DETROIT – As ugly as the final 25 games were for the Detroit Tigers, the shortened 2020 season went about as well as anyone could have hoped.
For the first 33 games, the Tigers were one of baseball’s best surprises. They had a winning record and sat squarely in the mix for an AL wild card spot. They called up many of their top prospects and let them experience meaningful September baseball.
Then, they experienced failure. The Tigers won just six of their final 25 games and finished with the third-worst record in the league. It wasn’t the ending they hoped for, but all in all, the team accomplished its goals of being more competitive and getting the young players some experience while still securing a top pick in the draft.
That’s the overarching positive from 2020, but we’re going to look at some of the individual developments that bode well for the future.
Jeimer Candelario’s resurgence
The most significant takeaway from 2020 for the Tigers was the reemergence of Jeimer Candelario.
Last season, Candelario was so bad at the plate he was demoted to Triple-A. He finished the year with a .203/.306/.337 slash line in 94 games as a 25-year-old. The trajectory did not look promising.
When he started 2020 on an 0-17 skid, there were legitimate concerns he would never be an MLB hitter again. But he turned his career around dramatically, slashing .372/.424/.634 over the next 40 games, with 11 doubles, three triples and seven home runs.
Most importantly, Candelario got his strikeout rate under control and went back to being the high on-base percentage, extra-base power player that made him a top 100 prospect when the Tigers traded Alex Avila and Justin Wilson to the Chicago Cubs to acquire him in 2017.
Candelario finished the season in a 1-23 slump with six walks and 10 strikeouts, then landed on the 10-day injured list. But overall, his .297/.369/.503 season is much closer to what the Tigers hoped he would become.
There aren’t many certainties for the Tigers' offense heading into 2021, but one is that Candelario will be cemented in the middle of the order.
Willi Castro’s offense
Candelario wasn’t the only reliable hitter in the heart of the lineup. Willi Castro finally got a chance to play every day and did exactly what he has his entire minor league career: rake.
Castro hit .349 with a .932 OPS, six home runs, four doubles and two triples. He worked his way from the bottom of the order to the No. 2 hole and thrived, slashing .311/.358/.541 with four homers in 61 at-bats at that spot.
Castro isn’t a great defensive shortstop. In fact, he’ll have to improve this offseason to be guaranteed that starting spot next year. But he’s only 23 years old, and what he did in 36 games this season helped validate a long minor league track record of getting on base with some power and speed.
Victor Reyes' first 6 weeks
It’s hard to know exactly what’s real and what’s just a hot streak after a season that lasted only 60 games. Some players have MVP-caliber 60-game stretches during a normal season and barely manage to be league average the other 100.
Victor Reyes had by far his best streak as an MLB player this year, specifically from the start of the season to Sept. 10.
In that 42-game span, Reyes slashed .315/.346/.473 with seven doubles, two triples, four home runs, six stolen bases and only 32 strikeouts in 153 plate appearances. He’s never going to draw many walks, but he racked up 46 hits in 146 at-bats, which was good enough to make him an effective leadoff hitter for most of the season.
His final numbers were destroyed by a two-week slump to end the season. Reyes slashed just .179/.233/.179 in that span with 10 singles, three walks and 13 strikeouts in 60 plate appearances. The season as a whole ended up being below average offensively, but Reyes was so good for an extended stretch that the Tigers will likely give him an everyday spot to begin 2020.
Daz Cameron’s final 9 games
Small sample sizes can be deceiving in baseball, and nine games is ridiculously small. But still, it was promising to see 23-year-old Daz Cameron finish the year strong.
Cameron went just 1-27 in his first eight games before ripping a pinch-hit triple against Cleveland on Sept. 18.
That hit propelled him to a .333/.355/.467 slash line with three extra-base hits and eight strikeouts in his final 30 at-bats. The strikeout rate is still too high, but he was making harder contact and showing extra-base pop.
Even when he wasn’t hitting, Cameron made some impressive defensive plays in right field and showed off elite speed. If he can just stay afloat offensively, he’ll have a role on the Tigers going forward, and these last couple of weeks suggested that’s a possibility.
JaCoby Jones' validation
Remember the 36-game stretch in 2019 when JaCoby Jones was an elite hitter thanks to an adjustment to his batting stance? From May 24 through July 21 of that season, he slashed .320/.374/.586 with 12 doubles, two triples, six home runs, 10 walks and 36 strikeouts in 140 plate appearances.
His .960 OPS during that stretch wasn’t a fluke, either. Jones' .407 BABIP was supported by a ridiculous hard contact rate. He was lining the ball all over the field and -- most surprisingly -- drawing walks at a higher rate.
Well, that season was cut short when he took a pitch off the wrist Aug. 8, 2019.
This season, he was validating those improvements, hitting .268/.333/.515 through 30 games with nine doubles and five home runs. His plate discipline hasn’t improved much, but thanks to extra-base power and good speed on the base paths, Jones was an above-average offensive player.
Then, Jones was hit on the hand by another pitch Sept. 1. Once again, that cost him the rest of his season.
