DETROIT – If the Detroit Tigers are serious about staying in the playoff race for the second half of the 2020 season, there are a handful of moves they should make: a trade deadline deal, three positional changes and an overhaul of the batting order.
Before the season started, we wrote about how the final playoff spot in the American League could very likely go to a bad team, even one with a losing record. When more than half the teams in baseball qualify for the postseason, not all are likely to be deserving.
Well, that’s playing out right in front of our eyes. The AL has seven very good teams, and they’re the ones most of us expected (just ignore my National League predictions, please). The New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago White Sox look like virtual locks to occupy seven of the eight playoff spots.
Each of those teams has over a 97% chance to make the postseason, according to ESPN.
That leaves one spot for the rest of the league, and that group isn’t exactly loaded.
The race for the No. 8 spot is so uninspiring that the Tigers, who are less than a week removed from a nine-game losing streak, sit just two games behind. That’s right: A team that didn’t win a game for 15% of its schedule is still in the hunt.
Right now, it’s a three-team race between the Tigers, Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles, who are 1.5 games out of the No. 8 spot. The Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels are all at least four games back.
Can Tigers compete?
The Blue Jays, Orioles and Tigers don’t have rosters that compare to the top seven teams in the league, but they’re comparable to each other.
The Blue Jays have the most talented lineup with the likes of Cavan Biggio, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Teoscar Hernandez and a red-hot Randal Grichuk. But the Tigers have some good hitters, too, such as Jeimer Candelario, Isaac Paredes, JaCoby Jones and Jonathan Schoop.
Toronto’s true weakness is the starting rotation, which features Tanner Roark, Matt Shoemaker and Chase Anderson behind ace Hyun-Jin Ryu. The Blue Jays went out and added Taijuan Walker to be their No. 2 starter, and that addressed some of that weakness.
Detroit Tigers trade deadline: Everyone on roster who has trade value and players they wouldn’t move
Still, if Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal can find their footing, a rotation with Spencer Turnbull and two elite prospects could be the best of these three teams, and the Tigers certainly have the strongest bullpen.
Schedule strength will also be critically important. The Tigers still have 17 games left against the Twins, Indians and White Sox. Toronto has 10 games agains the Yankees, four against the Philadelphia Phillies and seven against the Orioles. Baltimore has to play 16 more games agains the Rays, Yankees and Atlanta Braves, in addition to the Blue Jays matchups.
The Blue Jays have the best roster and the easiest schedule, and they’ve already improved their team through a trade.
If the Tigers want to stay in the race, they have to be willing to make some moves.
1. Trade for an outfielder
Right now, the Tigers aren’t getting enough offensive production from the outfield. They can either stand pat and hope Cameron Maybin or Christin Stewart get hot, or they can make a minor trade to improve at one of the corners.
Why would the Tigers give something away for a four-week rental? Because sellers are trading away players for next to nothing this year. The Blue Jays got Daniel Vogelbach, the Padres got Yonder Alonso and the Giants got Daniel Robertson, all for cash considerations.
The biggest piece moved from a contender to improve this season was Nick Pivetta, who the Phillies traded for two key bullpen pieces.
Sports world to Detroit fans: No, you have not yet suffered enough
There aren’t many playoff contenders who need a starting outfielder, so the market could very well allow the Tigers to move a player like Beau Burrows or Anthony Castro to fill a need.
Some names to consider: Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kevin Pillar from Boston or even Shin-Soo Choo from Texas. There are options out there if Al Avila wants to give the offense a boost.
2. Platoon Niko Goodrum and Victor Reyes
The Tigers have a lot of decent players who show both flashes of promise as well as glaring flaws. None embody that more than Goodrum and Reyes.
Goodrum had a four-game stretch from Aug. 7 to Aug. 10 during which he racked up eight hits in 20 at-bats, including two home runs and three doubles. He struck out six times and walked once.
Before that stretch, Goodrum started the season 5-31 with 16 strikeouts, three walks and one home run. Since Aug. 10, he’s 6-57 with 21 strikeouts, seven walks, two home runs and two doubles.
The end result is a player with a .263 OBP, .673 OPS and 43 strikeouts in 114 plate appearances. That’s just not going to cut it for a contending team.
Victor Reyes hasn’t been quite as streaky, but his OPS is only slightly better, at .709. He’s a useful player, but the Tigers could maximize his value by using him in a platoon with Goodrum at one of the corner outfield spots.
Last season, Goodrum hit 11 of his 12 home runs against right-handed pitchers, but he was much more effective against lefties in every other category. His OPS against lefties was .927, compared to .689 against righties. He struck out more than a third of the time against righties and posted a sub-.300 OBP. His strikeout rate was closer to 21% against lefties, with a .411 OBP.
