DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers made a pair of solid moves over the weekend to bolster the offense and add some power to the middle of an otherwise impotent lineup.
On Saturday, the Tigers announced the signings of second baseman Jonathan Schoop and first baseman C.J. Cron. The pair hit a combined 48 home runs last season for the division rival Minnesota Twins and would have been the two best hitters in the Detroit lineup post-Nicholas Castellanos trade.
Last year, Schoop and Cron were worth a combined 3.0 WAR. Since the Tigers got some of the worst production in the league from second and first base, these two players should make a noticeable difference in 2020.
The Tigers will still be one of the worst teams in baseball, but these moves were a step in the right direction.
In response to these signings, the Tigers designated Brandon Dixon for assignment. Dixon played first base and outfield for the Tigers last season and led the team with 15 home runs.
The 40-man roster is now at 40, so the Tigers might not make any more key additions to the offense. If that’s the case, here’s what the starting lineup might look like when Opening Day finally arrives.
1. Victor Reyes, RF
2019 stats: .304/.336/.431 -- .767 OPS, 3 HR, 16 doubles, 14 walks, 64 strikeouts, 9 SB
As I wrote in an October lineup projection, Victor Reyes isn’t an ideal lead-off hitter because he doesn’t have a track record of getting on base regularly.
But after posting a .239 OBP as a rookie in 2018, Reyes broke out in a big way last season. He reached base 33.6% of the time, which is much closer to his career minor league OBP of .346. If he puts together another season with an OBP in the mid-.330 range, he’ll be a capable hitter atop the lineup.
Reyes’ numbers weren’t the problem in 2019. The concern is the manner in which he got to those numbers.
All of Reyes’ expected numbers fell well below his actual statistics. His .304 average was 21 points below his xBA (expected batting average). His average exit velocity isn’t special, yet he posted a .384 batting average on balls in play.
The batted ball luck will almost certainly regress in 2020, and unless Reyes hits the ball harder, the surface stats will as well.
That’s not to say he didn’t show some positive signs. Reyes was only 24 years old last season and more than doubled his walk rate from a year ago. He’s always been a low strikeout hitter, which is valuable in an era when whiffs are at an all-time high.
After managing just nine extra-base hits in 212 at-bats in 2018, Reyes increased that number to 24 in 276 at-bats. Most of his power is of the gap variety, but he never projected to be a big home run hitter.
If Reyes continues to put the ball in play regularly and takes another step forward in terms of walk rate, he’ll be able to survive the inevitable drop in batting average and be a serviceable option atop the order.
2. Jonathan Schoop, 2B
2019 stats: .256/.304/.473 -- .777 OPS, 23 HR, 23 doubles, 20 walks, 116 strikeouts
The Tigers aren’t going to land any superstars in free agency, so players such as Schoop, who have legitimate value to go with their flaws, are the best they can do.
Schoop isn’t an ideal No. 2 hitter because he owns a sub-.300 OBP in his career. Even last year he finished with only 20 walks in 121 games.
But the Tigers don’t have a lot of options at the top of the order, and Schoop is at least a legitimate power threat. His 23 home runs, 23 doubles and .473 slugging percentage make him a valuable commodity at a position that’s not typically known for power.
Schoop has been a plus hitter four of the last five seasons and is still only 28 years old. It’s a pretty safe bet that Schoop will be one of the best hitters in this lineup next season, so the No. 2 spot is where he could land.
3. Miguel Cabrera, DH
2019 stats: .282/.346/.398 -- .744 OPS, 12 HR, 21 doubles, 48 walks, 108 strikeouts
Miguel Cabrera remains in the No. 3 hole for two reasons: The Tigers remember what he used to be and they don’t have many better options.
It would be generous to say Cabrera was an average offensive player last season. He hit just 21 doubles and 12 home runs while posting a .744 OPS. Cabrera is a road block on the base paths and more than three-quarters of the hits that made up his .282 batting average were singles.
Cabrera was healthy for pretty much the entire 2019 season. He appeared in 136 games but played just 26 of those at first base as he transitions to the full-time designated hitter.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, the underlying stats back up Cabrera’s struggles. His hard-hit rate and walk rate plummeted last season, as did the average exit velocity on his balls in play.
It’s not a surprise Cabrera is seeing decline as he enters his late 30s, but the power has completely vanished at a time when power isn’t exactly difficult to find around the league. Tigers fans will enjoy seeing Cabrera move up all-time lists in the final four years of his contract, but that spot in the order won’t be overly formidable along the way.
4. C.J. Cron, 1B
2019 stats: .253/.311/.469 -- .780 OPS, 25 HR, 24 2B, 29 walks, 107 strikeouts
Cron is similar to Schoop in that he has good extra-base power but doesn’t get on base at a high rate.
Over the last two seasons -- with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2018 and the Twins in 2019 -- Cron has hit 55 home runs and 52 doubles while posting a .799 OPS. He’s never had an OBP over .325 at the big league level, but Cron will hit the ball out of the park.
He’s not the type of player who normally gets dealt at the trade deadline, but if Cron is having a good power season, the Tigers might be able to flip him for something in July. Until then, he’s someone who should hit between 20 and 30 home runs in the middle of the order.
5. Niko Goodrum, SS
2019 stats: .248/.322/.421 -- .743 OPS, 12 HR, 27 doubles, 46 walks, 138 strikeouts, 12 SB
Niko Goodrum has been one of the few consistent bats for the Tigers the last two years, hitting 28 home runs and 56 doubles since joining the Tigers.
