DETROIT – When the Detroit Tigers take the field on Opening Day, nearly half the starting lineup will be made up of new faces.
Al Avila signed outfielder Cameron Maybin to a one-year deal Wednesday, capping off what has been a fairly productive off-season for the last-place Tigers. Maybin joins Jonathan Schoop, C.J. Cron and Austin Romine as newcomers, though it’s his third time wearing the Old English D.
To be clear: The Tigers will still battle the Kansas City Royals for last place in the AL Central Division. But this year, it should be in the 60-65 win range, not an upward battle to 50.
Here’s a look at what the lineup should look like if everyone is healthy on Opening Day.
1. Cameron Maybin, RF
As much as the Tigers have improved the lineup, there still isn’t a prototypical lead-off hitter in this group. The only player on the team with a career on-base percentage north of .330 is Miguel Cabrera, and he’s certainly not going to lead off.
OBP is the most important factor in determining a lead-off hitter. The player guaranteed to get the most plate appearances on the team should be the player who gets on base most often. Speed is a luxury at the top, but especially in the home run era, in which each team seemingly has multiple players who can hit 30 home runs in the heart of the order, it’s not a necessity.
Still, teams can’t afford to have road blocks like Cabrera clogging up the base paths. Thus, we’ll go with the second-best career OBP on the team: Maybin.
For the first seven years of his career, Maybin posted a .309 OBP in over 2,000 plate appearances. He wasn’t necessarily an extra-base threat, so his inability to get on base regularly limited his ceiling at the plate. He stole 40 bases in 2011, but other than that, he didn’t look like an MLB lead-off hitter.
That started to change in 2015, and over the last five seasons, Maybin has posted on-base percentages of .327, .383, .318, .326 and .364. In total, his OBP over the last five seasons is .340, including a .383 mark his last season in Comerica Park and a .364 mark with the New York Yankees last season.
Maybin is the best on-base threat on the roster and still has a bit of speed. He was a spark plug for the offense in 2016, and the Tigers are hoping the third stint in Detroit is as successful as the second.
2. Jonathan Schoop, 2B
This is truly a tossup. The No. 2 hole should be reserved for the best all-around hitter in the lineup, and the Tigers signed two nearly identical profiles during the off-season.
Schoop and Cron could both lay claim to the second spot. Here are their numbers from 2019:
- OPS -- Schoop: .777, Cron: .780
- OBP -- Schoop: .304, Cron: .311
- HR -- Schoop: 23, Cron: 25
- 2B -- Schoop: 23, Cron: 24
- oWAR -- Schoop: 1.6, Cron: 1.1
Ideally, the No. 2 hitter in a lineup would be a guy with both extra-base power and the ability to draw walks and get on base at a high rate. Unfortunately, the Tigers don’t have any hitters like that. Schoop and Cron both racked up nearly 50 extra-base hits despite playing around 120 games last season, but neither has strong plate discipline.
We’ll go with Schoop here, not only because he was a little better all-around offensive player last season, but also because he fits the general mold of a No. 2 hitter and Cron better fits the mold of a cleanup hitter.
Schoop has a significantly better oWAR than Cron because he’s slightly above-average on the base paths. It doesn’t translate to stolen bases, but his sprint speed is above average and he can take an extra base.
Schoop was in an absolutely loaded lineup last season, but now that he’s one of the most dangerous bats on the team, he has to produce at least to the level of last year. If he could bump that OBP up around .330, the Tigers would have a legitimate No. 2 hitter.
3. Miguel Cabrera, DH
We all know who’s going to occupy the third spot in the lineup this season, and honestly, it’s probably the right call. Cabrera doesn’t have much home run power anymore -- just 31 bombs in 304 games the last three seasons -- but his on-base skills are the best on the team.
Last season, when almost the entire lineup was below .300 OBP, Cabrera reached base at a .346 clip. His lack of power and crippling base running actually made him worse than a replacement-level player offensively, according to oWAR. Can you believe that? Miguel Cabrera below replacement level offensively?
For the third straight season, the Tigers will be hoping to see Cabrera bounce back to some form of his old self. Could he hit 25 home runs? What about 30 doubles? Can he raise that OBP back around his career .392 mark?
Even if the answers to all those questions are “no,” Cabrera will still hit third because he can get on base and there aren’t many other options.
4. C.J. Cron, 1B
As stated above, Cron is almost certainly heading for a season in the cleanup spot, as long as he doesn’t completely fall apart at the plate.
Cron enjoyed a career-high hard-hit rate last season, making hard contact on 44% of his batted balls. He had an elite barrel percentage -- with 53 barrels in 458 at-bats -- and an expected slugging percentage of .548.
His expected slugging percentage was in the top 10% of the league and finished 79 points higher than his actual slugging percentage, suggesting he got pretty unlucky last season.
Cron’s 91 mph average exit velocity is much higher than Schoop’s. He was among the best hitters in the league in exit velocity, expected wOBA, expected slugging percentage and hard-hit rate. Translation: When Cron hits the ball, he hits it as hard as most of the best players in the game.
His 21.6% strikeout rate is very manageable, especially in today’s climate. If he impacts the ball like he did a year ago, Cron should be even better in 2020.
5. Niko Goodrum, SS
This is where the lineup really gets tricky. The rest of the starters are somewhat interchangeable and could be swapped throughout the season based on how they perform. Niko Goodrum could start the season here, but a month later, it could be Jeimer Candelario or Christin Stewart.
