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Pipe dream Detroit Tigers roster that could compete for World Series in 2022

How 3 free agents, 2 trades, top prospect fortune could put Tigers back in contention

Could the Tigers be good enough to compete for a World Series in 2022? It's a longshot, but not impossible.
Could the Tigers be good enough to compete for a World Series in 2022? It's a longshot, but not impossible. (Getty Images)

DETROIT – It seems like so long ago the Detroit Tigers began every single season as World Series contenders. After the team’s shocking run to the Fall Classic in 2006, the Tigers had at least some expectation of being competitive through 2016.

That was the last time the Tigers had a shot at the playoffs. In 2017, they were the worst team in baseball. The following year, they were the fifth-worst. In 2019, this team lost a miserable 114 games.

Three years into the rebuild, the organization’s progress certainly isn’t showing at the MLB level, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t making strides. Baseball rebuilds, when done correctly, don’t need to take more than five years.

Which is why, if the Tigers get lucky and play their cards right, they could be right back in the hunt by 2022.

The state of the rebuild

When Al Avila was promoted to general manager of the Tigers on Aug. 4, 2015, he inherited a payroll issue that wasn’t helped by a couple of big signings he made in an effort to stay competitive.

In 2016, the Tigers were paying Miguel Cabrera ($28 million), Justin Verlander ($28 million), Justin Upton ($22.125 million), Jordan Zimmermann ($18 million), Victor Martinez ($18 million), Anibal Sanchez ($16.8 million) and Ian Kinsler ($14 million) a combined $144.925 million.

Justin Upton #8 of the Detroit Tigers is congratulated by Miguel Cabrera #24 and Ian Kinsler #3 after scoring a run in the fourth inning during MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays on July 9, 2016 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Justin Upton #8 of the Detroit Tigers is congratulated by Miguel Cabrera #24 and Ian Kinsler #3 after scoring a run in the fourth inning during MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays on July 9, 2016 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (2016 Getty Images)

The Tigers are committed to the Cabrera deal through 2023 and the Zimmermann deal through 2020. They were committed to the Martinez, Kinsler and Sanchez deals through 2018, the Verlander deal through 2019 and the Upton deal through 2022.

Most of those players were at least 33 years old at the time. Only Upton was younger than 30.

When the Tigers missed the postseason in 2016, it was clear their window to contend with that core had closed. It was time to bite the bullet, tear it down and try to compete with a new crop of players.

Nobody knew it would get as ugly as 47-114, but that should be the absolute low point of this process for the Tigers. Avila has already accomplished two of the early goals of almost any true rebuild: Salary flexibility and stockpiling young pitching.

When the 2020 season ends, the Tigers will wave goodbye to the $25 million they’ve owed Zimmermann the last two years. They’ll also be off the hook for the $6 million annual payment to Prince Fielder.

The only contract set in stone for the Tigers in 2021 is Cabrera’s $30 million. In our target year, 2022, Cabrera will make $32 million.

Financial flexibility: Check.

The single most valuable commodity (and currency) in baseball is young, cheap starting pitchers with top-of-the-rotation upside. Well, one could argue the Tigers have six of those: Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, Franklin Perez, Alex Faedo and Joey Wentz.

CHART: The strikeouts per nine innings and swinging strike rates for each of the Tigers’ top six pitching prospects in 2019.

There’s still some hope for prospects Beau Burrows, Anthony Castro, Kyle Funkhouser, Wilkel Hernandez and Elvin Rodriguez, too. Matt Boyd and Spencer Turnbull are still under team control for several seasons.

Young pitching: Stockpiled.

The route to World Series contention is clear: These young pitchers have to develop into an elite, but cheap, starting rotation. Avila then has to turn around and capitalize on the salary freedom to fill holes in the everyday lineup.

2020 off-season

The beauty of this off-season for the Tigers is they’ve accomplished their goal of improving the team in the short-term while protecting that precious financial flexibility for the future.

Jonathan Schoop, C.J. Cron, Austin Romine, Ivan Nova and Cameron Maybin will cost the team between $19.3 million and $20.6 million (depending on how the Maybin incentives play out) in 2020. But when the season ends, so do the Tigers’ commitments, keeping options open.

Competitive balance tax

The current dollar amount for the first competitive balance tax threshold is $208 million. If the Tigers exceed that amount, they’ll have to pay a 20% tax the first year, with an additional 10% being tacked on for each consecutive year they’re above the $208 million mark.

Obviously, no owner wants to pay that tax, so for the purpose of this pipe dream, we’ll assume keeping the payroll below $208 million is a priority for owner Chris Ilitch. While he says he’ll be willing to spend money when it’s time for the Tigers to get back in the playoff mix, we won’t know if that’s the case until the rebuild ends.

What needs to happen in 2020

For the Tigers to be aggressive in the loaded 2021 free agent pool, the young pitchers will need to prove later this season that they’re ready to be high-end MLB starters.

Hypothetically, if some combination of Faedo, Manning, Mize and Skubal make their MLB debuts late this season and struggle, the Tigers might feel they’re still a couple years away from true contention. Some prospects come up to the MLB level and succeed right away. Others fail the first time but improve in their second stint. Others never pan out.

If even two of those young pitchers arrive in Detroit in the second half and become solidified members of the rotation, the Tigers might attack next off-season with a little more urgency, trying to get the pieces in place for a playoff run in 2022.

Any team that makes the playoffs in baseball is a World Series contender. Look no further than the 2019 Washington Nationals, which needed the heroics of a 20-year-old outfielder to survive the wildcard game and then ran through the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers and loaded Houston Astros en route to a title. Another example: the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals team that beat the Tigers in the World Series. St. Louis was the 13th-best team in baseball that year, with just 83 wins.

Get into the postseason with a strong rotation and you’ve got a chance.

Starting rotation

No matter who the Tigers target in free agency, this organization’s next era will be defined by starting pitching. Almost every resource available to Avila has been used to acquire young pitching -- including the team’s first-round draft picks in 2016, 2017 and 2018, as well as the Verlander, Kinsler, Upton, Mike Fiers, Shane Greene and Nicholas Castellanos trades.

SP1: Matt Manning

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 24
  • How he got here: 2016 first-round draft pick (No. 9 overall)
  • Contract details: Pre-arbitration

While Baseball America and MLB Pipeline both list Mize as the team’s No. 1 prospect, there’s plenty of reason to believe Manning will develop into the more dominant starting pitcher.

It’s been well-documented that Manning was raw when the Tigers drafted him in 2016. He was more of an athlete than an actual baseball player, and his 6-foot-6 frame made him a project in terms of mechanics and repeating his delivery.

Normal growing pains aside, Manning’s ascent through the minor leagues has been impressive. His first full workload came in 2018, when he pitched in Single-A, High-A and Double-A, striking out 154 batters in 117.2 innings with a bit of a high walk rate but solid numbers across the board. His 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings sparked a meteoric rise through prospect rankings -- one that hasn’t stopped to this day.

Matt Manning #83 of the Detroit Tigers pitches during Spring Training workouts at the TigerTown Facility on February 17, 2020 in Lakeland, Florida.
Matt Manning #83 of the Detroit Tigers pitches during Spring Training workouts at the TigerTown Facility on February 17, 2020 in Lakeland, Florida. (Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Last year, Manning’s strikeout numbers dipped a bit, falling to 10 strikeouts per nine innings, but he was more consistent in every other aspect. He posted a 0.980 WHIP, 2.56 ERA and 2.6 walks per nine innings in 133.2 innings pitched.

