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2021 AL Central Preview: Detroit Tigers

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The Tigers’ rebuild is not quite done pre-heating yet

Toronto Blue Jays v Detroit Tigers Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

The cyclical nature of baseball never ceases to amaze me. Just six years ago, the Detroit Tigers capped a four-year run atop the AL Central, including a trip to the World Series. And who can forget how they hammered Cleveland during that stretch? Now the Tigers haven’t finished above .500 since 2016 and it is Cleveland that has been dunking on Detroit.

You love to see it.

But are the Tigers on the upswing? MLB.com seems to think so, ranking their farm system as No. 2 in the league in their latest rankings. The Athletic’s Keith Law is more bearish, slotting Detroit’s farm system at No. 12 in his own rankings. He describes their system as “extremely top-heavy,” lacking the depth needed to kick their rebuild into high gear. The experts are at least in agreement on the elite prospects who sit atop the Tigers’ system, pointing to former No. 1 overall draft picks Spencer Torkelson and Casey Mize, Top 10 overall picks Riley Greene and Matt Manning, and a late-round diamond-in-the-rough in Tarik Skubal.

The bad news for the rest of the division is that two of them have already made their big league debuts and the other three could be making the trip up to Detroit in the next year or two. The goods news for the rest of the division is that until then the Tigers are still likely to be cellar dwellers in the AL Central. They seem to be at the point in their rebuild where the club is papering over holes in their big league club with bargain-priced free agents, while they wait with eager anticipation for their draft picks to work their way through the minor league system.

Detroit has also hired disgraced former Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who served a one-year suspension last season after allowing one of the worst cheating scandals in baseball history to unfold under his watch. But he did an interview with the MLB Network in February last year in which he admitted he could have done more to stop the cheating, so I guess all is forgiven.

2020 in review

The highlight of the Tigers’ 2020 season was undoubtedly their 10-5 victory over Cleveland on Aug. 21, which snapped their franchise-record 20-game losing streak to the division rival. The game even saw rookie shortstop Isaac Paredes hit a grand slam for the first major league home run of his career. It was a magical day for Detroit.

The rest of the season, not so much.

The Tigers finished last in the AL Central with a record of 23-35. They posted sub-.500 records against each of their division opponents, but to their credit did finish 11-7 against their opponents from the NL Central. So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.

The worst development of the season for Detroit was the abrupt retirement of manager Ron Gardenhire, who stepped down in mid-September due to health concerns.

Additions and subtractions

Key addition: LF Robbie Grossman
The Tigers spent the offseason rummaging through the bargain bin and filled out nearly half of their lineup card through free agency. The best of the bunch is outfielder Robbie Grossman.

Grossman is not a blockbuster signing by any of the stretch of the imagination, but he will be a solid contributor and is actually coming off a career-best season in Oakland. He matched his career-high in wRC+ (127) and was worth a career-best 1.3 WAR. Grossman was even a bit unlucky last season with a .267 BABIP. He also flashed a surprising amount of power, slugging eight home runs and posting the highest slugging percentage of his career (.482). We’ll see if he can retain that power now that MLB has deadened the ball for this season.

Other additions: C Wilson Ramos, 1B Renato Núñez, RF Nomar Mazara, OF Akil Baddoo, RHP José Ureña, RHP Julio Teherán, LHP Derek Holland

Key subtraction: None
I mean, you can peruse the full list below and judge for yourself. I’m not sure which of those constitutes a “key” subtraction. C.J. Cron was technically the most productive of the group, producing 138 wRC+ in only 13 games before being sidelined due to season-ending knee surgery. He elected free agency at the end of the year. All three pitchers had disastrous seasons. I don’t think the Tigers will miss any of these players, sadly.

Other subtractions: C Austin Romine, 1B C.J. Cron, RF Jorge Bonifacio, RHP Jordan Zimmermann, RHP Ivan Nova, LHP Nick Ramirez

Projected lineup

  • LF Robbie Grossman
  • 3B Jeimer Candelario
  • SS Willi Castro
  • DH Miguel Cabrera
  • 2B Jonathan Schoop
  • 1B Renato Núñez
  • C Wilson Ramos
  • RF Nomar Mazara
  • CF JaCoby Jones
  • Bench: Akil Baddoo, Niko Goodrum, Grayson Greiner, Victor Reyes

Color me unimpressed with this lineup. Detroit ranked 25th as a team in wRC+ (89) and 27th in wOBA (.303) last season. Their solution was to plunder the depths of the free-agent market in the offseason, netting a collection of castoffs that includes the likes of Robbie Grossman, Renato Núñez, Wilson Ramos, and Nomar Mazara. Ramos is in his 12th year in the league, and his numbers have declined in each successive season since 2018. Mazara is coming off the worst season of his career after a one-year stint with the White Sox. And much like Grossman, Núñez seems to provide consistency more than anything.

That said, the Tigers do have a rising star in former Cleveland prospect Willi Castro, who had a breakout season last year slashing .349/.381/.550 and producing 150 wRC+. Jeimer Candelario also seemed to finally find his stroke, albeit perhaps with a bit of luck thanks to a .372 BABIP. The projections don’t expect him to match his production from 2020 — .297/.369/.503 — but even a regression to the mean would be a boon for the Tigers’ lineup.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the diminishing returns of Miguel Cabrera, whose power bat seems to have been sapped of its power over the last five years. The 38-year-old slugger is still under contract with Detroit for at least two more seasons.

Projected pitching staff

  • SP1: Matt Boyd
  • SP2: Spencer Turnbull
  • SP3: José Ureña
  • SP4: Julio Teherán
  • SP5: Tarik Skubal
  • Bullpen: Bryan Garcia (closer), Gregory Soto, Buck Farmer, Joe Jiménez, Jose Cisnero, Derek Holland, Tyler Alexander, Daniel Norris

The Tigers have been mulling a six-man rotation for this season because of their dearth of starting pitching. The problem for Detroit is that they don’t have a dearth of quality starting pitching. Matt Boyd has spent the last six seasons in Detroit and has yet to provide ace-level production with any sort of consistency. Spencer Turnbull did seem to turn a corner last year, commanding his four-seam fastball better and dropping his HR/FB down from 10.1% in 2019 to 4.5% in 2020. The club is hopeful Tarik Skubal can do with the same with his own four-seamer. Skubal had a rough rookie season in 2020, but his slider (.185 BA) was a bright spot.

The Tigers also signed veterans José Ureña and Julio Teherán to fill out their rotation, but I wouldn’t expect either of them to be much more than an innings eater.

Two names that I don’t have listed here as starters are Michael Fulmer and Casey Mize. Fulmer, whose AL Rookie of the Year campaign in 2016 feels like a distant memory, has not been the same since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2019. He returned to action last year as a member of the bullpen but did not fare well, carrying an 8.78 ERA after 27.2 innings of work. But he has a chance to crack the rotation to start the season if Turnbull, who has been sidelined for much of the spring due to a positive COVID-19 test, isn’t ready to go by Opening Day.

Mize is the Tigers’ top pitching prospect and he debuted with the big league club in 2020, making seven starts and finishing the season with a 6.99 ERA and 6.47 FIP. The former No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 MLB Amateur Draft boasts a full arsenal of pitches, including a wicked four-seam fastball. Mize added a sinker and a curveball to his repertoire last season, but the latter was abused by opposing hitters to the tune of a .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage. Command was also an issue, as he posted a 4.13 BB/9 in his first season in Detroit.