Detroit Tigers 2023 Season Preview
Some seasons aren’t defined by wins and losses. They’re defined by individual player development and growth. The problem for the Detroit Tigers is that both of those things were awful in 2022. The Tigers went 66-96 with the third-most losses in the American League, realized their worst fears about Javier Baez and had so many injuries that it was a throwaway year for most of their key pieces for the future.
Riley Greene showed flashes and was a good story over 418 plate appearances, but Spencer Torkelson was overwhelmed and couldn’t stick. April trade acquisition Austin Meadows failed to live up to his 2019 and 2021 seasons with the Rays and also only played in 36 games. Tarik Skubal led the team with 21 starts, as Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, Joey Wentz and Casey Mize only combined for 33 total starts. Spencer Turnbull missed the entire season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
For a team that has been undergoing significant changes because of albatross contracts and a new approach in the front office, the fact that 2022 amounted to nothing other than finishing with 96 losses was a major disappointment and it leaves a lot of people wondering what improvements can be made for 2023.
Explanations of the stats used in this preview can be found in my “MLB Stats to Know” article.
2023 Detroit Tigers Odds
(odds from DraftKings as of Mar. 8, click for updates)
World Series: +20000
AL Pennant: +10000
AL Central: +2200
Win Total: 70.5 (100/-120)
Make Playoffs: Yes +1200 / No -2500
Detroit Tigers Offense
I fell hook, line and sinker for the Tigers entering last season, even advocating a bet on over their season win total of 77.5. To be fair, they won 77 games in 2021 and it looked like they were moving in a positive direction, including a 69-66 run over their last 135 games. The injuries on the pitching side made life very difficult, but complete ineptitude on offense was even worse.
Eight Tigers had at least 392 plate appearances last season. They finished with wRC+ marks of 90, 57, 80, 94, 79, 98, 76 and 86, so not a single league-average hitter in the bunch. Greene was the closest, while carrying a 28.7% K%. Nobody hit more than 17 homers (Baez) for the Tigers. Baez was a two-win player at a cost of $20 million and his contract actually went up for this season to $22 million and goes up to $25 million in each of 2024 and 2025.
The 79 wRC+ belonged to Miguel Cabrera, who will retire after the season. This is his final season of guaranteed money and he’ll make $32 million. To dig the knife in deeper, I’ll say that the Tigers had 13 players with at least 225 plate appearances and Eric Haase was the only one to be at least a league-average hitter with a 112 wRC+. Words cannot express just how awful this offense was. Collectively, the Tigers finished with a league-low 81 wRC+ and 29th in wOBA at .279, trailing only the A’s, who play in the worst offensive park in baseball. wOBA is not a park-adjusted stat.
The concern moving forward is that this offense doesn’t look a whole lot better for 2023. A healthy Meadows should give the Tigers a productive hitter at the top of the order and Greene should continue to progress, though he ran a 30.1% K% in the second half as pitchers adjusted and he didn’t. Torkelson’s throwaway season at the MLB level leaked over to the Triple-A level as well, where he was merely a league-average hitter over 155 plate appearances. He’s only 23 and raked at every level of the minors and in college, so I’m not throwing in the towel at all. In fact, the projection systems like him to range from a 100 to a 115 wRC+.
There are just so many flaws. The Tigers had the highest Chase Rate in baseball and the third-highest swinging strike rate. Maybe Kerry Carpenter will provide a boost after mauling Double-A and Triple-A pitching and then posting a 126 wRC+ in 113 plate appearances. Maybe former Phillies farmhand Nick Maton is a contributor on the fat side of the platoon as a left-handed batter against right-handed pitching.
There’s nowhere to go but up because everything was so bad last season. Take Jonathan Schoop as one example., He posted a 57 wRC+ after three straight years of being an above-average hitter with wRC+ marks of 101, 117 and 107. His worst season was a 64 wRC+ back in 2014, but he’s been a pretty useful MLB player otherwise. He had his best defensive season ever last year, but he chopped into most of that value with an outlier season at the dish.
I guess the point I’m making is that the Tigers shouldn’t be as bad as they were, but this is still a lineup with a really low ceiling until proven otherwise, especially because of the quality of arms in baseball these days. The Tigers strike out a lot, walk little, don’t hit for power and don’t have a ballpark conducive to hitting for power to offset all of their issues.
Other than that, everything is just fine.
Detroit Tigers Pitching
This is the side I was sad about for the Tigers. They’ve had so many promising college arms in the system that have either run into injuries or just haven’t been developed properly. We won’t see Mize until after the All-Star Break, if we see him at all. Skubal had flexor tendon surgery in August and just started throwing on flat ground in early February, so he’ll be out for at least a few months in all likelihood.