For his career, Manning owns an 11.1 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 and 1.122 WHIP in 331.2 innings. Those are the early indications of a potential ace pitcher.

Manning’s big frame helps him ramp up the fastball to the mid-90s, and it’s turned into a devastating pitch since he learned how to locate it. His curveball is one of the best in the minors, and the change-up can miss bats, as well.

An underrated part of Manning’s skill set is his ability to keep the ball in the yard at a time when home runs are on the rise. He allowed just seven home runs each of the last two seasons -- or about half of a home run per nine innings.

Opponents posted a .540 OPS against Manning last season while whiffing on 12% of his pitches and hitting nearly as many ground balls as fly balls.

Manning was named the Tigers’ Minor League Player of the Year in 2019 and just turned 22 years old. If his success translates to Triple-A this season, he’ll likely get a shot at MLB batters sometime late in the year.

SP2: Casey Mize

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 24
  • How he got here: 2018 first-round draft pick (No. 1 overall)
  • Contract details: Pre-arbitration

Mize is the crowned jewel of the Tigers farm system, ranked the No. 1 right-handed pitcher by MLB Pipeline and the No. 2 right-handed pitcher by Baseball America. Both publications have Mize in the top 15 overall and rank him as the No. 1 player in the Tigers organization.

Mize was an easy choice at 1.1 in the 2018 draft. He was dominant at Auburn, striking out 324 batters in 267.1 career innings while issuing just 43 walks and 219 hits. He had more than 7.5 strikeouts for every walk in college while posting a 2.96 ERA and 0.980 WHIP. In his career, he struck out 51 more batters than he allowed to reach base.

He carried that dominance into Single-A this year. Only 17 out of 107 batters reached base in his six starts while he struck out 30 in 30.2 innings. When he made the jump to Double-A Erie, he promptly tossed a no-hitter the very first start.

The first nine games in Double-A went smoothly, as Mize allowed just 49 batters to reach base while striking out 50 in 52 innings. Hitters posted a .191 average and a .504 OPS while swinging and missing at 14% of his offerings.

The only true risk with Mize was always health, and that derailed his first full professional season when he left a June 13 start with what the team called “minor shoulder inflammation.” He only missed one month, but the results were ugly when he returned to Double-A. Mize surrendered 21 earned runs in 26.2 innings and allowed an .846 OPS.

His struggles came in a small sample size but offered a sobering reminder about the inherent risks of prospects.

As long as Mize is healthy, there’s little concern about his performance. He has elite control and an absolutely devastating splitter. His mid-90s fastball and swing-and-miss slider would be No. 1 pitches for most prospects, but Mize is unique in that he has three above-average options.

The combination of elite pitches and pinpoint control make Mize a can’t-miss prospect. If he stays healthy, he’s essentially a lock to join the top of the Tigers’ rotation in the near future.

SP3: Matt Boyd

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 31
  • How he got here: Acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays in the July 30, 2015, David Price trade
  • Contract details: $8 million arbitration deal

If the Tigers don’t trade Matt Boyd, he’ll be the veteran of the 2022 rotation, and he’ll also be in his final year before free agency.

Boyd and the Tigers avoided arbitration with a 1-year, $5.3 million deal for 2020, but assuming his performance continues to improve, that number will increase over the next two years.

After three decent seasons at the backend of the starting rotation, Boyd emerged as a true ace in 2019, striking out 11.6 batters per nine innings -- an almost unheard of increase from his previous career rate of 7.7 K/9.

The best part about Boyd’s strikeout rate: His walk rate simultaneously hit a career low. The result was a ridiculous 4.76 strikeouts per walk, which ranked 10th in baseball behind the likes of Verlander, Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom and Walker Buehler.

Boyd has one Achilles heel: home runs. He served up a league-leading 39 bombs in 2019 -- nearly two home runs per every nine innings. That caused his ERA to balloon to 4.59 by the end of the season, and his 4.32 FIP was only a little better.

The underlying numbers suggest Boyd got a bit unlucky in the home run department, which is no surprise for a pitcher who gave up more than three dozen long balls. In his previous three seasons with the Tigers, Boyd allowed home runs on 12.9%, 10.6% and 11.2% of fly balls. In 2019, that number spiked to 18.2%.

Now, some of that increase was earned. Boyd gave up a career-high 40.7% hard-hit rate. But an increase of 3.2% in hard-hit rate wouldn’t typically translate to 7% more fly balls clearing the fence, especially when the rest of the numbers -- soft contact, pull rate, line drive rate -- look mostly similar.

The point is, Boyd’s home run rate looks a little fluky, and he’s almost sure to see some regression there. Fortunately, his improvements are backed up by the advanced stats. Boyd was among the league’s elite in swinging strike rate, generating whiffs on 14% of his pitches.

Boyd has long been a good control pitcher, and now he knows how to miss bats. Right now he’s a below-average No. 1 starting pitcher, but he would be an excellent No. 3 if he can reel in some of those home runs.

SP4: Tarik Skubal

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 25
  • How he got here: 2018 ninth-round draft pick (No. 255 overall)
  • Contract details: Pre-arbitration

The Tigers caught a massive break when they drafted Skubal in the ninth-round of the 2018 draft. He’s since risen from outside the team’s top 20 prospects to the No. 46 overall prospect on MLB Pipeline and No. 34 overall prospect on Baseball America.

He wasn’t one of the first 250 players selected in his own draft, but now he’s considered one of the best 50 players in the minor leagues.

Skubal earned his rise to prospect fame. He was very good in 15 starts for Lakeland last year, striking out 97 batters in 80.1 innings with a 2.58 ERA and 1.008 WHIP. He paired those numbers with a 2.1 BB/9 and 0.6 HR/9.

Skubal fever didn’t really ramp up until he got to Erie, though. He completely overwhelmed Double-A hitters, striking out 82 of the 170 batters he faced while allowing just 44 to reach base. His 17.4 strikeouts per nine innings overshadowed a 2.13 ERA and 1.016 WHIP. The only blemish was a 3.8 BB/9, but with a K/BB rate north of 4.5, you can live with the walks.

Skubal’s 22% swinging strike rate is obviously unsustainable, but the fact that he did it over nine starts and 42.1 innings is a testament to his raw stuff. It takes some nasty pitches to make professional batters whiff on nearly a quarter of your offerings, no matter the sample size.

There’s a chance Skubal could be the ace of this staff someday, but if the walk rate hovers around 3.5 per nine and the strikeouts come down to a human level, he won’t be quite as dominant.

Like Mize, Skubal’s biggest concern is health. The reason the Tigers were able to draft him in the ninth round is he had Tommy John surgery in college. It certainly seems like he’s returned as strong as ever, but, again, young pitchers come with risk.

Skubal showcased a mid- to high-90s fastball and has three true secondary pitches -- slider, curveball, change-up. His slider is the real culprit behind the incredible strikeout rate, but all four of his pitches are weapons.

Since he’s only had a taste of Double-A, Skubal will most likely debut in 2021. If he succeeds, this could be where he lands in the starting rotation to begin 2022.

SP5: Joey Wentz

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 24
  • How he got here: Acquired from the Atlanta Braves in the July 31, 2019, Shane Greene trade
  • Contract details: Pre-arbitration

How likely are the Tigers to get four of their top prospects into the starting rotation by 2022? A lot would have to go right, and those outside the big three are much harder to project.

This fifth spot could theoretically go to several players, perhaps most notably Faedo or Perez. But what Wentz showed in five starts with the SeaWolves was extremely encouraging.