Even with the home run gap, Goodrum’s slugging percentage was 122 points higher against left-handed pitchers. He was a better hitter across the board against lefties.
Reyes has the opposite splits. He slashed .309/.341/.446 against right-handed pitchers last year and .292/.320/.389 against lefties. Reyes had three times as many at-bats against right-handed pitchers, but that difference doesn’t fully account for 19 of his 24 extra-base hits coming against them, including all three of his home runs.
Goodrum is a much better hitter against lefties. Reyes is a much better hitter against righties. If the Tigers trade for a corner outfielder -- or if Maybin plays more regularly -- a platoon makes sense.
3. Put Willi Castro at shortstop full-time
The Tigers have a 23-year-old shortstop who raked in the minor leagues last season, is among their top 10 prospects and has a .794 OPS in 35 plate appearances, but they’re not playing him every day.
That doesn’t make much sense.
When Castro has gotten a chance to play this season, he’s been effective. No, he’s not a great defensive shortstop, but he has extra-base power, makes consistent contact at the plate and runs well. That’s the type of spark the Tigers could use in their lineup.
Playing Castro everyday is a win-win for the Tigers. He either succeeds and helps the team win, or they get an extended look at one of their top prospects heading into the offseason.
4. Give Daniel Norris his rotation spot back
The Tigers must keep Michael Fulmer’s awards at the front of the trophy case, because he’s still being treated like it’s the first half of 2017.
Fulmer was excellent as a rookie and even better for half of his sophomore season, but since the 2017 All-Star break, he’s gone from ineffective, to injured, and back to ineffective. A shortened season might not be the time to try to force him back into the rotation.
If the Tigers want to give Fulmer more time to regain his old form, they should pick and choose their spots to bring him out of the bullpen.
Right now, Daniel Norris is a much more valuable option in the starting rotation.
Turnbull, Mize, Skubal and Matt Boyd are cemented in the starting five. There’s no arguments to be made there. But Fulmer has allowed 21 hits, seven walks and 14 earned runs in 14.1 innings this season. That’s good for a 8.79 ERA and 1.953 WHIP. His 8.74 FIP suggests this isn’t bad luck, either.
Fulmer has never been a strikeout pitcher, and K/9 is right at his career average this season. In other words, there aren’t many promising signs.
Norris, on the other hand, is coming off his best season as a pro and is showing increased velocity. In 15 innings this season, he’s allowed 12 hits, three walks and four earned runs. A 2.16 FIP backs up his performance, even though there’s room to improve in terms of strikeouts.
Last season, Norris was dominant in nine starts of exactly three innings to end the season. Fulmer is essentially giving up three runs per three-inning start. It’s time to make the change.
5. Reshuffle the batting order
I have no idea what’s going on with the Tigers’ lineup on a daily basis.
The leadoff spot regularly goes to players with sub-.300 on-base percentages. Some of the best hitters on the team bat ninth -- ensuring they’ll get the fewest plate appearances each game.
The Tigers are 29 games into a 60-game season. The statistics from this year matter, and the lineup should reflect them.
Right now, the best at-bats on the team are coming from Isaac Paredes. He doesn’t chase out of the zone often, he can foul off tough pitches and he’s already drawn four walks in eight games -- as many as Schoop, Candelario and Reyes have playing nearly every day.
No, he’s not fast. But getting on base is more important than speed in the leadoff position.
The No. 2 spot should go to the team’s best hitter, and right now that’s a tossup between Schoop and Candelario. One should hit in the No. 2 hole and the other should bat cleanup. Those are statistically the two lineup spots that receive the most high-leverage opportunities.
This is probably the Tigers' optimal offensive lineup right now, right? As in, to get maximum offensive production?— Derick Hutchinson (@Derick_Hutch) August 26, 2020
Isaac Paredes, 3B
Jeimer Candelario, 1B
JaCoby Jones, CF
Jonathan Schoop, 2B
Willi Castro, SS
Victor Reyes, RF
Miguel Cabrera, DH
Austin Romine, C
Niko Goodrum, LF
If Miguel Cabrera is a sub-.700 OPS bat with base-clogging speed, he doesn’t need to bat third. Albert Pujols bats sixth for the Angels. It’s not an insult to Cabrera’s legacy, it’s an adjustment for current production. Moving Cabrera down in the order doesn’t take away any of his 2,800 hits.
Maybe Jones gets a chance to hit third. Maybe Castro gets hot and earns an opportunity there. If Reyes and Goodrum are flourishing in the platoon, they could occupy the No. 3 hole.
Basically, the best hitters should bat at the top of the lineup so they get more chances at the plate. It’s not about egos or avoiding change. It’s about scoring runs.