Detroit had two big offseason prizes last season in Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez. Baez was awful at the plate (I can’t seem to stress that enough) and Rodriguez had some mental health issues that took him away from the team. He wound up only making 17 starts across 91 innings with pretty pedestrian numbers. His 4.05 ERA and 4.43 FIP also came with a decrease in K% and an increase in BB%. E-Rod scared fans again by not showing up on time to Spring Training, but he made it a day later on Feb. 15.
With Rodriguez a wild card and the health concerns for Skubal and Mize, the Tigers opted to go the free agent route and reunite with Matt Boyd. Boyd made 10 relief appearances for the Mariners last season after missing about a year’s worth of baseball. He was good in that role, but he’ll try to return to starting now. He threw 185.1 innings in 2019. He’s thrown 152.1 innings over the last three seasons between the COVID-shortened year and then 2021 and 2022. Another gamble here. The Tigers are familiar with him, but he has a career 4.90 ERA and 4.66 FIP.
Detroit also threw $8.5 million at Michael Lorenzen, who was just a full-time starter for the first time since 2015 last season with 18 starts over 97.2 innings. He, too, was injured and missed time. He had a 4.24 ERA with a 4.31 FIP and, frankly, might be a better hitter than what the Tigers are trotting out there on a daily basis.
Let’s fill the glass up halfway here. I really like Manning and Turnbull. Sadly, Manning only made 19 starts across three levels, but he had a 3.43 ERA with a 3.78 FIP in his 12 starts over 63 innings with the Tigers. He shaved nearly 5% off of his Hard Hit% from 2021 to 2022 and varied up his arsenal for more swing and miss. One terrible outing against Seattle accounted for seven of his 24 earned runs. I think there’s something there with him.
Turnbull, who made only nine starts in 2021 and missed all of 2022, has some of the best raw stuff on this staff. His spin rates grade very well and his home run prevention skills are off the charts. Health has been his issue. He’s also a big ground ball guy, so a post-shift world may negatively impact him, but if he can cut down the walks and pitch for more swing and miss, I could see a path where he thrives. I’d just like to see Manning and Turnbull healthy for a full season to see if my suspicions can be confirmed.
The one area of the ball club that was respectable last season was the bullpen, but Andrew Chafin, Gregory Soto and Joe Jimenez are all gone. Former first-rounder Alex Lange was solid last season with a 3.41 ERA and a 3.25 FIP, so he looks like the guy with the first crack at saves. What greatly concerns me, though, is that Lange is one of the few relievers with big strikeout upside. The three guys that left racked up a lot of punchouts. What was a strength now looks like a potential weakness.
The Tigers scored three or fewer runs in 93 of their 162 games. They were 16-77 in those games. When they scored at least four runs, they only lost 19 games. Even though a lot of guys were hurt on the pitching side and 17 different guys started games, they were still pretty successful in that regard, all things considered.
Detroit was shut out 22 times last season, so those were 22 games that they had zero chance of winning. Surprisingly, Detroit hung in there and went 34-42 within the division, including a 9-10 record against Cleveland.
Player to Watch
SP Spencer Turnbull: We take returns from Tommy John surgery for granted because that procedure happens so frequently, but I really do want to see how manager AJ Hinch and the coaching staff work with Turnbull. He’s primarily a fastball/slider guy with strong spin rates on both, but his curveball had a spin rate in the 72nd percentile in 2021 and he was classified as throwing six pitches His exit velocity against on fastballs in play was really strong at 87 mph and he generates a good amount of swing and miss on it. The Tigers won’t be good, but I think he’s the guy we can trust in this rotation in underdog spots.
Detroit Tigers Season Win Total Pick
I’ve mentioned this in other write-ups, but I don’t really like to play win totals with extreme highs or lows. The Tigers are going to be a bad team. Leaving the relative safety of the AL Central more frequently probably hurts them as well. Better the enemy that you know than the enemy that you don’t when you’re an underdog. To be fair, things don’t look as dire for the Tigers as they do for the Rockies, A’s, Nationals, Pirates, Royals or Reds.
Maybe they should. FanGraphs’ projections show just three Tigers with on-base percentages above last season’s league average of .312 and I’d expect the league average to go up a bit this season with the rule changes. This is a lineup that will post a low batting average and a group that only bested the A’s in terms of plate appearances with a runner in scoring position.
Taking all of that into account, I still can’t bet on this win total. The Tigers were abhorrent last season and fell on the wrong side of injury variance and still won 66 games. I think it’s easy to look at them and assume they’ll be bad, but there are several high draft picks on this team and they’re a little healthier at the outset this season and have Skubal waiting in the wings for the summer. I still lean under, but maybe the Tigers aren’t quite as bad as we think.
Lean: Under 70.5