DETROIT – Detroit Tigers baseball is officially back, and it comes with a surprising twist: a glimmer of hope.
Major League Baseball returned Thursday night with a pair of games ahead of Friday’s packed 28-team schedule. But just hours before first pitch, the league announced postseason expansion from 10 to 16 teams, drastically changing the look of this 60-game slate.
Two days ago, I basically told you there was no chance the Tigers could compete for a playoff spot. But with three extra teams qualifying from the American League this year, the outlook is a little brighter.
New postseason format
Expanded playoffs might be here to stay, but for now, these changes are only in effect for the 2020 season.
Eight teams will make the playoffs from each league, with the No. 1 seed playing the No. 8 seed, No. 2 vs. No. 7, No. 3 vs. No. 6 and No. 4 vs. No. 5 in the first round. That round will be a best-of-three series played entirely at the better seed’s home park.
The most interesting detail is that every second-place team is guaranteed a playoff spot, in addition to the six division winners. So the top three seeds from each league will get the Nos. 1-3 spots, the second-place teams will get the Nos. 4-6 spots and the two teams with the next-best records will be Nos. 7 and 8.
For the sake of this argument, let’s say most teams stay relatively healthy. The obvious division favorites are the New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros. Each division has a pretty clear favorite for second place, too, in the Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Indians and Oakland Athletics.
It’s possible some of those first- and second-place teams will be flipped, but that’s not really important to the Tigers’ quest for the playoffs. Either way, let’s assume those six teams get in.
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That leaves nine AL teams fighting for two spots. To narrow down the field, we can eliminate the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners (though there’s an argument the Tigers belong in that group).
We’re left with six teams fighting for the seventh and eighth seeds: the Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels and Tigers.
I think every one of those other five teams has a better roster than the Tigers, but keep in mind it’s a 60-game season, so weird stuff can happen.
Tigers’ offensive woes
I’m on the record predicting the Tigers will finish about 24-36 and be the fourth-worst team in the American League ahead of the Orioles, Mariners and Royals. If MLB expands to a 24-team playoff, I think the Tigers have a good shot.
But as ugly as the 47-114 record was in 2019, the Tigers probably would have improved by 15-20 games in a full 2020 season, and that’s significant.
The offense will be exceptionally better than the one that scored fewer runs than every other team by a wide margin. Brandon Dixon led the team in home runs with 15. The best OPS on the final roster was Victor Reyes’ .767 mark. Yikes.
Cameron Maybin, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop were all better than any Tigers hitter last season. Miguel Cabrera and Niko Goodrum will probably improve at the plate this year. Austin Romine is a massive offensive upgrade at catcher.
Is it impossible that Christin Stewart taps into his power potential and hits double-digit bombs? Nobody is talking about JaCoby Jones, but he had a 36-game stretch last season with a .960 OPS and 20 extra-base hits.
The most likely outcome is that the Tigers’ offense will still be below average this season. There isn’t a single superstar (anymore -- obviously Cabrera is a Hall of Famer) in the lineup. But the most likely outcome is less certain in 60 games because there’s not as much time for regression.
Most of the players in the Tigers’ lineup have at least a chance to be genuinely good this season. If that comes to fruition for a couple of players, who’s to say this couldn’t be an average offense among that group of six teams?
Of those teams fighting for the final two playoff spots, there are two lineups that stand out: Boston and Chicago.
The Red Sox have J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi -- four players who will almost certainly be better than any hitter on the Tigers.
The White Sox are even deeper, though not as strong at the top, with Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, Yasmani Grandal, Jose Abreu, Edwin Encarnacion and rookie Luis Robert.
The Rangers have Joey Gallo as a standout, but not much else.
Anthony Rendon was a massive pickup for the Angels to place alongside Mike Trout, but the rest of that lineup is one big question mark, even considering the upside of Shohei Ohtani and Justin Upton.
Toronto has a trio of high-upside youngsters in Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, but they’re unproven and the lineup behind them has holes.
Detroit has the worst lineup of the six teams, but the gap could end up being narrower than expected, especially this season.
The Tigers have to make up ground with pitching.
When the Tigers are ready to truly contend in a few years, their teams will be built around strong pitching staffs. If the Tigers hope to compete this year, it’ll have to be on the back of a strong pitching staff.
Basically, if Matt Boyd and Spencer Turnbull don’t pitch like aces, you can kiss any hope of contention goodbye.
Boyd was a surefire ace for a 60-game span last year, while Turnbull was one of the most impressive looking pitchers in baseball this offseason.