The most promising sign for Goodrum the last three seasons has been upping his walk rate from 5.6% to 8.5% to 9.7%. His hard hit rate has seen a similarly steady increase, climbing from 28.6% to 35.4% to 41.5%.
If Goodrum continues to improve, he’ll have a spot in the heart of this lineup.
Goodrum is a versatile defender and a plus base runner, so his development into a league average hitter gives him value on a value-barren roster. It would be worthwhile for the Tigers to see what he can do with 600 plate appearances this season.
6. Jeimer Candelario, 3B
2019 stats: .203/.306/.337 -- .643 OPS, 8 HR, 17 doubles, 43 walks, 99 strikeouts, 3 SB
Have the Tigers given up on Jeimer Candelario? Even though 2019 was downright disastrous, that wouldn’t be a wise move.
The former top 100 prospect was so bad last season that the Tigers sent him to Triple-A and even tried moving him to first base to make room for Dawel Lugo. Getting moved across the diamond to a completely new position to make room for another offensively challenged, unproven prospect is not a good sign.
He’s only 26 years old, but this is an important season for Candelario.
If he gets the starting third base job out of spring training, Candelario will need to find the plate discipline that made him a top prospect in the first place. He has a career .353 OPB in the minors and posted a .359 OBP in his first true taste of MLB action in 2017.
His walk rate was fine in 2019, but he’s striking out at a detrimental rate. Last year was the second straight season that Candelario struck out in more than a quarter of his at-bats.
There’s doubles power in Candelario’s bat, and more importantly, he has the ability to draw walks. But if he can’t put the ball in play, the Tigers will ultimately be forced to move on.
7. JaCoby Jones, CF
2019 stats: .235/.310/.430 -- .740 OPS, 11 HR, 19 doubles, 27 walks, 94 strikeouts, 7 SB
Although the numbers finished looking mediocre, 2019 was a major step in the right direction for JaCoby Jones, at least as a hitter.
His performance at the plate improved across the board. He walked more often. He struck out less frequently. He hit the ball harder and at a higher launch angle.
Jones still has work to do in terms of putting the ball in play, though. He posted a career low 28.2% strikeout rate, but that’s still alarmingly high for a player who hit just 11 home runs in 88 games.
The expected stats believe Jones was better than his .740 OPS. His .304 BABIP is low for a player with a 91.3 mph exit velocity and 45.9% hard hit rate. The Tigers adjusted his swing during the off-season, and that appeared to pay off.
If Jones can build on those improvements in 2020, he could be a pleasant surprise and might even move up in the order.
He also needs to get back to his 2018 form in the field, when he was the best outfielder in baseball in terms of defensive runs saved. He’s always been a terror on the base paths, so Jones has the potential to be a true four-tool player, at his best.
8. Austin Romine, C
2019 stats: .281/.310/.439 -- .748 OPS, 8 HR, 12 doubles, 10 walks, 50 strikeouts
Detroit only made one move at this year’s Winter Meetings, signing Austin Romine to apparently be the starting catcher.
Jake Rogers was clearly overmatched by MLB pitchers, finishing 2019 with 14 hits and 51 strikeouts. The Tigers can tell he’s not ready, so they went out and got Romine, a career backup.
Like many players around baseball, Romine had his best offensive season in 2019. He hit .281 with a .748 OPS in 72 games.
Romine won’t be spectacular, but if last year is any indication, he will be a solid hitter who does his job well behind the plate. At the very least, he’s a safe bet to be better than what the Tigers got out of the catcher position a year ago.
9. Harold Castro, LF
2019 stats: .291/.305/.384 -- .689 OPS, 5 HR, 10 doubles, 9 walks, 86 strikeouts, 4 SB
If Harold Castro is batting near the top of the lineup, the Tigers are asking him to do more than he’s capable of. But if he’s down around the bottom, he’s not a bad offensive option.
Castro had a nice rookie season in 2019, batting .291 with 103 hits in 97 days. The problem is 85 of those hits were singles, and he coupled them with just nine walks.
It’s essentially impossible to be an above-average MLB hitter with a 2.4% walk rate. It just isn’t realistic. Castro can put the ball in play all he wants, but until he works on his plate discipline, he won’t be a top of the order hitter.
His 7.9 degree launch angle and low hard hit rate explain the power outage, and the .367 BABIP figures to regress some in 2020.
A little less batted ball luck could drop Castro’s average in the .270 range, which would drop his OBP well below .300. That’s a problem, especially since he doesn’t offer much in the power department.
Castro is valuable in that he can play basically every position on the field. He appeared at all three outfield spots and all four infield spots last season. In total, he played 44 games in the outfield and 47 games on the infield.
Let’s be clear: This lineup is still very bad. But it’s bad with two players who can hit home runs -- and that’s better than last season.
Schoop and Cron add pop to the heart of the order, but they don’t do much to treat the team’s inability to get on base. Scroll up through the stat lines above -- only two players are coming off seasons with OBPs north of .325.
Al Avila didn’t make these signings to put the Tigers in contention. He’s trying to slowly build the roster back up to a respectable level. The three new faces above could be worth four or five more wins next season, which is better than returning with Lugo, Dixon and Rogers in the lineup.
The Tigers might be legitimately interesting in 2021 if the pitching prospects start making debuts. But in the meantime, fans should strap in for a long 2020 season.