DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers made some off-season additions to improve the infield and pitching staff, but the outfield figures to look about the same as 2019. Is there any way it could actually be anything other than a weakness?
How bad was the outfield?
There’s no sugarcoating a 47-114 season, and the Tigers’ outfield was one of the worst culprits of that MLB-worst record. Other than Nicholas Castellanos, who was shipped to Chicago at the trade deadline, none of the team’s outfielders were even average offensively.
Christin Stewart finished with an OPS south of .700. Travis Demeritte had 63 strikeouts in just 48 games. The pair combined to be 1.5 wins worse than if the Tigers just had two replacement-level players in their spots.
JaCoby Jones had his ups and downs, but in the end, he was also a below-replacement-level player, with a .235 batting average and poor defensive stats.
The only bright spot was Victor Reyes, who finished the season strong, batting .304 and posting a team-best .767 OPS. He was the most valuable position player on the team, other than Niko Goodrum, who played infield and outfield.
With Jordy Mercer hitting free agency and a logjam in the outfield, Goodrum seems a likely candidate to get most of his starts at shortstop, so he might not factor into the outfield mix.
But as grim as it looks, some of the outfielders still have upside.
Many will look for Reyes to build on what he did last season, but the opposite seems just as likely.
The expected stats suggest Reyes was extremely fortunate to finish with such strong numbers in 2019. His .304 average was 21 points below his xBA (expected batting average). His average exit velocity was decent, but not good enough to justify his .384 batting average on balls in play.
It’s possible Reyes will simply get better, and if so, his expected numbers could improve. He’s 25 years old and has only 511 MLB at-bats to his name.
If the gains Reyes made in 69 games last season hold true and he continues this upward trend, he could very well be the team’s best offensive outfielder again. He doesn’t strike out very often, and his walk rate more than doubled in 2019. His ability to put the ball in play, especially in this era, could make Reyes a standout in terms of batting average.
Last season, he hit 16 doubles, five triples and three home runs in 276 at-bats. That’s not bad for a light-hitting prospect with a short swing.
Will Reyes hit over .300 again? Will his OPS remain above league average? The safe answer to both of those questions is no. But he wouldn’t be the first 25-year-old to improve in both the power and plate discipline departments, and if he does that, he’ll be a useful player.
The Tigers have no reason to give up on Stewart, who was a top 100 prospect at times before getting called up to the MLB level.
During his last full season in the minor leagues, Stewart hit 23 home runs and 31 doubles for the Toledo Mud Hens. He also drew 67 walks, good for a .364 on-base percentage. His combination of power and on-base ability figured to give the Tigers an exciting left-handed bat in the middle of the order.
So far, that certainly has not been the case.
Stewart was very good at the end of 2018 for the Tigers, racking up 16 hits and 10 walks in 17 games. He only struck out 13 times and added four extra-base hits. All in all, he looked like the slugger the Tigers had hoped for.
Last year, Stewart never really got comfortable. He dealt with a massive slump early in the season and also spent time on the injured list. But surprisingly, his numbers didn’t end up looking that bad, especially compared to the rest of the roster.
Stewart still had a solid career walk rate of 8.3%. He barreled the ball 20 times and his expected stats were a bit better than his actual numbers. He hit 25 doubles in 104 games and had a reasonable strikeout rate when compared with his walks.
In other words, Stewart still hit the ball pretty hard and had a good eye at the plate. One bad season -- especially a rookie season that includes injuries -- doesn’t define a prospect with the pedigree of Stewart.
It was a really weird season for Jones. He was the best defensive outfielder in baseball two years ago, but last season, he didn’t even grade out as average.
Did health or scheme play a factor in Jones’ defensive struggles? A player doesn’t typically play elite defense over the course of 129 games as a fluke. Jones still has great speed, and there’s no reason to believe he would be a worse athlete at 27 years old than he was at 26.
He seems like a good candidate to bounce back on defense. The question will always be whether he can make enough contact to be a contributor on offense.