Daniel Norris will give the rotation a nice boost as he works to return from a positive coronavirus (COVID-19) test, and Michael Fulmer figures to be competitive every fifth day. The key will be whether the Tigers are willing to replace Ivan Nova with Casey Mize.
A rotation that starts with Boyd and Turnbull and ends with Norris and Fulmer has some potential.
In Detroit’s first 60 games of 2019, Boyd made 13 starts, posting a 3.01 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and .625 opposing OPS while striking out 97 batters in 77.2 innings and inducing whiffs on 13% of his pitches. He looks even better going into this season with an improved curveball, but he doesn’t even technically have to improve to be an ace -- he just has to mimic the first half of 2019.
Turnbull was awesome for a similar stretch before his second half was derailed by injury. In his first 14 starts, he posted a 2.78 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and .670 opposing OPS while striking out 73 batters in 77.2 innings.
Turnbull struck out a batter per inning overall last year and had a FIP under 4.00. That was despite a bad second half, and most importantly, he looks even better heading into this season.
Norris was excellent as an opener last season. In his final nine starts -- all exactly three innings in length -- Norris posted a 3.33 ERA, a .683 opponents’ OPS, a 1.00 WHIP, struck out a batter per inning and increased his swinging strike rate to an elite 14%.
Can he do it for longer starts? Even if not, he could piggyback with Nova, Fulmer or another long reliever, which was very effective in 2019.
Fulmer has seen mixed results while coming back from Tommy John surgery, but he missed some bats in an exhibition against the Cincinnati Reds and would at the very least be a decent No. 5 starter.
Mize is the No. 1 right-handed pitching prospect in baseball, and his minor league numbers speak for themselves. It was clear throughout the spring and summer camps that he’s right up there with Boyd and Turnbull in terms of how dominant he could be at the MLB level.
There’s a chance this pitching staff will flop. But it seems more likely it could be one of the best among this group of six teams.
The White Sox have a true ace in Lucas Giolito and added reliable veteran Dallas Keuchel as a No. 2. But beyond that, Dylan Cease, Reynaldo Lopez and Carlos Rodon have just as much to prove as the Tigers’ starters.
Texas has Lance Lynn, Mike Minor and Corey Kluber, but they’re 32-34 years old, and Kluber is coming off a lost season due to injury. They could be studs or duds.
Could Andrew Heaney, Dylan Bundy and Griffin Canning be good for the Angels? Sure, but they’re unproven. Ohtani is always a wildcard when it comes to pitching.
The Blue Jays have Hyun-Jin Ryu and will get a boost from star prospect Nate Pearson, but it’s pretty ugly after that.
Boston might not have a single above-average starting pitcher now that Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez are out with injuries.
Overall, the Tigers should have better starting pitching than the Angels, Blue Jays and Red Sox. It’s a close call with the White Sox and Rangers.
Due to expanded bullpens, it’s hard to really predict where these teams will be beyond the starting staffs. We’ll stay away from breaking down relievers, for now.
The Tigers have one significant advantage over the teams from the AL East and AL West: an unbalanced schedule.
Take a look at the difference in really difficult games for the Tigers compared to the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Rangers and Angels.
- 10 games vs. Twins (101 wins last year)
- 10 games vs. Indians (93)
- 6 games vs. Reds (75)
- 4 games vs. Cardinals (91)
- 10 games vs. Yankees (103)
- 10 games vs. Rays (96)
- 4 games vs. Nationals (93)
- 3 games vs. Braves (97)
- 10 games vs. Yankees (103)
- 10 games vs. Rays (96)
- 6 games vs. Braves (97)
- 3 games vs. Nationals (93)
- 10 games vs. Astros (107)
- 10 games vs. Athletics (97)
- 3 games vs. Dodgers (106)
- 4 games vs. Diamondbacks (85)
- 10 games vs. Astros (107)
- 10 games vs. Athletics (97)
- 6 games vs. Dodgers (106)
- 3 games vs. Diamondbacks (85)
While the Tigers will undoubtedly struggle against the Twins and the Indians, their interleague games against the NL Central offer a distinct advantage. The Reds will be vastly improved this season, but there aren’t any powerhouse teams like the Dodgers or Braves.
The Tigers will play 10 games against one team that had at least 95 wins last season. The Blue Jays and Rangers will play 23 such games, while the Red Sox and Angels will play 26.
The White Sox will have the same schedule advantage as the Tigers.
