DETROIT – It’s April Fools’ Day, and people around the country are playing dumb pranks on family members or trying to get their friends to believe unconvincing lies.
Everyone has their guard up on this day, constantly defending against becoming the butt of a joke.
That got me thinking: Should we have our guard up with these Detroit Tigers?
In the baseball world, this particular April 1 is a bit of cruel joke itself. Tigers fans should be fresh off their first look at Javier Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez in the Old English D. The second game of the regular season should be just hours away, with Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson and all the new faces taking the field in Seattle.
Instead, because of the lockout, we will have to wait a bit longer. But when these retooled Tigers finally do emerge from the dugout at Comerica Park, what should we expect?
Last year’s April fools
Exactly one year ago, Miguel Cabrera muscled a Shane Bieber offering through heavy snowfall and over the right field fence to lead the Tigers to an Opening Day victory over Cleveland. It felt so good to have baseball back, so good to see Cabrera coming through in another big moment.
But it wasn’t a harbinger of good times, at least in the short term. The Tigers lost 18 of 27 games in April and 24 of their first 33 overall. They looked like a broken team that would contend for the worst record in baseball for the third time in five years.
Turns out, we were being fooled once again.
Out of nowhere, the Tigers turned their season around and finished with their best record since 2016. The consistency with which they played over the final five months spurred the hope everyone feels heading into this new season.
But again I ask: Are we being fooled?
Expectations for 2022
The Tigers didn’t finish anywhere near the postseason picture last year, but anyone who paid attention knows the final standings don’t paint an accurate picture.
Detroit ended the year 16 games behind the AL Central champion Chicago White Sox and 15 games out of the second wildcard spot.
But did you know the Tigers were one of only six American League teams to finish with a winning record against teams above .500? Each of the other five members of that exclusive club won at least 90 games.
Another area of concern -- but one that could perhaps turn around quickly -- was Detroit’s record against division rivals. A 7-12 mark against the White Sox is understandable, but the Tigers went a combined 23-34 against Cleveland, Kansas City and Minnesota -- three losing teams.
Just for fun: What if you took away the 9-24 start and extrapolate the team’s record in the final 129 games out to a full season? Then, we can factor in a slightly better record against those three division rivals.
At their 0.527 post-slow-start winning percentage, the Tigers were on pace to win roughly 85 times in a 162-game season. Now, if they had played nearly .500 baseball against the Guardians, Royals and Twins (28-29 instead of 23-34), that hypothetical win total would rise from 85 to 90.
Is that an unreasonable expectation? Is it wrong to think a team that played at a slightly above .500 clip for five months could do so for six? Is an improvement of five wins against weaker teams in the division unrealistic?
I don’t think so, especially since the Tigers have many young players who should improve from last season to this one.
Reasons for improvement
Everyone is excited about the Tigers’ outside additions, and for good reason. Baez, Rodriguez, Tucker Barnhart, Andrew Chafin and Michael Pineda should improve the team at all five spots this season. That’s almost 20% of the roster upgraded, just like that.
But shouldn’t we also expect significant steps forward from the likes of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Akil Baddoo? These are players in their early or mid-20s with highly regarded skill sets. Many were coming off the strangest year of their lives in terms of development -- the COVID-shortened 2020 debacle.
Even marginal improvement from that group would help this team, and that doesn’t even factor in what the Tigers could get from top-five prospects Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson.
On the other hand, which players would we expect to perform significantly worse than a year ago? Are there any?
Jeimer Candelario might not lead the league in doubles again, but he’s perfectly capable of replicating something close to an .800 OPS season. Over his last 201 games, he’s been a .278/.356/.458 hitter with 53 doubles and 23 home runs. Heading into his age 28 season, what signs are there of a decline?
Jonathan Schoop had unsustainable stretches of greatness in 2021, but the final stat line looks a whole lot like, well, a Jonathan Schoop season. He hit 22 home runs and finished with a .755 OPS. For his career, he owns a .748 OPS and averaged 23.4 home runs in his five previous full seasons.
Perhaps Robbie Grossman is a regression candidate after posting career-high home run and stolen base totals. But even if those power numbers dip, his on-base percentage -- the reason the Tigers were drawn to him in the first place -- is a steady .359 over the past six seasons.
There’s even reason to believe Eric Haase, who hit 22 home runs in only 351 at-bats last season, could take a step forward, thanks to a new role. Most of Haase’s action should come against left-handed pitching this year, and he posted a .907 OPS against lefties with 11 homers in just 120 at-bats a year ago.
Around the league
We’ve established that the Tigers improved dramatically this offseason, but that’s not the only factor at play.
One new rule working in their favor is the new postseason format. Six teams will make the playoffs in the American League this year, instead of five.
The competition will be stiff, however. Four teams in the AL East have their eyes on the playoffs, and there are three contenders in the AL West. It’s hard to imagine the White Sox finishing anywhere other than the top of the AL Central.
Most people expect the AL postseason bracket to include some combination of the following teams:
- Tampa Bay Rays (100-62 last season)
- Houston Astros (95-67)
- Chicago White Sox (93-69)
- Boston Red Sox (92-70)
- New York Yankees (92-70)
- Toronto Blue Jays (91-71)
- Seattle Mariners (90-72)
- Los Angeles Angels (77-85)
Expectations for the Rays, Astros, White Sox, Red Sox and Yankees are pretty self-explanatory. Those teams were in the postseason last year and bring back similar looking rosters, with a few additions and subtractions:
- Rays: Added Corey Kluber and get a full season of Wander Franco.
- Astros: Lost Carlos Correa in free agency but brought back Justin Verlander.
- White Sox: Signed Kendall Graveman and Josh Harrison.
- Red Sox: Added Trevor Story, Rich Hill and Jackie Bradley Jr., but lost Eduardo Rodriguez and Hunter Renfroe.
- Yankees: Brought back Anthony Rizzo and traded Gary Sanchez and Gio Urshela to the Twins for Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Ben Rortvedt.
Expectations for the Mariners are high because of their young core and an elite group of upcoming prospects. They also signed Cy Young winner Robbie Ray and acquired Adam Frazier, Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez via trade.
The Angels will presumably get healthy versions of Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon to join Shohei Ohtani, at least to start this season. They also added Noah Syndergaard and Michael Lorenzen to their rotation.
Toronto, meanwhile, saw the most turnover. The Blue Jays lost Ray but replaced him with Kevin Gausman and Yusei Kikuchi. They swapped Marcus Semien’s bat for Matt Chapman’s and figure to see another monster season from young stars Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernandez.
Where do the Tigers fit in? The race is crowded, and they need to take advantage of the weaker teams in the AL Central.
Nobody outside this area expects the Tigers to be real contenders this season. Most projection systems believe they will finish at or below .500 once again.
But the Tigers are counting on their young players to exceed expectations. They hope A.J. Hinch can recapture the magic of last summer and get the most out of everyone on the roster.
It’s been a long time since a Tigers season began with hope that wasn’t misguided. This year, for the first time since 2016, there are real reasons for fans to believe in this team.
Even if the Tigers don’t make the playoffs, that belief doesn’t make you a fool.