Jones had a 35-game stretch last season in which he batted .333 with a 1.015 OPS. While he struck out 38 times during that stretch, he also drew 10 walks, stole four bases and racked up 18 extra-base hits. For more than a month, he showed the elite tools that got him to the big leagues in the first place.
An injury at the start of July couldn’t have come at a worse time.
When Jones returned, he played just 19 games before another injury ended his season. He posted a .685 OPS during that closing stretch, but still managed to drawn nine walks.
Jones made adjustments to his swing and they appeared to pay dividends. He hit 19 doubles and 11 home runs in essentially a half season of games. His walk rate greatly improved. All signs pointed toward him being a much better all-around hitter.
But the strikeouts have to come down.
When Jones makes contact, it’s hard contact -- to the tune of a 45.9% hard hit rate in 2019. When he gets on the base paths, he’s the team’s fastest runner. His abilities to hit the ball hard and run fast aren’t going anywhere -- he just needs to put the ball in play more consistently.
His strikeout rate had dropped from 42.2% to 30.4% to 28.2% the last three years. A JaCoby Jones who strikes out less than a quarter of the time while playing 2017-like defense would be a dangerous player.
If I had to guess, I would predict Demeritte is the odd man out right now in the Tigers’ outfield. Jones, Reyes and Stewart have all showed more positive signs at the MLB level, and they were all better last season.
But Al Avila acquired Demeritte for a reason, and there’s no doubt he has potential. At the time of the trade last season, Demeritte was hitting .286 with 28 doubles, 20 home runs and a .944 OPS for the Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers. His walk rate -- 51 walks in 399 plate appearances -- was fantastic. The power was an added bonus.
With nearly 700 career games at the minor league level, Demeritte figured to be ready for a shot at MLB pitching, but it was a struggle when he got to Detroit.
He struck out in more than a third of his plate appearances and walked less frequently than Jones. The exit velocity and hard hit rate were strong, but he didn’t hit the ball often enough for that to make a difference.
Demeritte finished his first MLB season with 38 hits, 14 walks and 63 strikeouts in 48 games. He hit three home runs and seven doubles while stealing three bases, but overall, it was a disappointing couple of months.
Like Stewart, Demeritte is still young and very early into his MLB career. There’s still hope that his power and plate discipline will translate to the big leagues.
Demeritte probably won’t start the season as an everyday player, but he’s not a bad player for a rebuilding team to have on the roster. He has upside, and he’s on a team that can afford to give him some time to work through the struggles.
Troy Stokes Jr.
A wildcard in the outfield discussion is Troy Stokes Jr., who was claimed off waivers late last year and will be 24 years old when the season rolls around.
Stokes drew 47 walks in 95 games for the Triple-A San Antonio Missions last season while also hitting 22 doubles and nine home runs. He stole 14 bases in 17 attempts.
The Tigers have plenty of hitters who struggle with strikeouts, so Stokes could be a nice change of pace. His ability to put the ball in play, get on base and tear up the base paths could earn him a role in the outfield.
His career minor league OPS is .761, with 115 doubles, 57 home runs and 129 stolen bases in 554 games. There’s not much more for him to prove at that level.
The most likely scenario for the Tigers this season is that the outfield will be bad. There are five players in the mix, and none of them have been above-average players at the MLB level for a full season. Asking multiple of them to suddenly be better than they’ve ever been is not a recipe for success.
But there’s no denying the upside of Stewart, Demeritte and Stokes. It’s not just that they’ve had success in the minors -- it’s the way they’ve had success in the minors. Plate discipline and extra-base power are skills that often translate to the MLB level. The Tigers are hoping that’s the case.
Reyes was productive late last season and Jones had one really impressive stretch. Could they extend that success over the course of a full season? We’ll likely find out in 2020.
There isn’t a lot for Tigers fans to look forward to next season at the MLB level, but the outfield could be a pleasant surprise.