Atlanta drafted Wentz with the No. 40 overall pick in the first-round of the 2016 draft. As a 19-year-old he dominated Single-A, striking out 152 batters in 131.2 innings with a 2.50 ERA and 1.101 WHIP. The following season, he battled injuries to post a 2.28 ERA and 1.090 WHIP in High-A ball, though the strikeouts plummeted to 7.1 per nine innings.

Wentz dropped from the No. 46 prospect in baseball to outside the top 100 and was struggling at Double-A Mississippi before the trade to Detroit.

Then, pitching alongside Mize, Manning, Faedo and Skubal in Erie, he put together the best short stretch of his career. Wentz allowed just 20 hits, four walks and six runs in 25.2 innings. He struck out 37 batters while posting a 2.10 ERA and 0.935 WHIP.

But to truly appreciate his dominance, you have to look at the swinging strike rate. He got whiffs on 19% of his pitches, including two starts of at least 20 swings and misses.

Home runs could be an issue for Wentz, as he allowed twice as many fly balls as ground balls in 2019.

Even when he was giving up too many runs in Mississippi, Wentz was still striking out about a batter per inning. His arsenal is built on a mid-90s fastball that he commands very well. His curveball and change-up project as plus pitches, and they were working for him in Erie as his strikeout rate soared.

If Wentz becomes the fifth member of this hypothetical rotation, the Tigers would have three left-handers -- a coup for an organization that used first-round picks on right-handed starters -- Burrows, Manning, Faedo and Mize -- four years in a row.

Everyday lineup

The offense is where Avila will have to spend some free agent money, and luckily, if four of the five starting pitchers haven’t even hit arbitration yet, there will be plenty of money to spend.

Remember that Cabrera’s $32 million is already locked in for 2022. Beyond that, the Tigers can go crazy the next two years in free agency. One glance at the current lineup will tell you that’s what it’ll take to field a playoff caliber offense.

Buckle up, this is the definition of “pipe dream.”

1. Mookie Betts, RF

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 29
  • How he would get here: Free agency 2021
  • Contract details: 10 years, $400 million

That’s right -- MOOKIE BETTS. We’re starting off with a bang!

Somebody is going to get one of the five best players in baseball this off-season, and the Tigers should at least consider the rare opportunity to sign an elite everyday player in his prime.

There are obvious pros and cons when committing to a massive contract. It might not be the best long-term move, but that’s what it takes to get a player like Betts. He would make an average salary of $40 million from 2021 through 2031 -- until he’s 38 years old.

Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox runs to the dugout during the fifth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on September 29, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox runs to the dugout during the fifth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on September 29, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (2019 Getty Images)

Why would the Tigers surrender some of their newfound financial flexibility? Locking up Betts would give the Tigers a player to build around throughout the entire Mize-Manning-Skubal era. If those pitchers debut in 2020 or 2021, they’ll be under team control until 2026 or 2027. That time span would include Betts’ age 28 through age 34 seasons, and he should still be productive.

Why is Betts worth this type of investment? He’s not quite Mike Trout good, but other than Trout, Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger and maybe Ronald Acuna, there’s no everyday player who can match his value in today’s game.

In six MLB seasons, Betts has already racked up 42 WAR, including four straight years of at least 6.4 WAR and top eight finishes in AL MVP voting.

Betts has a career slash line of .301/.374/.519. He has 371 career walks and 464 career strikeouts in 794 games. He’s a major plus on the base paths and the best defensive right fielder in the world, winning four straight Gold Glove awards.

Betts is absolutely the type of player to build an offense around, and he’s right in the middle of his prime. No single player -- other than Trout -- has the ability to make a franchise-changing impact at the plate, in the field and on the base paths more so than Betts.

2. Austin Martin, SS

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 23
  • How he would get here: 2020 first-round draft pick (No. 1 overall)
  • Contract details: Pre-arbitration

Detroit has a very important decision to make at the top of the 2020 draft. Most expect the Tigers to take an elite bat, but if there’s a pitcher who stands out above every other player -- Mize comes to mind -- then Avila might not fill a hole in the lineup.

The college baseball season is just underway, but as of now it appears to be a three-man race for the top spot in the draft: infielder Austin Martin, first baseman Spencer Torkelson and pitcher Emerson Hancock.

As we stated above, the Tigers have used pretty much every resource at their disposal to stockpile pitching prospects. That changed in 2019 when Avila selected Riley Greene with the No. 5 pick. In this dream scenario, the Tigers are going offense again, drafting the Vanderbilt shortstop.

Martin is considered the best all-around hitter in the 2020 draft, though Torkelson has more raw power. Martin led Vanderbilt to a College World Series championship last season, batting .387 with a .478 OBP, 19 doubles, 10 home runs and 18 stolen bases. He drew 38 walks compared to 34 strikeouts and racked up 101 hits in just 63 games.

Austin Martin #16 of the Vanderbilt Commodores gets thrown out at first base in the third inning against the Michigan Wolverines during game two of the College World Series Championship Series on June 25, 2019 at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha in Omaha, Nebraska.
Austin Martin #16 of the Vanderbilt Commodores gets thrown out at first base in the third inning against the Michigan Wolverines during game two of the College World Series Championship Series on June 25, 2019 at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha in Omaha, Nebraska. (2019 Getty Images)

Martin has drawn comparisons to Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman -- one of the best all-around hitters in the game. As a college junior, he would have a chance to move through the minors quickly and earn a spot in the 2022 lineup.

Scouts love Martin because he already has an elite understanding of the strike zone at 20-years-old, evidenced by his walk-to-strikeout rate. Martin might not be a 40 home run guy, but he hits the ball so hard and makes consistent enough contact to someday be the type of player who hits 30 home runs and 40 doubles while reaching base at an elite clip.

The Tigers have a few solid shortstop prospects in Willi Castro, Wenceel Perez and Adinso Reyes, but none of them have superstar potential like Martin. In an era with so many star shortstops, the Tigers can’t afford to fall behind at the position.

3. Riley Greene, LF

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 21
  • How he got here: 2019 first-round draft pick (No. 5 overall)
  • Contract details: Pre-arbitration

Greene would be the youngest player in this lineup, hitting third for the Tigers after just two and a half seasons of professional ball.

One of the pros of drafting Greene at No. 5 overall was that despite being a high schooler, he is expected to move through the system quickly. This quickly? Time will tell. He showed promise in 57 games last season, graduating from Rookie and Low-A to end the season with Single-A West Michigan.

Overall, Greene hit .271 with five home runs, eight doubles, three triples and a .749 OPS in the minors. He showed enough to be named the No. 31 prospect and No. 9 outfielder in MLB Pipeline’s top 100 and the No. 49 overall prospect in Baseball America’s rankings.

Both major prospect outlets project Greene to make his MLB debut in 2023, but it’s not unheard of for high-end hitters to fast track in today’s game. Over the last few years, Juan Soto, Ronald Acuna, Victor Robles, Rafael Devers, Adalberto Mondesi and others have had success in the majors, and all debuted when they were younger than Greene will be in 2022.

He’ll need to make strides in 2020 and 2021 to put himself in position for a promotion by 2022. There’s little doubt Greene will someday hit for both average and power because of his reliable skill set. Will it be in two years? Well, this is a pipe dream, remember?

