The countdown has officially begun. With just thirty days left until Opening Day, we will be taking a closer look into each Major League club every day until the start of the baseball season. The order in which these articles are published reflects the reverse order of last season’s standings – not their projected rankings in 2020. The first in the series will provide an in-depth preview for the Detroit Tigers, who finished with the worst record in baseball last season.
Years of emphasis on short-term gain with a blatant disregard for the future finally caught up to the Tigers in recent seasons following a run of sustained success that included two World Series berths.
The late Mike Ilitch, who owned both the Tigers and the NHL’s Red Wings, made bringing a World Series title to Detroit his life’s goal before his death in 2017. Unfortunately, despite leading the club to two pennants (2006 and 2012), he was unable to do so; yet it was certainly not for a lack of trying.
Ilitch put his blood, sweat, tears, and most importantly, his checkbook, into the Tigers franchise. In 2014, the Tigers rotation consisted of four pitchers who had won (or would win in future years) a Cy Young award, with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, David Price, and Rick Porcello. Over the years, the Tigers offense boasted a host of household names, including Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Prince Fielder, Ian Kinsler, and Curtis Granderson, among others.
In 2014, the Tigers signed the aforementioned Cabrera to an eight-year, $248 million extension, which would in time prove to be quite likely the worst contract in the sport. Cabrera was exceptional in his first few seasons of the deal, as he topped 4.6 fWAR in each year from 2014 through 2016. However, the future hall of famer and two-time MVP has fallen off a cliff in terms of performance and health in the years since, as his cumulative total of 0.2 fWAR would indicate.
The Tigers still owe Cabrera $124 million over the next four seasons, which will work to further handicap a team with severely limited on-field talent.
The outlook for the 2020 Detroit Tigers is bleak, and a speculative gaze into the near future does not appear to be much better. While the Tigers do have four prospects (Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Riley Greene, Tarik Skubal) that are ranked on MLB.com’s Top 100 list, it is difficult to imagine that they alone will launch the Tigers into contention. The club’s current roster is barren of nearly any promising young talent, and with the team chained to the albatross contract of Cabrera, it will be challenging to sign any major free agents – not that they would want to come to Detroit, anyways.
As for a rundown on the club’s immediate future, their roster for 2020 is simply putrid. The position player core is unquestionably the worst in Major League Baseball, despite the additions of two respectable bats in C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop, who were both poached from the division rival Minnesota Twins.
The Tigers do not project to have a single position player that tops 2.2 fWAR, according to Fangraphs. In 2019, Detroit’s offense was among the worst in baseball, as the team ranked 29th in both OPS (.682) and home runs (149), and 30th in total runs scored (582) and on-base percentage (.294). In a scenario where absolutely everything goes right for this Tigers’ core of position players, it would be a shock to see them even reach league average marks in any of these categories. Any sort of legitimate bounce back from the corpse of Miguel Cabrera would be just as surprising.
As for their pitching staff, the Tigers’ rotation is where one can find the club’s only player who has the potential to actually perform at an all-star level. Mathew Boyd showed flashes of dominance in 2019, as he struck out batters at an elite clip (11.56 K/9). Yet, his effectiveness was stymied by a sky-high 18.2% home run/fly ball ratio, which was the seventh-highest in the big leagues among qualified starting pitchers. Boyd’s tendency to give up homers at this rate will likely prove to be unsustainable, and there is a real chance he could become a valuable trade chip for the Tigers near the deadline in 2020. There was interest in the talented lefty last season and into this winter, but no deal came to fruition.
The rest of the Tigers’ pitching staff looks to be average, at best. Daniel Norris has shown some promise, as he was a highly touted prospect when the organization acquired him in the David Price trade with Toronto in 2015. His best campaign was last year, as he posted 1.9 fWAR, in spite of a 4.49 ERA (4.61 FIP). Jordan Zimmermann, whose contract – like Cabrera’s – has become a massive burden on the Tigers may have something left in the tank in terms of eating up some innings. Newcomer Iván Nova will hope to do the same.
A true wildcard for the Tigers will be the health of 2016 AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer. Detroit was thought to have found a star in Fulmer after he found success in earnest with a total of 6.7 fWAR in his first two seasons. Injuries limited Fulmer to a 4.69 ERA (4.52 FIP) in 2018, and he missed all of 2019 due to injury. If he can return to form this season, the duo of he and Boyd may actually be quite competent for the Tigers in 2020.
Detroit’s bullpen is a mess, with uncertainties and inexperience galore. Not much needs to be said here, besides the fact that this is a rebuilding club that will consider every organizational option when determining who to award their big-league bullpen innings to. It is possible that 2018 all star Joe Jiménez will emerge as a decent closer after struggles last season.
Overall, the Tigers are awful. The depressing part for their fanbase is that they probably will not be much fun to watch, either. They may choose to believe that the club is on the right track, and that the future is bright. I … would not be so sure.
Projected Divisional Finish (AL Central):
Projected Opening Day Lineup and Rotation (Fangraphs 2020 fWAR Projections for each player in parentheses):
JaCoby Jones, CF (0.6)
Jeimer Candelario, 3B (2.2)
Miguel Cabrera, DH (-0.5)
C.J. Cron, 1B (1.5)
Niko Goodrum, LF (1.0)
Jonathan Schoop, 2B (1.7)
Willi Castro, SS (1.0)
Austin Romine, C (0.7)
Cameron Maybin, RF (0.6)
Mathew Boyd (3.4)
Daniel Norris (1.9)
Spencer Turnbull (1.3)
Iván Nova (0.9)
Jordan Zimmermann (0.6)