DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers were by far the worst team in baseball last season, winning just 47 times and finishing more than 50 games out of the AL Central Division.
This off-season, the team didn’t make any major changes. There were a few savvy free agent signings and even more depth moves, but the absence of Nicholas Castellanos and Shane Greene for the entire season suggest 2020 could be even worse.
But there’s also a chance this season could be a step in the right direction.
As Al Avila prepares to turn the rebuilding process toward competing, there need to be obvious signs of improvement each season. It’s hard not to improve on a 47-114 record -- the question is how much better the team can be.
It seems reasonable to set the bar at a 15-game improvement. In other words, a 62-100 record by the end of the year.
Any team that loses 100 games in a season is dreadful, but from the opposite standpoint, 62 wins would mean the Tigers increase their win total by 32% in just one season. Could it happen? Maybe, but a few things have to go right.
Free agent signings pan out
Players involved: Jonathan Schoop, C.J. Cron, Austin Romine, Ivan Nova
Avila’s free agent additions alone should add nearly 10 wins this summer when compared to the production the Tigers got a season ago.
The three players who appeared at first base most often last season were Brandon Dixon, John Hicks and Miguel Cabrera. The trio combined to play 116 games at first base last season. For the full year, those players combined for -0.8 WAR. While all that negative WAR wasn’t compiled solely at first base, it’s clear the Tigers got worse than league average production at the position in 2019.
Second base was even worse. Gordon Beckham, Harold Castro, Josh Harrison and Ronny Rodriguez combined for 138 games at second base. Those four players posted a combined WAR of -2.0.
Overall, we can say the first and second base positions cost the Tigers between two and three games last year, when compared to a replacement level player. Enter, Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron.
While they’re not superstars, both School and Cron fill major short-term needs for the Tigers and should be significant upgrades.
Schoop posted a .777 OPS last season with 23 home runs and 23 doubles. He would have led the team in OPS and home runs while finishing third in doubles. The same can be said for Cron’s .780 OPS, 25 home runs and 24 doubles.
Those two players combined for 3.0 WAR last season. Schoop played just 121 games, while Cron played 125. The last time Schoop played a full season -- 160 games in 2017 -- he posted an incredible 5.2 WAR with the Baltimore Orioles. Cron played 140 games in 2018 and finished with a 2.0 WAR.
If Schoop and Cron simply continue their level of play from last season while playing around 150 games each for the Tigers, they’ll finish with around 2.0 WAR each, meaning the Tigers would gain about six wins just on the right side of the infield (from -2.0 WAR to 4.0 WAR).
Austin Romine has never been a starting catcher, but there’s no way he can be as bad as the Tigers’ catchers in 2019. It’s basically impossible. Hicks, Grayson Greiner, Jake Rogers and Bobby Wilson handled all the catching duties in Detroit last year, combining for -2.6 WAR. Hicks did some damage from first base, but more than two-thirds of his games came behind the dish.
Romine hasn’t garnered much attention because he’s 31 years old and has never played more than 80 games in his eight-year career with the New York Yankees. But in 149 games the last two seasons, Romine owns a .730 OPS with 18 home runs, 24 doubles and strong defense. He posted a 2.2 WAR over that span. If he plays around 100 games for the Tigers this season, he could be worth around three more wins than the committee that caught for the Tigers in 2019.
Ivan Nova didn’t pitch particularly well last season, posting a 4.98 FIP, a 1.455 WHIP and 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings. But his consistency in racking up 187 innings in 34 starts helped him finish with a 2.1 WAR. He’s been worth a total of 6.5 WAR over the last four years.
The Tigers had so many bad pitchers filling out the rotation last season that locking Nola into the No. 5 slot will automatically be worth a couple more wins, unless this is the year he comes unraveled.
Predicted wins added through free agency: 10
Young outfielders improve
Players involved: Christin Stewart, JaCoby Jones, Travis Demeritte
The one spot where the Tigers really have a chance to improve without personnel changes appears to be the outfield. Three young players went through growing pains last season, but showed glimpses of better times ahead.
The Tigers probably aren’t going to get more out of Victor Reyes this season after he outperformed his peripherals and batted .304 with 16 doubles, a .336 on-base percentage and nine stolen bases. His peers have plenty of room for improvement, though.