4. Anthony Rizzo, 1B

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 32
  • How he would get here: Free agency 2022
  • Contract details: Four years, $112 million

The Chicago Cubs will probably pick up Anthony Rizzo’s $16.5 million option in 2021, but in two years, there’s a good chance he’ll become a free agent as the team eyes a bit of a rebuild. The market for a 32-year-old first baseman might not be particularly hot, but the Tigers would still have to pay Rizzo near top-value at his position.

Paul Goldschmidt is making $26 million per year, second only to Albert Pujols, who doesn’t play much first base anymore. Rizzo would likely make more than Goldschmidt in free agency, but he wouldn’t necessarily get a long-term deal.

If the Tigers could lock up Rizzo for an average of $28 million for four years, especially his age 32 through age 35 seasons, it would be a tremendous value. He would be a consistent middle-of-the-order bat and a leader in the clubhouse who has won a World Series and been to the playoffs several years in a row. And, the Tigers would get out before he hits his late 30s.

Rizzo has hit between 25 and 32 home runs each of the last six seasons with a .388 OBP, a .901 OPS and an average of 33 doubles. He has three Gold Gloves at first base and never finishes with an OBP under .375.

Betts would be the flashy signing in 2021 and the prospects coming up would be the talk of the town, but Rizzo would be a true stabilizing force in the heart of the order. He’s played at least 140 games each of the last seven seasons and is a guaranteed source of power and OBP year-in and year-out. Detroit would need this type of veteran presence with so many young players on the roster.

5. D.J. LeMahieu, 2B

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 33
  • How he would get here: Free agency 2021
  • Contract details: Three years, $48 million

Tigers fans were hoping this homecoming would happen last off-season, but instead, D.J. LeMahieu went to New York and nearly won the MVP award with the Yankees. There were questions about whether LeMahieu could thrive outside Coors Field in Colorado, and he answered those with the best offensive season of his career.

In 145 games, LeMahieu hit 33 doubles and 26 home runs while eclipsing 100 RBI and runs scored. He slashed .327/.375/.518 and posted an even 6.0 WAR.

New York signed LeMahieu to a two-year, $24 million deal that expires after the 2020 season. He’ll be 32 years old next off-season, but assuming he turns in another strong season, he’s due for a bit of a pay raise.

No other second basemen make near as much as the $29 million owed to Jose Altuve or the $24 million for Robinson Cano, but LeMahieu would certainly have a claim to the third-highest salary at his position.

DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees hits a game-tying two-run home run against the Houston Astros during the ninth inning in game six of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park on October 19, 2019 in Houston, Texas.
DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees hits a game-tying two-run home run against the Houston Astros during the ninth inning in game six of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park on October 19, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (2019 Getty Images)

The Brother Rice High School graduate could finally play for his hometown team while also making elite money at his position. Everybody wins!

LeMahieu has three Gold Glove awards in his trophy case, including in 2017 and 2018. He’s made three All-Star games and won the Silver Slugger for second basemen in 2019. If the Tigers ever needed to shift the infield around, he played 52 games at third base and 40 games at first base last year.

A lineup that includes Betts, Rizzo and LeMahieu would be a nightmare for opposing pitchers. They aren’t necessarily elite power hitters -- all three could hit between 25 and 30 home runs and it wouldn’t be a surprise -- but they have high OBPs and don’t strike out often. It would be a difficult top five hitters to navigate, especially if Martin maintains his college plate discipline.

LeMahieu, like Rizzo, is a veteran who’s played in the postseason, represented his team in the All-Star game and knows the grind of an MLB season. It would be valuable for Martin to break into the majors with LeMahieu as his double play partner.

6. Miguel Cabrera, DH

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 38
  • How he got here: Acquired from the Florida Marlins in the Dec. 4, 2007, trade that involved top Tigers prospects Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller.
  • Contract details: Eight years, $240 million

Yes, it’s much more fun to envision big free agent signings and successful prospect promotions, but Cabrera will still be around in 2022, and since he’s set to make $32 million, he’ll be in the lineup as long as he can hold a bat and hobble around the bases.

Cabrera will be in the penultimate year of his $240 million contract, which pays him $30 million in 2020 and 2021 before increasing to $32 million for 2022 and 2023. Part of the justification for the Betts contract would be that Cabrera will be off the books well before Betts starts to decline. One mega deal at a time -- I’m not unreasonable!

But for 2022, the Tigers will just have to hope Cabrera can be a solid designated hitter toward the back of the lineup. His numbers last season wouldn’t have been as problematic if he was the fifth or sixth best hitter on the team, but when he’s in the heart of the order, a .744 OPS doesn’t cut it.

Two years ago, Cabrera got off to a nice start before his season ended 38 games in. He only had three home runs, but he was batting .299 with 22 walks and 11 doubles in 38 games. If he could be a low .800s OPS-type hitter moving forward, the Tigers would be happy with him in the No. 6 spot.

Since his first full MLB season in 2004 -- yes, 16 years ago -- Cabrera has only finished with an OPS south of .800 twice: 2017 and 2019. His .843 OPS in 2018 was the third-lowest of his career. Cabrera is one of the best players of this era and a no-doubt hall of famer, but there aren’t many positive signs for him going forward.

If you’re searching for some hope, Cabrera still had good plate discipline in 2019. He only struck out 108 times while drawing 48 walks -- good for a .346 OPS.

Cabrera was an elite player for 13 years, but he’s been a little worse than replacement-level the last three seasons combined. His salary will keep him in the lineup. The question is whether he can recapture any of his old power.

7. Isaac Paredes, 3B

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 23
  • How he got here: Acquired from the Chicago Cubs in the July 31, 2017, Justin Wilson trade
  • Contract details: Pre-arbitration

While it takes some projection to put Martin and Greene in the starting lineup by 2022, it’s much easier to see a path for Paredes. In fact, it will be a surprise if Paredes isn’t starting at the hot corner by then.

Since being acquired in the trade that sent Justin Wilson and Alex Avila to the Cubs at the 2017 deadline, Paredes has risen into the organization’s top five prospects and is the best offensive player in the system behind Greene. Baseball America ranks Paredes as the No. 100 prospect in the game.

Paredes was a little underappreciated last season because he only hit 13 home runs in 127 games with the SeaWolves. He’s only 20-years-old and his power is expected to develop, but what makes him an exciting prospect is his plate discipline.

In addition to racking up 135 hits last year, Paredes drew 57 walks while striking out 61 times. His career .355 OBP in the minors demonstrates an advanced understanding of the strike zone for such a young player.

Paredes could play anywhere on the infield, but he doesn’t have great range and his best defensive attribute is arm strength. That sounds like a player would could either be an average middle infielder or a very good defensive third baseman.

Since the minor league season ended, Paredes has played 59 games in the Arizona Fall League and the Mexican Pacific Winter League, drawing 29 walks and striking out 31 times. He only hit four home runs, seven doubles and two triples over that span, but again, scouts believe his power will improve.

Paredes has a chance to break into the big leagues in 2020 if he succeeds at Triple-A. If he’s batting seventh by 2022, the team’s lineup will have good depth.

8. Keibert Ruiz, C

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 23
  • How he would get here: Trade with Los Angeles Dodgers
  • Contract details: Pre-arbitration

The Tigers have a handful of young catchers vying for the starting spot in 2020, but none of them have shown they can be a No. 1 catcher on a World Series contender.

There will be options in free agency the next couple of years, including J.T. Realmuto, perhaps the best catcher in the game, and Chrisitan Vazquez. But if the Tigers have already paid up for Betts, Rizzo and LeMahieu, we should probably try to find a cheaper option behind the dish.

