LAKELAND, Fla. – Detroit Tigers players, prospects and coaches were crystal clear Wednesday during spring training interviews: The goal for 2022 is to win the American League Central Division.
That might seem a lofty goal for a team that’s five years removed from its last winning record and recently finished with the most losses in baseball twice in three seasons. And let’s be honest -- a division title is probably a pipe dream for 2022.
Detroit was greatly improved under new manager A.J. Hinch last season, winning 77 games and finishing the final four-plus months with a 68-61 record. Still, the Tigers finished a full 16 games behind the division-winning Chicago White Sox.
“Last year we started a little bit slow and then we picked it up a little bit,” infielder Jonathan Schoop said Wednesday (March 16) from the team’s spring training facility in Lakeland, Florida.
He’s got that right. Before their strong 129-game finish, the Tigers limped to a 9-24 record through May 7. They’ll need to play well from the start to make legitimate noise in 2022.
“As much as we say we had a bad April, we swept the Astros, we beat (Cleveland ace Shane) Bieber on Opening Day,” Hinch said. “We never really quite caught our rhythm until deeper into May.”
If the Tigers hope to have any chance to compete for a playoff spot, they’ll need major contributions from younger players. You know which ones I’m talking about.
“I think the vibe is, like, ‘Alright, we’ve really got a shot at this thing,’” first base prospect Spencer Torkelson said. “A.J. said in the first meeting, you know, we’re going to go for the division. That’s our first goal, and then go from there.”
The tandem of Torkelson and fellow mega prospect Riley Greene will play a major role in whether that dream comes to fruition -- or even lasts until June.
Greene, the team’s first-round pick (fifth overall) in 2019, ranks among the top outfield prospects in baseball. He spent the final third of 2021 with the Toledo Mud Hens, just one step away from the major leagues.
“I’m feeling a lot better from when I was drafted,” Greene said. “I’ve grown, put on some muscle, put on some pounds, had a really good time at the alternate site during the COVID year, learned a lot of stuff from all the big leaguers that were there and just brought that from what I learned and brought it to my game during the season and it helped me a lot. I feel like if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be where I’m at with the mental side of the game.”
In a perfect world, Greene and Torkelson would make the Opening Day roster, but a lot of that will depend on how they perform over the next three weeks.
Torkelson, for example, struggled mightily at the plate last spring. He recorded just one hit -- a single -- in 27 at-bats while striking out 16 times. Since he only has one season of minor-league ball under his belt, he’ll need a much stronger performance this spring training to make the team.
“Coming out of college, I was a little naive because I raked there, and I was kind of just, like, ‘Oh, I can just hop into pro ball and do the same thing,’ and it was a big shock being like, ‘Alright, it’s not what I thought it was,’ but I made the adjustment, persevered through some hard times and I definitely feel more experienced and ready,” Torkelson said.
He earned three promotions in 2021, rising from High-A West Michigan to Double-A Erie to Triple-A Toledo. Overall, Torkelson slashed .267/.383/.552 across those three levels, with 30 home runs, 29 doubles, 77 walks and 114 strikeouts in 121 games.
It’s easy to see why the Tigers drafted him No. 1 overall in 2020.
“I do feel a bit of excitement,” Torkelson said. “The same with Riley. It’s a great opportunity and we’ve got a good squad here. All we want to do is win and have fun.”
“We’re going to go out there and play as hard as we can every day,” Greene said. “We’re going to have as much fun as we possibly can. We’re going to play our hardest.”
Right now, the younger players are focused on impressing coaches during spring training and making the Opening Day roster. Returning players have their sights set on a bigger prize.
“We’re going to be a lot better, and I’m excited to see how this team comes together and puts together a good season,” Grossman said. “Our goal is to win the division, and I know we’re going to do everything we can.”
Schoop mentioned the Tigers want to improve by 15 wins this season -- an extremely high bar, but one that makes sense considering it would put the Tigers at 92 wins, and the White Sox just took the Central crown with 93.
Can the Tigers pull it off? To put it bluntly, chances are slim. A lot would have to go right.
But that’s not to say the team hasn’t improved.
The addition of Javier Baez at shortstop represents a monumental upgrade over the team’s production at the position in 2021. Last season, Tigers shortstops combined to slash .201/.275/.321 -- good for the second-worst shortstop OPS in baseball (.596), above the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates.
Even with his plate discipline shortcomings, Baez is a near-lock to be much, much better than what the Tigers had a year ago. He owns a .783 career OPS, plays elite defense and runs the bases well.
Eduardo Rodriguez will also be a welcomed addition to the starting rotation. Despite an inflated 4.74 ERA last season in Boston, Rodriguez’s underlying numbers were strong: 185 strikeouts in 157.2 innings and a 3.32 FIP. His previous season (Rodriguez missed the COVID-shortened 2020 due to illness), he finished sixth in AL Cy Young voting.
“We’re better and we’ve added some good pieces,” Schoop said. “We added Javy, Eduardo, and we have some good guys around, so I think we’ll be better, and we’ve got to do the things we did right last year, and we’ve got to correct the things we did wrong so we are better this year.”
General manager Al Avila also traded for two-time Gold Glove winning catcher Tucker Barnhart, adding some stability to the position and giving the lineup a left-handed hitting option behind the plate.
Barnhart isn’t much of an offensive threat, but he can get on base at a reasonable rate and aid the team’s young pitching staff.
On Wednesday, the Tigers signed left-handed reliever Andrew Chafin to solidify what figures to be a strong and deep bullpen.