But when the team heads north from spring training, Goodrum has a good chance of hitting fifth, mostly because he appears to be an ascending offensive players who can do a bit of everything.
Goodrum was actually a more valuable offensive player than any of the new additions, according to oWAR. It was only his second season as an MLB regular, and there were positive signs about his improvement.
The power numbers stayed about the same last season. In 2018, Goodrum had 492 plate appearances and hit 29 doubles, three triples and 16 home runs for a total of 48 extra-base hits. In 472 plate appearances last season, he hit 27 doubles, five triples and 12 home runs -- 44 extra-base hits.
Most importantly, Goodrum made significant gains in terms of plate discipline. He increased his walk rate from 8.5% to 9.7% while improving his exit velocity and hard hit rate. Goodrum strikes out far too often, but his ability to make improvements season-to-season suggest he could get it down around 25%.
Ron Gardenhire loves Goodrum because he played all four infield positions and all three outfield spots in 2019. He might not be at shortstop every day, but he’ll be in the lineup much more often than not.
6. Christin Stewart, LF
If Stewart can stay healthy for a full season, he could actually be a good offensive player, and might very well move up in this lineup.
A renowned slugger at Triple-A, Stewart still only has 488 plate appearances at the MLB level. He’s played much less than a full season’s worth of games, but already has shown signs of power and plate discipline.
Stewart hit 25 doubles and 10 home runs in 104 games last season while keeping the strikeouts in check and drawing 34 walks. The knock against Stewart is he didn’t hit the ball hard consistently last season, but that was mostly due to a first 27 games that saw him hit .176 with a .647 OPS.
From May 22 on, Stewart Stewart hit .252 with 18 doubles and seven home runs in 77 games.
Stewart was a top 100 prospect because of his power. If he can stay healthy for a full season, there’s reason to believe he’ll hit the ball with more authority. That, combined with the ability to get on base, would make him a serviceable offensive player.
7. Jeimer Candelario, 3B
Dawel Lugo will be part of the third base competition this spring, but Candelario absolutely has more upside, so the best-case scenario for the Tigers is the latter runs away with the job.
Candelario had a brutal 2019 season, battling injuries and slumps so deep he had to be optioned to Triple-A Toledo. He absolutely raked with the Mud Hens, earning his way back onto the MLB roster and playing much better than early in the season.
Candelario posted a .770 OPS in September, drawing 12 walks compared to 16 strikeouts in 20 games. He looked like the player the Tigers traded for in 2017, and the .289 BABIP that month suggests his numbers could have been even better.
The 11.1% walk rate makes Candelario an interesting potential lead-off hitter if he can raise his average from near the Mendoza line to at least .250. In that range, a .375 OBP wouldn’t be out of the question for Candelario. He also has decent speed and base running ability.
The expected numbers for Candelario were higher than his final stats, so expect some positive regression this season. If he also makes more consistent contact, he’ll be a plus offensive player.
8. Austin Romine, C
Everyone is wondering how Romine will perform as a starting catcher after spending the last four seasons as the Yankees’ primary backup.
Last season was an offensive breakout for Romine, who batted .281 with a .748 OPS. He hit eight home runs in 72 games and rarely struck out. The Tigers are hoping he can bring a little pop to the bottom of the lineup while mentoring what will soon be a very young pitching staff.
Don’t expect greatness from Romine. He’s 31 years old and has never had even an above-average offensive season in his career. But the Tigers were a disaster at the catcher position, and Romine, like his brother, will be steady.
9. JaCoby Jones
Can Jones replicate his offensive success from a year ago? He hit for more power, drew more walks and finished with career numbers across the board.
An injury cut Jones’ season short, but he still managed to hit 19 doubles and 11 home runs while raising his walk rate from 5.1% to 8.1%. That’s a massive improvement, and one that suggests the tweaks Jones made to his stance are helping him cover the plate more effectively.
Jones has great speed and hits the ball extremely hard. The only real blemish on his profile is the strikeout rate, which dropped from an alarming 30.4% in 2018 to a more manageable 28.2% in 2019.
With his 45.9% hard-hit rate, 91.3 mph average exit velocity and improving walk rate, Jones would be a very good hitter if he continues to make progress as a contact hitter. He’s 27 years old, so now is the time for him to have his best full season.
The most likely scenario for the Tigers this season is that the lineup is significantly improved but still bad.
Will all three of Maybin, Schoop and Cron replicate their 2019 numbers? Probably not, but since they’ve already proven to be solid MLB hitters, there’s no reason to believe they can’t be in Detroit.
The rest of the lineup is fraught with untapped potential that has so far yielded mostly bad hitters. The best version of Jones is a good hitter. The prospect pedigrees of Stewart and Candelario suggest they can be good hitters. If all three had breakout seasons, the lineup would suddenly have a bunch of depth.
But so far, they haven’t reached their potential, and it’s approaching now-or-never time. The few position player prospects the Tigers have are going to get an opportunity sooner or later, and if the team’s elite pitching prospects get called up this season, it will create even more urgency for the team to field a competitive lineup.
Whether that’s through the minor leagues, free agency or improvement by the players in this lineup is up to Jones, Stewart and Candelario.
There won’t be a playoff push in Detroit this year, but at least there are plenty of intriguing story lines to monitor, and they’re meaningful to the team’s future.