Keibert Ruiz is one of the top prospects in the Dodgers organization. He’s ranked No. 33 overall by MLB Pipeline and No. 81 overall by Baseball America. Why would the Dodgers trade such a promising young prospect? Well, there’s an even better prospect ahead of him, and that prospect has already made the MLB roster.

Will Smith is a 24-year-old former first-round pick who made his MLB debut last season. He played just 54 games but still managed to hit 15 home runs and nine doubles while posting a .337 OBP and .907 OPS. His 1.6 WAR in just a third of the season suggests Smith is a possible star at the position, and he’ll be the team’s No. 1 catcher as they begin 2020 with World Series aspirations.

Smith is under team control until 2026. Sure, Ruiz could be a backup straight through his prime, but the Dodgers would much rather flip him for better value, one can assume.

The Tigers have Austin Romine to lead the young pitching staff in 2020, and they will probably go a similar route in 2021, whether that’s another year of Romine or a similar veteran catcher. But to lengthen the lineup, a better offensive player would be ideal.

Ruiz has struggled offensively the last two seasons, finishing below-average in terms of OPS. But he almost never strikes out, walking 30 times compared to 22 strikeouts in 85 games last season. He has some power, but his calling card will always be his elite contact rate, which should translate to s high batting average and OBP.

Keibert Ruiz #7 of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the World Team bats against the U.S. Team during the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game at Nationals Park on July 15, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Keibert Ruiz #7 of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the World Team bats against the U.S. Team during the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game at Nationals Park on July 15, 2018 in Washington, DC. (2018 Getty Images)

Detroit would love to bring in a catcher with that profile to match with Jake Rogers, who would also be on the roster in a semi-platoon role against lefties. Rogers is a lefty masher and Ruiz, a switch hitter, is more dangerous batting from the left side.

Rogers is much more defensive minded, though Ruiz is considered a good defender and an improving game-caller, per Baseball America.

If it wasn’t for Smith, Ruiz would be knocking on the door of an MLB opportunity the next two years, so it makes sense for the Dodgers to trade him.

Los Angeles would likely be interested in acquiring young, high-upside starting pitchers to go with an offense that will still have Bellinger, Smith, Max Muncy, A.J. Pollock and Gavin Lux. Alex Wood will be a free agent in 2021, Clayton Kershaw in 2022 and David Price and Ross Stripling in 2023. It would make sense for the Tigers to send some of their pitching depth to the Dodgers for Ruiz the off-season before 2022.

Avila wouldn’t send one of the top three pitching prospects to Los Angeles, but he would likely be willing to deal Faedo as the centerpiece of the trade. Faedo is a borderline top 100 prospect who received consideration from some Baseball America voters. He’s 24-years-old, nearly ready to join an MLB rotation and under team control for at least six years.

Faedo alone might not be enough, though, so the Tigers would also send Turnbull and Jeimer Candelario to Los Angeles in the deal. Turnbull was the Tigers’ second-best pitcher as a rookie last season and is under team control until 2025. Candelario is a high-upside infielder under team control until 2024, and the Dodgers might see him as a cheap option to take over for Justin Turner, if Candelario has a bounce back season.

So, to summarize, the Tigers would trade Faedo, Turnbull and Candelario to the Dodgers for Ruiz, likely in the off-season preceding the 2022 season.

9. Daz Cameron, CF

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 25
  • How he got here: Acquired from the Houston Astros in the Aug. 31, 2017, Justin Verlander trade
  • Contract details: Pre-arbitration

By now you know that Perez isn’t in the starting rotation and Rogers isn’t the starting catcher, so it’s up to Daz Cameron to bear the burden of the infamous Verlander trade.

When the Tigers traded for Cameron, he was a 20-year-old outfielder with exciting speed and power tools. He’s flashed potential the last two years but hasn’t quite put it all together.

Cameron spent the entire 2019 season at Triple-A Toledo, suggesting he’s as close as can be to making the MLB roster. But his mammoth strikeout rate and a well below-average OPS never gave the Tigers a reason to call him up.

JaCoby Jones never quite had the prospect hype of Cameron, but the latter looked a lot like the former in Triple-A. Cameron struck out 152 times in 120 games while managing to hit 13 home runs and 22 doubles and steal 17 bases. He has speed. He has power. He can even draw a walk -- 62 free passes in 2019, good for a .330 OBP. But Cameron can’t strike out at such a high rate.

Cameron is considered an excellent fielder with the range to man center field in Comerica Park and a strong arm to go with it.

Baseball America ranks Cameron as the No. 7 prospect in the organization, while MLB Pipeline ranks him eighth. He certainly doesn’t look like a superstar, however there’s a chance he becomes a strong center fielder with the ability to hit for some power and be a plus on the base paths. That wouldn’t be a bad player to round out the starting lineup.

Bullpen

The bullpen is a major reason the Tigers haven’t won a World Series title in the last 15 years. One of the advantages of having so many talented pitching prospects is some are bound to turn into relief pitchers.

Detroit actually has a few players in its current bullpen who could be long-term contributors. Unlike during the Joe Nathan and Francisco Rodriguez days, there’s a crop of young relievers who throw hard and can miss bats.

Is the closer of the future already on the roster? Can a couple current starters transition to late-inning roles? In this scenario, the answer to both questions is yes.

RHP Joe Jimenez

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 27
  • How he got here: Signed as amateur free agent in 2013
  • Contract details: $3 million arbitration deal

All signs point to Joe Jimenez being the Tigers’ closer of the future, if specialized closers are still a thing by then.

Jimenez had his struggles in 2019, allowing 13 home runs in 59.2 innings, which inflated his FIP to 4.66 and his WHIP to 1.324. Other than the home runs, though, Jimenez was mostly effective.

His strikeout rate increased to 12.4 K/9 and was supported by a 15% swinging strike rate. His walk rate remained consistent with the previous season and he allowed less than a hit per inning. The perception of Jimenez’s 2019 season would be much different if a handful of those home runs stayed in the yard.

Concerns about Jimenez’s home run rate might be a bit overblown, especially considering he surrendered less hard contact than his first two seasons in MLB. In 2017 and 2018, Jimenez gave up hard contact more than 39% of the time. In 2019, that number dipped to 36.5%.

At the same time, his home run to fly ball rate nearly tripled -- from 6.8% to 18.3%. His 2017 rate of 13.3% might be a better indication of what to expect in the future. There’s little reason to believe Jimenez should have given up home runs on nearly a fifth of his fly balls in 2019. He fell victim to some bad home run luck, and that should regress in 2020.

When Jimenez took over as the team’s full-time closer after the July 31 trade deadline, he managed to post a 3.06 ERA with 23 strikeouts and six walks in 17.2 innings. His swinging strike rate dipped to 13%, but that’s not enough of a difference over a small sample size to warrant concern.

Jimenez allowed batters to post an .815 OPS and bat .349 on balls in play once he took over as closer, but he still converted nine of 10 save opportunities, allowing just two runs in 8.2 innings. He looks cut out to be an MLB closer, and the Tigers have him wrapped up until 2024.

RHP Bryan Garcia

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 26
  • How he got here: 2016 sixth-round draft pick (No. 175 overall)
  • Contract details: Pre-arbitration

What once looked like a fast track to the major leagues turned into a long, hard road for Bryan Garcia when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2018. Garcia missed that entire season and didn’t return to the mound until May 3, 2019. Four months later, he made his MLB debut.