Christin Stewart seems the most likely to take a step forward. He was below replacement level last season despite hitting 25 doubles and 10 home runs in 104 games with a solid walk rate. He put the ball in play, but he only managed 86 hits in 104 games.
A combination of injuries and bad luck derailed his first full year in the majors, but the Tigers aren’t going to give up on him after just one season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Stewart rediscover his power and post an OPS around .800 this season, which would almost surely make him a multi-win player despite bad defense.
It wouldn’t take much for JaCoby Jones to do the same -- he did it just two years ago. Jones had a 2.0 WAR in 2018 thanks to elite defense and base running. Last season, he showed a better ability to put the ball in play while also improving his power numbers. His progress hit a pothole when he missing time due to injury, but Jones was a strong offensive player last year.
If he can combine last year’s offensive gains with his 2018 defense, all while staying healthy for around 150 game, Jones will be a sneaky valuable player -- perhaps even the most valuable position player on the team.
Travis Demeritte was really, really bad after coming to Detroit. He managed to accrue the most negative WAR of any position player on the team despite playing in just 48 games. He struck out more times (63) than he reached base (53) and graded out as a worse defensive outfielder than Stewart.
While he probably won’t have a starting job at the beginning of the season, Demeritte should at least improve in a part-time role this season. He had a career .803 OPS in the minors, including .944 last season in Triple-A with 20 home runs and 28 doubles in 96 games.
Stewart and Demeritte haven’t even played 130 games at the MLB level. Jones doesn’t even have 1,000 career plate appearances. The Tigers should still have hope for these young players, and if they can become even slightly above-average players, that would be a major improvement from a year ago.
Stewart, Jones and Demeritte combined for -1.7 WAR last season. It wouldn’t be a shock to see all three on the right side of zero in 2020.
Predicted wins added through young outfield improvement: 3
Starting rotation stays healthy
Players involved: Matt Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, Daniel Norris, Jordan Zimmermann, Nova, Zack Godley, Hector Santiago
Think about how unlucky the Tigers were in terms of starting pitching health last season. Their two off-season signings -- Matt Moore and Tyson Ross -- made a combined nine starts when the team was counting on them for at least 50. Jordan Zimmermann missed time again. Spencer Turnbull was dealing with issues the entire second half.
Only Matt Boyd and (who would have thought?) Daniel Norris were mostly healthy for the entire year. That translated to Ryan Carpenter, Tyler Alexander, Gregory Soto, Drew VerHagen and eventually Edwin Jackson making a combined 36 starts. Those games didn’t go well.
Avila seems to have learned from the organization’s shocking lack of MLB-ready starting pitching depth in 2019. Not only did he sign Nova for the rotation -- he also nabbed Zack Godley and Hector Santiago on minor-league deals in case the injury bug strikes again.
Behind Boyd and Norris -- the two most valuable players on the roster in 2019 -- Turnbull was extremely consistent for the first three months. He didn’t miss a single turn through the rotation his first 17 appearances, spanning from March 30 to June 27.
In those first 16 starts, Turnbull looked like a top AL Rookie of the Year candidate. He posted a 3.29 ERA with 81 strikeouts in 87. 2 innings while holding opponents to a .710 OPS and getting whiffs on 10% of his pitches. He also induced more ground balls than fly balls, which is valuable in the current home run climate.
During those first 16 starts, Turnbull failed to go five innings just twice -- going four innings both times. He posted six quality starts and went at least six innings seven times.
But he was pulled from his June 27 start against the Rangers with shoulder discomfort. When he rejoined the rotation two weeks later, he made just two starts before missing another two weeks.
Even when he was on the mound, Turnbull wasn’t nearly as effective after the injury. His final 13 starts yielded a 6.60 ERA, with batters posting a .824 OPS. His swinging strike rate remained steady, but hitters had less trouble squaring up the ball. The Tigers went 1-12 in those games.
Zimmermann has essentially been a replacement level player since arriving in Detroit, so if he stays healthy, he’ll be better than what the Tigers used as fill-ins last season, but nowhere near spectacular.
Nova will almost certainly be an improvement as the No. 5 starter, as discussed above.
If the Tigers get similar production from Boyd and Norris and a healthy season from Turnbull, the top of the rotation should be serviceable once again. The back-end of the rotation is where the team has room to make up some ground, and simply staying healthy would almost guarantee it.
