’s issue has always been health, but he has a 3.98 ERA and a 3.69 FIP over 962 MLB innings. The long ball is typically his problem, but this is a decent park factor for him, as Comerica can yield a lot of doubles and triples, but not a lot of homers.
I’m a big believer in Detroit’s young arms because I’m a big believer in AJ Hinch as a manager. He was an outstanding hire and you could see how pitchers improved throughout the season. After a rough April, Mize was excellent until August, when he wore down a little bit and an innings cap was implemented. He still wound up with a solid 3.71 ERA, but he’ll have to figure out how to get lefties out to make the next big leap, as they posted a .355 wOBA and hit 17 of the 24 homers he allowed.
Skubal also pitched well in May and June before running into some issues in July and September. The young arms got a lot of valuable reps and worked through growing pains and arsenal changes. He did lose some spin rate with the foreign substance crackdown, which merits watching, but there’s a lot of promise here for a guy with good control growing into his potential.
Manning has posted excellent minor league numbers, but the early returns weren’t great at the MLB level with a 5.80 ERA over 85.1 innings, but he had four major blow-ups in 18 starts where he allowed 29 of his 55 earned runs. Those “ERA killers” can make things look worse than they actually are. In most of his other starts, he pitched pretty well. Even if it isn’t Manning in the rotation, the Tigers have Tyler Alexander and Joey Wentz at their disposal.
Detroit’s bullpen isn’t great and it is my one major reservation about this team. Gregory Soto and Michael Fulmer in the closer and setup roles are clearly the team’s two best options. This was a group that ranked in the bottom 10 in ERA and FIP last season and I don’t see a lot of upgrades, but the Tigers were 23-23 in one-run games last season and a lot of the guys that ran up high ERAs pitched in low-leverage roles.
Player to watch
SP Casey Mize: It was reported in spring training that Mize is looking to go back to using his splitter, a pitch he had tremendous success with at Auburn. The worst pitch for Mize was a sinker, which he did throw 4% less often last season. Opposing batters hit .322 with a .572 SLG. If he’s focused on more splitters and curveballs this season, he’ll generate more swings and misses and also decrease the usage of his worst pitch. My guess is that those changes are absolutely in the works, especially with a new-look slider last season that opposing hitters batted .195 against. Optimizing his pitch usage would allow Mize to take a big step forward and I think it’s coming.
The White Sox are clearly the class of the AL Central, but the Tigers are the unquestioned No. 2 team for me, even with Carlos Correa signed by the Twins. Detroit to go over its season win total of 77.5 is a good wager. The Tigers have upgraded in a few key areas and have more upgrades on the way if Torkelson and Greene don’t make the Opening Day roster. They won 77 games last season, even with an 8-19 start.
This will still be something of a transitional year, as I don’t think the Tigers are ready to challenge the White Sox just yet, but they very well could next season with some bullpen upgrades and maybe one more free agent hitter. For now, I think they’re a team that can be .500 or better and may be the only team besides the White Sox truly moving in the right direction in this division.
Win Total Pick: Over 77.5