Garcia’s first taste of the big leagues didn’t go well. He allowed nine runs on nine hits and five walks in just 6.2 innings, good for a disastrous 5.31 FIP, 2.100 WHIP and 6.8 BB/9.

The only positive sign for Garcia was his swinging strike rate, which was 15% with the Tigers after holding steady at 14% throughout the minor league season.

One bad stint won’t sour the Tigers on Garcia, though. He’s the only relief pitcher ranked in the team’s top 30 prospects and has baffled minor-league hitters his entire career.

In parts of three seasons, Garcia owns an 11.5 K/9 in the minor leagues with a 1.172 WHIP and 2.04 ERA. Walks have been an issue in the upper minors, a trend that continued as he issued nearly four free passes per nine innings in Toledo last season. Wildness obviously manifested into disaster when he reached Detroit.

Garcia is really only a two-pitch pitcher, but his fastball-slider combination is plenty good enough to be effective out of the bullpen. The Tigers hope he can get the walk rate under control, but even if he doesn’t he’ll be a piece of the bullpen because of his ability to miss bats.

RHP Buck Farmer

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 31
  • How he got here: 2013 fifth-round draft pick (No. 156 overall)
  • Contract details: $2 million arbitration deal

Detroit has stuck with Buck Farmer through thick and thin, and until last season, there was much thinner.

Farmer was the team’s top pitching prospect during the days when the farm system was among the worst in the game. He didn’t fully convert into a relief pitcher until 2018, and it wasn’t a smooth transition.

He found his footing in 2019, posting a 3.88 FIP and striking out more than a batter per inning. His walk and home run rates bordered on concerning for a relief pitcher, but the underlying numbers suggest Farmer’s breakout was more or less legitimate.

As he enters his third full season as a relief pitcher in his late 20s, there’s reason to expect Farmer to take another step forward in 2020. By 2022, he could be a very useful middle or late reliever on a cheap arbitration deal. At the very least, he’s a reliable volume arm, pitching nearly 70 innings in around 70 appearances each of the last two years.

LHP Gregory Soto

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 27
  • How he got here: Signed as amateur free agent in 2012
  • Contract details: Pre-arbitration

There was some buzz surrounding Gregory Soto’s call-up last season, if for no other reason than fans were excited to see one of the team’s top 30 prospects perform in an otherwise lost season.

Overall, Soto was terrible. But somehow, the underlying numbers thought he was better than replacement level. What’s up with that?

It had everything to do with role for Soto. In his first 10 outings, he made seven starts and never pitched beyond the seventh inning. The results: 28 earned runs in 29 innings, a .983 opponent OPS and a minuscule 8% swinging strike rate. Yuck.

When Soto was moved to a late relief role, his numbers got much better. He allowed just nine runs in 28.2 innings while striking out 23 batters and allowing a .779 OPS. His swinging strike rate was still 8%, but he projects as someone who could miss bats in the future.

In seven minor-league seasons, Soto struck out an average of 9.8 batters per nine innings. That’s a sample size of 476.1 innings. His walk rate was way too high and ultimately destroyed his WHIP, but he could definitely get whiffs.

In 2018 and before being called up in 2019, Soto generated swings and misses on 11% of his pitches. That’s not an elite rate, but he can get by with that if the walks drop.

Truthfully, the Tigers simple need Soto to pan out in this bullpen. The organization is very righty heavy on the mound, and Soto is one of the few left-handed pitchers with upside.

His fastball averaged 96 mph and his sinker averaged 95.3 mph in the majors. He could get up as high as 98 mph. A lefty who throws that hard will get every opportunity to earn his spot.

RHP Michael Fulmer

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 29
  • How he got here: Acquired from the New York Mets in the July 31, 2015, Yoenis Cespedes trade
  • Contract details: $4 million arbitration deal

For a year and a half, it looked like the Tigers had discovered an ace in Michael Fulmer, but inconsistency, followed by injury, has put Fulmer’s future in question.

The year after being acquired from the Mets, Fulmer started 26 games for the Tigers and won the AL Rookie of the Year award, posting a 3.06 ERA and 1.119 WHIP in 159 innings. Fulmer was just as good the first half of 2017, earning an All-Star appearance and posting a 3.06 ERA and .597 opponent OPS over his first 18 starts.

Fulmer wasn’t missing bats, though, and that -- combined with injuries -- started to catch up with him late in 2017. He allowed 28 earned runs in 41 innings over his final seven starts, which included his first stint on the disabled list. His season ended with major elbow surgery in September.

He just wasn’t the same in 2018. While the strikeout rate rebounded to 2016 levels -- still far too low for most pitchers to survive in today’s environment -- Fulmer didn’t have the run prevention magic. He posted a 4.69 ERA, a 4.52 FIP and a 1.315 WHIP before the Tigers announced he would have Tommy John surgery.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer. (Getty Images)
Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer. (Getty Images)

Fulmer missed the entire 2019 season and won’t see game action until midway through 2020, assuming there aren’t any setbacks.

Since Fulmer was last a major part of the team’s starting rotation, the Tigers have added Mize to the mix and watched Manning and Skubal turn into elite prospects. Boyd has morphed into the team’s ace and Wentz has entered the fold. Could Fulmer still be a starter in Detroit? Sure. Does it look like the organization’s depth has passed him by? Double sure.

Fulmer’s inability to miss bats has always been mystifying. He has good velocity on his fastball, a sharp slider and a change-up that developed into a plus pitch for him in 2017. The arsenal for strikeouts was always there, but it never manifested.

Sometimes, those types of starting pitchers can turn into elite relievers. Depending on how he returns from injury, Fulmer’s fastball-slider combo could play up in a relief role.

For example, look at the career of Wade Davis. As a starting pitcher early in his career, Davis floundered. He owns a career 4.57 ERA as a starter, with an opponent OPS of .778 and just 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings.

As a relief pitcher, he strikes out 11 batters per nine innings. He has 166 more strikeouts as a relief pitcher in 84 fewer innings. He owns a career 2.72 ERA, 1.078 WHIP and .564 opponent OPS out of the bullpen.

When Davis went to the bullpen, he transformed from outcast starter to elite, hard-throwing closer. Maybe Fulmer’s velocity and nasty slider could translate to effective relief pitching. Fewer innings would also mitigate some of the injury risk.

It might be hard for some fans to give up on Fulmer as a starter because of what he did in 2016. But the Tigers have plenty of pitching upside elsewhere in the organization.

RHP Franklin Perez

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 24
  • How he got here: Acquired from the Houston Astros in the Aug. 31, 2017, Justin Verlander trade
  • Contract details: Pre-arbitration

Speaking of tough pills to swallow, Tigers fans would not be happy if the Verlander trade ultimately yields a No. 9 hitter, a platoon catcher and a bullpen pitcher, but at this point, it seems like a true possibility.

Perez was once the top prospect in the organization. He’s only thrown 27 innings in parts of three seasons since the trade, and here’s why:

  • March 2018: Right lat strain
  • July 2018: Right shoulder inflammation
  • March 2019: Right shoulder tendinitis
  • May 2019: Right shoulder soreness
  • June 2019: Right shoulder soreness

All five injuries led to stints on the injured list, and at just 22-years-old, Perez has earned the dreaded “injury prone” label. The once-heralded prospect has tumbled from every top 100 list and become something of an afterthought among Tigers fans.

Can he ever stay healthy enough to be a full-time starting pitcher? It sure doesn’t look like it. But maybe the Tigers can lighten his workload by moving him to the bullpen.