Diving deeper than last year’s records, the NL East and NL West just figure to be better than the NL Central. The Braves, Nationals, Phillies and Mets all look like possible playoff teams in the East, while the Diamondbacks and Padres are legitimate postseason contenders in the West behind the powerhouse Dodgers.
The Cardinals, Brewers and Cubs all have talent, but they’re flawed in both their pitching staffs and the back halves of their lineups. If the Tigers can just stay above water in these games, they could get an edge over the rest of this group.
Under the new playoff format, here are some of the teams that would have made the postseason in the last seven years (since Houston moved to the AL and created the current division alignment).
- 2019: 78-84 (Rangers)
- 2018: 78-84 (Twins)
- 2017: 77-85 (Marlins)
- 2016: 78-83 (Pirates)
- 2015: 79-83 (D'backs)
- 2014: 79-83 (Mets, Braves)
- 2013: 76-86 (Giants/Padres)
Almost all of these winning percentages are between 48% and 49%, which translates roughly to a 29-31 record over a 60-game season.
It seems very possible -- if not, likely -- that at least one sub-.500 team will make the playoffs this season. Considering the top-heavy nature of the American League and what looks to be a deeper pool of contenders in the National League, that could happen in the AL.
So, to get to 29 wins, the Tigers would likely have to do something like this:
- 15-8 in games against the Royals, Pirates and White Sox.
- 8-9 in games against the Reds, Cardinals, Brewers and Cubs.
- 6-14 in games against the Indians and Twins.
Could the Tigers go 3-7 against both the Indians and Twins? They were 1-18 against the Indians and 5-14 against the Twins last season, so that would have to drastically improve.
Going 8-9 against the four NL Central contenders seems a bit farfetched, too. But it’s not completely out of the question.
The real problem comes from the first bullet point. Even though the Royals and Pirates are expected to be very bad, are the Tigers good enough to dominate those season series? Can they stick with the White Sox and take five or six out of 10 matchups?
It seems so unlikely. But in a 60-game season, one surprising series could really sway the odds. What if the Tigers get off to a surprising 7-3 start against the Reds and Royals? Suddenly, they would only need to go 22-28 the rest of the way. What if they stumbled into a series sweep of the Indians or Twins? That would account for half the needed victories in the estimates above.
What we know for sure
There’s much more uncertainty than certainty this season, but I believe the following to be facts:
- The Tigers got significantly better during the offseason. Cron, Schoop, Maybin and Romine make the offense better. Boyd and Turnbull will improve. Most of the team’s young hitters played close to their worst-case scenario last year and are due for positive regression.
- The Tigers and White Sox have easier schedules than the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Rangers and Angels.
- There are realistic scenarios in which the Tigers could be better than the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Rangers or Angels individually. (Being better than all four at once is a much different question.)
- Fluke finishes are much more likely in a 60-game season than a 162-game season.
When I wrote about what it would take for the Tigers to make the playoffs under the old rules (way, way back two days ago), I gave them a less than 1% chance to be in the postseason.
Now that I’m pretty sure at least one bad team from the American League will get in -- and definitely two of the above group of six -- that chance has risen considerably. It might even be as high as a 5% chance, which isn’t bad for a team that, again, just lost 114 games.
Here are the 2019 records of the other teams competing for those last two spots:
- Red Sox -- 84-78
- Rangers -- 78-84
- Angels -- 72-90
- White Sox -- 72-90
- Blue Jays -- 67-95
We aren’t exactly talking about powerhouses, here.
The only respectable team was Boston, which then lost Mookie Betts, David Price and Sale. Those three players were worth 11.1 WAR last year -- a healthy number. Rodriguez -- worth 5.9 WAR in 2019 -- was just shut down due to COVID-19 symptoms a day before the start of the season.
The White Sox look like a pretty good team, but they lost 90 games last season, as did the Angels and Blue Jays.
Texas got 15.3 WAR from Lynn and Minor last season -- 15.3! Neither had even surpassed 3.6 WAR for a season in their entire careers, and they’re 33 and 32 years old, respectively. A major step back seems more than possible.
Trout is expected to miss some time for paternity leave and the intake process afterward. Does that mean he’ll miss five games? Or 10? That’s significant in a 60-game sprint.
Basically everything has to go right for the Tigers to slide into a playoff spot, but now it’s at least possible.
In a normal season, the Tigers would have already been 20 games out of the playoff hunt by July 24. As it stands, they’re tied for first place and don’t even have to finish in the top half of the American League to get into the postseason.
Baseball has always been unpredictable, but it’s never been this unpredictable. Now it’s time to see if the Tigers can take advantage.