The improvements Jones makes seemingly every season suggest he could remain in the mix for a starting outfield spot the next three seasons.
It would be unfair to label Jones “injury prone,” because it’s not as if he’s missing time with a reoccurring hamstring or back injury. These were two fluke injuries caused by errant pitches. Unfortunately, Jones has just had some bad luck.
Bullpen ace Daniel Norris
A preseason bout with the coronavirus (COVID-19) cost him a chance to pitch in the starting rotation this year, but Daniel Norris found a home in the Tigers' bullpen.
Norris made 14 appearances this season -- 13 as a reliever. He struck out 28 batters in 27.2 innings with just seven walks and 25 hits allowed -- good for a 1.157 WHIP.
The 3.25 ERA was solid, but the 2.87 FIP suggests Norris was even better than the stats suggest. He finished 2020 with the best ERA, WHIP, and strikeout-to-walk rate of his career.
No, Norris hasn’t turned into the type of pitcher his top-20 prospect pedigree suggested, but he was an extremely valuable weapon out of the bullpen this season, and the Tigers should consider investing in him beyond 2021.
Spencer Turnbull’s potential
The Tigers were hoping for better than a 3.97 ERA, 1.341 WHIP and 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings for Spencer Turnbull this season. He was dominant in spring training, lights out at summer camp and went into the season with ace expectations.
OK, so technically he was the Tigers' ace. No other starter even came close to his production. But there’s another step forward he could take to become a more consistent, reliable pitcher.
Turnbull was done in by wildness again in 2020, walking 4.6 batters per nine innings. He also got burned by falling behind in counts, which doesn’t show up in the walk rate.
Turnbull allowed just 47 hits and two home runs in 56.2 innings while posting a swinging strike rate of 11%. He induced more ground balls than fly balls on the season. Those numbers are good enough for him to be a legitimate ace.
The bottom line is Turnbull needs to throw more strikes. He was below 60%, which not only results in free passes, but forces him to give into hitters and allows them to lay off his electric stuff.
The good news for Turnbull is he’s only one correction away from a breakthrough. The bad news is it’s one of the hardest corrections for a pitcher to make, especially at 28 years old.
Gregory Soto’s improvement
Tigers fans probably have a bit of a sour taste in their mouths from how Gregory Soto finished the season. But take a step back and look at the strides he made from 2019 to 2020.
Soto had two disastrous outings in 27 appearances this year: a four-run meltdown Aug. 18 against the Chicago White Sox and a three-walk, three-run appearance Thursday against the Kansas City Royals.
In his other 22.2 innings of work this season, Soto allowed just four runs on 13 hits and nine walks while striking out 29 batters.
You can’t just erase those two bad outings because they happened. But in the vast majority of his appearances, Soto was dominant.
The improvement from last year -- a 5.40 FIP to a 3.76 FIP, 7 K/9 to 11.3 K/9 and a 1.855 WHIP to a 1.261 WHIP -- was monumental. Soto now has an offseason to build on that and enter 2021 as part of the back-end of the bullpen.
Jose Cisnero’s emergence
The other half of the Tigers' hard-throwing bullpen tandem, Jose Cisnero, didn’t have peaks as high as Soto’s, but he was actually better overall.
He allowed just 10 runs in 29.2 innings while striking out 34 batters and walking 10.
Cisnero excelled in all the categories that usually signify a dominant reliever -- 2.65 FIP, 1.112 WHIP, 10.3 strikeouts and three walks per nine innings.
Even though he’s 31 years old, Cisnero is under team control for another three seasons. He could remain one of their top high-leverage relievers or be a trade piece in the near future.
Jordan Zimmermann’s contract
At long last, the Tigers can put the nightmare Jordan Zimmermann experience behind them.
Everyone knows the numbers. There’s no reason to recite them. Zimmermann was an ace caliber pitcher his entire career in Washington before coming to Detroit and being, well, not an ace caliber pitcher. He was injured often, and when healthy, he was ineffective.
His five-year, $110 million contract was a black eye on the organization for half a decade, but now the Tigers can move on with only Miguel Cabrera’s $30 million guaranteed for 2021. Whether they use that money for another starting pitcher, a bat or wait another year for the loaded 2022 free agent class, it’s a victory to shed that salary.
It was the right move for the Tigers to call up Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize, especially since otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten any actual game action for a calendar year.
The excitement for Skubal and Mize should still be high heading into 2021 because they’re extremely talented pitchers with bright futures. But that doesn’t mean we have to pretend they were positives this season.
Both of the team’s top prospects struggled in their first taste of MLB action. Sure, there were some positive signs, but overall, Mize and Skubal were both bad.
Bryan Garcia is probably the most glaring omission from this list, and the explanation for that is simple: He was extremely lucky this year, and if he doesn’t make major improvements, that luck will run out sooner rather than later.
Garcia had 10 walks and 12 strikeouts in 21.2 innings this season. That simple isn’t going to cut it, especially for a late-inning reliever. He was a lockdown closer in college and a top 30 prospect in the organization heading into this season, so Garcia still has plenty of time to start missing bats again.
But as for the 2020 season, don’t let the low ERA fool you.