Whether Perez would be moved to the bullpen permanently or to build up strength toward eventually becoming a starter again, this seems like the only way he could make the roster by 2022. Think Julio Urias -- a 23-year-old who’s just now becoming a full-time starter in this fifth MLB season.

Perez has only pitched 230 innings in five professional seasons, never eclipsing 100 innings in a single campaign. If he ever puts together a full season, he should be effective. Perez was never really considered a risky prospect in terms of performance because he has four very good pitches and great control of the strike zone. His fastball and curveball are considered above-average pitches, and his change-up is also considered plus.

The depth of Perez’s arsenal doesn’t really project for the bullpen, but his swing-and-miss stuff could dominate temporarily in that role. Since he will only be 24 years old, Perez would be perfect for the starter-in-waiting role for the Tigers in 2022, going multiple innings when necessary and getting eased into the MLB waters.

With Boyd in the final year of his contract in 2022, a healthy Perez could position himself for a promotion to the rotation in 2023. Or, he could thrive as a relief pitcher and take that role full-time. Either way, this would be a good way for the Tigers to get a look at Perez while managing the injury risk.

LHP Ben Bowden

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 27
  • How he would get here: Trade with Colorado Rockies
  • Contract details: Pre-arbitration

To round out the bullpen with a second left-handed pitcher, this theoretical version of the Tigers would trade Christin Stewart and Anthony Castro to the Colorado Rockies for Ben Bowden.

The Rockies very well might see superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado opt out of his eight-year contract after the 2021 season to play for a contender. He was publicly upset with the team this off-season after it didn’t improve at all despite missing the playoffs.

Star shortstop Trevor Story will also be a free agent for the first time. It’s possible the Rockies could re-sign him, but he might choose to leave for a contender.

Without Arenado and Story, the Rockies don’t have much MLB talent on the roster. Considering Baseball America recently ranked Colorado’s farm system the second-worst in baseball, there isn’t much immediate help on the way.

Bowden will make his MLB debut in 2020. He’s 25-years-old and has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues.

Last season between Double-A and Triple-A, Bowden struck out 79 batters in 51.2 innings while posting a 3.48 ERA and 1.181 WHIP. He’s carried elite strikeout numbers throughout his career, and the only blemish on his resume is an inflated walk rate.

Bowden’s overall numbers might not be very good the next two years because of Coors Field, but if the Tigers take a close look at the underlying stats -- the lefty had a 16% swinging strike rate in 2019 -- they would do well to take a chance on him.

Stewart and Castro would make a lot of sense for the Rockies. Stewart has massive power potential that could result in 30-plus home runs at Coors Field.

Castro will be a 26-year-old with six years of team control in 2022, but the Tigers might not have a spot for him on the MLB roster. Colorado would be interested because of his improving strikeout rate. The only way to have true success as a pitcher in Coors Field is to miss bats, and Castro struck out 10.2 batters per nine innings for Double-A Erie last season.

The Rockies have a depleted farm system and are looking at a lengthy rebuild. They don’t necessarily have much use for a left-handed reliever in 2022, so the opportunity to add a powerful left-handed bat and a young MLB ready pitcher with team control could be enough to secure the deal.

Bench

The current Tigers 26-man roster doesn’t include many players who will still be starters by the time this team is ready to contend, but there are a few guys who will still have roles.

Versatility is important off the bench. Every team needs a player who can fill in at all three outfield positions, as well as one who can play up the middle on the infield. Obviously, a backup catcher is a must.

There are a number of prospects in the minor leagues who could emerge as roster candidates in the near future, but in this scenario, most of the Tigers’ bench would be made up of players who have already broken into the MLB.

Utility: Niko Goodrum

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 30
  • How he got here: Signed as free agent in 2017
  • Contract details: $4 million arbitration deal

The Tigers deserve some credit for taking a chance on Niko Goodrum after the Twins dumped him in November 2017.

Goodrum is not a superstar. The former second-round pick in 2010 has average power, above-average speed and a decent eye at the plate. He’s not an elite defender, but he can hold his own at seven different positions.

In 2019, Goodrum played 38 games at shortstop, 22 games at second base, 20 games in left field, 18 games at first base, eight games in center field, five games in right field and one game at third base. He played 10 games at third base in 2018.

Versatility will make Goodrum an asset even as the Tigers start to acquire more talented hitters. He’s a fine defender at all of those spots and seems to be improving as a hitter.

Goodrum hit 28 home runs and 56 doubles over the last two seasons, and he improved his walk rate to 9.7% last year. He also went 24-for-31 in stolen base attempts.

He can play any position, hit the occasional home run and steal a base. Goodrum would be a valuable player for a contender to bring off the bench.

Fourth outfielder: JaCoby Jones

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 30
  • How he got here: Acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the July 30, 2015, Joakim Soria trade
  • Contract details: $4 million arbitration deal

Speaking of tools backups, that would be a perfect role for JaCoby Jones, who emerged as a much better hitter in 2019.

Jones has always had elite speed and obvious power. But last season, he improved his walk rate from 5.1% to 8.1% while dropping his strikeout rate from 30.4% to 28.2%. Those are very encouraging signs for a guy who made adjustments to his swing -- it gives an explanation for his improvement and justifies the changes.

Jones was the best defensive outfielder in baseball two years ago and a much-improved offensive player in 2019. If he could mash the two together, he has the potential to be a legitimate weapon off the bench.

Detroit Tigers outfielder JaCoby Jones. (Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Detroit Tigers outfielder JaCoby Jones. (Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

He finished 2018 with a 2.0 WAR in 129 games despite a .630 OPS. His speed and defense were among the best in the league.

Last season he played just 88 games and finished with a 1.1 offensive WAR. His defense took a major step back, but the offensive gains were noticeable.

Jones has all the tools to be an elite outfielder, a threat on the base paths and a dangerous power hitter, though contact will always be his weakest skill. When he’s the best outfielder on the team, that weakness is crippling. For a fourth outfielder, Jones would be in a good spot.

Middle infielder: Willi Castro

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 24
  • How he got here: Acquired from the Cleveland Indians in the July 31, 2018, Leonys Martin trade
  • Contract details: Pre-arbitration

Willi Castro made his MLB debut last season, hitting just .230 with a .624 OPS in 30 games. The Tigers would do well to give him a real opportunity to play everyday the next couple of seasons, because he’s shown exciting potential at Triple-A.

Castro played 119 games for the Mud Hens last season, posting a .301/.366/.467 slash line with 28 doubles, eight triples and 11 home runs. He also stole 17 bases in 21 attempts and struck out at a reasonable clip.

Castro has done nothing but hit since being acquired by the Tigers in 2018. He posted a .928 OPS in 26 games with the SeaWolves before his Triple-A success. The MLB stint in 2019 was his first taste of adversity.

Defense isn’t Castro’s strength, so he needs to produce at the plate to keep a spot on the Tigers’ roster. Goodrum and Jordy Mercer will compete for at-bats as the everyday shortstop in 2020, so he’s got his work cut out for him.

Still, as a backup middle infielder, Castro has plenty of upside and is the type of player who could fill in long-term for an injured teammate and thrive in the role. He would also be a younger option with speed off the bench.

Backup catcher: Jake Rogers

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 26
  • How he got here: Acquired from the Houston Astros in the Aug. 31, 2017, Justin Verlander trade
  • Contract details: Pre-arbitration

There’s not much need to harp on Rogers’ struggles at the MLB level last season. His first taste of big league pitching didn’t go well, and Al Avila has admitted the young catcher wasn’t quite ready.