Predicted wins added if starting rotation stays healthy: 3
Mid-season prospect debuts
Players involved: Alex Faedo, Beau Burrows, Isaac Paredes, Matt Manning, Casey Mize, Kyle Funkhouser, Tarik Skubal
By the time the Tigers start calling up some of their top prospects to make MLB debuts, the team will be well out of playoff contention. That doesn’t mean they can’t offer a boost to the final win total, though.
There’s a little more to be excited about heading into 2020 because the Triple-A roster will include some of the big names fans have been hearing for the last few years. Some of the team’s most important pieces for the future are just one step away from the big leagues.
Alex Faedo, Beau Burrows, Matt Manning and Kyle Funkhouser figure to be the closest to making MLB debuts if they have success with the Toledo Mud Hens. Burrows and Funkhouser are coming off dreadful 2019 performances, but they’ve been in the system for a long time and would likely get called up as soon as they show any signs of sustained success.
Faedo and Manning would really create a buzz, as would Casey Mize or Tarik Skubal joining the rotation. Those four pitchers are the foundation of the team’s rebuild, and if they get called up, it’s because the team expects them to be difference-makers right off the bat. They wouldn’t come to Detroit to struggle.
Isaac Paredes is one of the few position players who might be close to becoming a difference-maker for the Tigers. He’s only 20 years old, but he’s been in the minor leagues since 2015 and has an advanced approach at the plate, so he could possibly get his first chance in 2020.
The top minor league players in the system are expected to be much better than the current players on the roster. That’s basically the point of a rebuild. So if those players make their debuts in 2020, the expectation would be for them to have an immediate positive impact, even if it’s a gradual one.
Again, these prospects won’t be up for awhile because the Tigers have no reason to rush them. But once they arrive, they should make the team better.
Predicted wins added from top prospect promotions: 2
It seemed like Jeimer Candelario forgot how to hit last season. He came over as a top 100 prospect in the 2017 Justin Wilson trade and raked for Detroit in the final month of the season. In 2018, he took a step back. Last year, he fell apart.
Candelario was so bad at the plate last season that the Tigers sent him down to Triple-A, where he posted a .320 average and 1.004 OPS while smasking nine home runs and 10 doubles in 39 games.
When he returned to the Tigers in September, Candelario was much better, posting a .377 on-base percentage with fewer strikeouts and seven extra-base hits in 20 games.
He finished the season with an ugly .203/.306/.337 slash line, but still checked out as a 0.9 WAR player. He was a quietly strong defender at third base and salvaged something out of his offensive struggles with 43 walks and 17 doubles in 94 games.
Candelario doesn’t have to be the players who posted a .874 OPS at the end of 2017 to be a valuable asset to the Tigers. He just has to be a little more consistent than the last two years.
He’s one of the few players on the team who can consistently draw walks. Despite the struggles, his OBP has been about 100 points higher than his batting average each of the last two years, so if he can hit .250 instead of .224 and .203 -- his numbers from the last two seasons -- he could be a top-of-the-order bat.
Candelario has doubles power, some home run pop and a good glove. His batting average in 3,417 career minor-league plate appearances is .272. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him raise his MLB average to around .250.
In a full 2017 season, Candelario was a 2.0 WAR player. He was a 0.9 WAR player in about a half-season in 2019.
Candelario is a former top prospect heading into his age-26 season. He’s been strong on defense and managed to be a plus player despite his worst possible batting average coming to fruition the last two years. He could very well take a step forward in 2020 and become something close to the player the Tigers traded for in 2017.
The Tigers need to give Candelario another chance to be the everyday third baseman. At worst, he’s proven to be an above replacement level player. At best, he could blossom into the best position player on the team.
Predicted wins added from Candelario improvement: 2
If you’re a math whiz, you’ve probably figured out the predicted wins above add up to 20. But even if all these factors fall in the Tigers’ favor, there are other factors to consider.
Castellanos and Greene will play zero games for the Tigers this season. Last year, they combined for 2.9 WAR.
Buck Farmer and Victor Reyes combined for 2.7 WAR. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them fall short of that number in 2020. Likewise, Norris and Turnbull have to validate last season’s results before we feel secure about them as a five-win duo.
Detroit will still have a very bad baseball team in 2020. It could even end up being the worst team in the league for the third time in four years. But 47-114 is one of the worst records in baseball history, and there are plenty of reasons to believe the Tigers will be much better than that this season.