Rogers is a power hitter, but his best tools are behind the plate. He’s considered an elite prospect in terms of defensive ability and arm strength, which are the most important factors in being an MLB catcher.

Rogers managed just 14 hits in 112 at-bats last season, with 51 strikeouts. His ability to draw a walk was encouraging -- 13 free passes in 35 games -- but the rest of the experiment was, simply put, disastrous.

Rogers was long considered one of the top catching prospects in the game. At the time of his promotion, he was ranked No. 9 at the position by MLB Pipeline. There’s still hope for him, since he’s only 24 years old, and even if he doesn’t become a consistent hitter, his defensive abilities will always give him a chance to make the roster.

At best, Rogers could become a dangerous two-way threat at the position. At worst, he’ll be a reliable defensive backup who can hit the occasional home run and get on base off the bench. Either way, expect him to have a role in 2022.

Prospect flier: Kody Clemens

  • Age on Opening Day 2022: 25
  • How he got here: 2018 third-round draft pick (No. 79 overall)
  • Contract details: Pre-arbitration

With our last bench spot, we’re going to take a flier on a prospect who’s currently not very close to making his MLB debut.

There are plenty of reasons to believe in Clemens, but to justify most of them, we have to ignore last season.

When the Tigers selected Clemens in the third round of the 2018 draft, it was widely viewed as an excellent value. Clemens, the son of legendary pitcher Roger Clemens, hit .351 with a 1.169 OPS in his junior year at Texas, including 24 home runs, 15 doubles and 41 walks compared to 50 strikeouts in 65 games.

He dominated Single-A pitching for 41 games in 2018 before a promotion to Lakeland, and he hasn’t hit well since. Last year between Single-A and Double-A, Clemens posted a .708 OPS with 12 home runs. He’s 23 years old, so the Tigers are hoping he can produce by the next couple of seasons.

On a more positive note, Clemens hit 26 doubles and seven triples while stealing 11 bases and drawing 51 walks last season. The tools are clearly there -- both in terms of extra-base power and the ability to get on base.

Clemens finished 2019 as the team’s No. 17 prospect, but it wouldn’t take much for him to move up those ranks. If the Tigers don’t see him as an everyday starter at the MLB level by the time he’s 25, he could be brought up in a lower-pressure role off the bench. He would see some starts at second base if the Tigers wanted to move LeMahieu over to first base and Rizzo to designated hitter to spell Cabrera against a tough right-handed pitcher.

Financial breakdown

With this roster, here’s how the top of the Tigers’ payroll would look:

The minimum MLB salary for 2020 is $563,500, so the team’s 16 pre-arbitration players would make around $9 million combined. The 14 players on the 40-man roster who remain in the minor leagues would make at least $46,000, adding up to about $644,000.

Arbitration estimates were based on what I believed to be comparable players at the same positions.

Boyd, in his first year of arbitration, agreed to a one-year, $5.3 million deal for 2020. Since he’s coming off his best year and isn’t likely to vastly outperform his 2019 campaign as a 31-year-old, the modest increase to $8 million seemed appropriate. Noah Syndergaard got $9.7 million from the Mets. Mike Clevinger will make $4.1 million. Mike Foltynewicz will make $6.425 million.

The $4 million for Goodrum and Jones is in the same ballpark as Tommy La Stella ($3.25 million), Gio Urshela ($2.475 million), Robbie Grossman ($3.725), Manuel Margot ($2.475) and other borderline starters or utility players.

Jimenez, Fulmer and Farmer would receive deals similar to those of fellow relievers Matt Barnes ($3.1 million), Brandon Workman ($3.5 million), Chris Devenski ($2 million), Tommy Kahnle ($2.65 million) and Edwin Diaz ($5.1 million).

Understand that there would be some variance in the arbitration numbers, based on the market and individual performance.

With the free agent contracts, arbitration players and pre-arbitration salaries, the Tigers’ payroll would be somewhere around $151 million, which is still well beneath even the lowest tax threshold.

Other players to consider

Here are some other players who could reasonably factor into the equation by 2022:

Daniel Norris: He’s eligible for free agency the off-season before 2022, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Tigers re-sign Norris either as an opener or a relief pitcher.

Victor Reyes: He broke out in 2019 and is under team control until 2024, so he could be a reserve outfielder.

Harold Castro: He plays solid defense everywhere and can hit for average, so naturally coaches love him.

Dawel Lugo: Lugo has a chance to earn the starting third base job in 2020, but he’s never hit for any power or shown an ability to draw a walk.

Travis Demeritte: Before coming over in the Greene trade, Demeritte was raking for the Braves’ Triple-A team. Maybe he can find enough offense to stick around.

Parker Meadows: Only 20 years old and ripe with talent, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Meadows bounce back from a rough 2019 and get back in the mix by 2022.

Rony Garcia: Detroit took Garcia with the first pick in this year’s Rule 5 draft. He’s been a starter his whole career, but figures to be in the bullpen this season. Maybe he’ll stick there long-term.

Bryant Packard: The team’s fifth-round pick in 2019, Packard flourished in his first taste of minor-league ball and could move up the system quickly.

Spencer Torkelson: Torkelson is the top power hitter in college baseball, and if the Tigers don’t draft Martin No. 1 overall in June, Torkelson could be the pick. He’s a slugging first baseman with a good eye at the plate.

Emerson Hancock: If the Tigers decide to go with a pitcher at No. 1 overall this year, Hancock is the early favorite.

Obviously, the likelihood is low

Remember, this is a pipe dream.

It doesn’t take a baseball expert to know it’s very unlikely most of these moves happen. The Tigers have given no indication they would enter the bidding war for a player like Betts or even get into the mix for other free agents as early as 2021.

Getting four starting pitching prospects to pan out by 2022 is just as unlikely. Sure, Mize, Manning and Skubal are considered elite prospects, but not all top prospects pan out. In fact, most don’t turn into MLB aces. To hit on that whole trio in addition to Wentz would be a stroke of great fortune for the Tigers.

This isn’t a prediction of what will happen. It’s more a demonstration of where the Tigers stand in their rebuild. The situation isn’t hopeless in the coming years, and if the team is willing to spend, it could be back in the playoff hunt in just a few seasons.

Say one or two of the pitching prospects don’t work out. Maybe the Tigers target a free agent such as Trevor Bauer and hold onto Turnbull. Maybe Burrows or one of the other pitching prospects emerge. Avila could also target a pitcher in a trade.

The point is Detroit has young talent and will soon have a ton of room to spend. It doesn’t take long for teams that lose 100 games to turn into World Series contenders.

The Chicago Cubs went 61-101 in 2012 and 66-96 in 2013 before winning it all in 2016. They got their championship boost when prospects such as Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras turned into MLB stars. They acquired Dexter Fowler, Ben Zobrist, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey to put the roster over the edge.

The Houston Astros lost at least 106 games in 2011, 2012 and 2013 before winning it all in 2017. They needed prospects George Springer, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman to reach the majors, then they polished the roster off with veterans such as Verlander, Brian McCann, Charlie Morton and Marwin Gonzalez.

Detroit is approaching the rebuild from the opposite angle -- racking up elite pitching prospects instead of top position players. In today’s game, which has an overabundance of able hitters at almost every position and a starting pitching shortage, that appears to have been the right move.

If the pitching prospects pan out, there will be good hitters available in free agency and through trades. Will it all happen by 2022? A lot would have to go right, but this is a pipe dream, after all.


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