DETROIT – Even though a playoff race isn’t in the cards for the Detroit Tigers this season, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about this team ahead of Opening Day.
As the Tigers take the field Thursday at Comerica Park against the Cleveland Indians, fans will see a mix of familiar faces, new veterans and exciting prospects. One of the overarching themes heading into the season: We have no idea what to expect.
We came up with 22 questions we can’t wait to learn the answers to over the coming months. We ranked them below.
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1. What will Tarik Skubal do next?
Talk of pitching prospects has gotten Tigers fans through some difficult seasons recently, but now, those prospects are finally in Detroit to begin a full season.
Skubal has risen to the top of the bunch with a strong spring training. He’s proven he can miss bats, but is he a five-inning pitcher? Can he cut down on the walks, be more efficient and become a true ace?
2. How much playing time will Akil Baddoo earn?
Spring training stats don’t really matter, but that shouldn’t dampen your excitement for Baddoo. Nobody knew who he was when the Tigers selected him in the Rule 5 draft, mostly because he missed the entire 2020 season and hasn’t played above High-A ball.
But his combination of power -- five home runs -- and plate discipline -- 10 walks -- during the spring drew an enticing picture. The regular season is a different beast, but Baddoo is at least an interesting player with some upside to keep an eye on.
3. Is Willi Castro actually a star?
When the Tigers traded for Castro, they were ecstatic to add him to their organization. Nobody expected him to hit .349 in his first true MLB stint, though.
An excellent spring validated some of Castro’s success, but now it’s time to see if he can carry that over into a full season or if he’s more of a slightly above replacement level player. Considering the improvements he’s made defensively and the consist hard contact he’s making at the plate, there’s reason for optimism.
4. What does a successful season look like for Casey Mize?
Mize really needed those last two spring outings, which got him back on track after a pretty rough month.
He’s part of the Opening Day rotation, but he’ll have to perform to keep his spot beyond Spencer Turnbull’s injured list stint.
The former No. 1 overall pick has great stuff, but the MLB results have been ugly so far. At the very least, the Tigers would love to see him make some tangible improvements and stay healthy for a full 162 games.
5. Can we see more of the good Gregory Soto?
An underrated part of the shortened 2020 season was Soto’s hot start. The first several times he came into games, it was simply electric -- blowing hitters away with a fastball that touched 100 mph and an unfair slider as a side dish.
When he loses the strike zone, it can get ugly fast, though. The good version of Soto could become an elite MLB closer. The bad version could find himself out of high-leverage situations completely.
6. Does Matt Manning complete the trio?
Mize and Skubal are in Detroit. That just leaves Manning in the trio of top Tigers pitching prospects that everyone’s been raving about for years.
Manning dealt with some injury issues in 2020, otherwise he likely would have debuted, as well. He didn’t have a dominant spring, and the Tigers currently don’t need another starting pitcher. But if he continues to dominate minor league hitters, a call-up is inevitable.
7. When will eye test turn into results for Isaac Paredes?
The difference between watching Paredes and looking at his stats is night and day. Even during his short time at the MLB level, he’s displayed an ability to work counts and hit the ball hard.
Unfortunately, that didn’t translate to results. The same was true this spring.
Hinch was forced to send Paredes to the minors, even though he probably would have loved to keep the 22-year-old in Detroit. Eventually, his plate discipline and line drive swing will turn into walks and extra-base hits.
8. Will Jeimer Candelario flourish back at third?
Last season, Candelario evolved into the hitter the Tigers envisioned when they traded for him in 2017. He showed the skills his prospect pedigree teased: an advanced knowledge of the strike zone and doubles power.
An injury to C.J. Cron forced him to move to first base, but now he’s back at his desired spot at third. The Tigers are hoping he can build on the gains he made last season and also play solid defense at the hot corner.
9. What can’t Daniel Norris do?
I think I’m turning into the Daniel Norris Guy, but I just can’t stress how good he’s been since the Tigers stopped trying to force him to be a traditional starter.
In his final eight outings in 2019 -- each three innings -- Norris posted a 2.25 ERA, a 0.875 WHIP and held hitters to a .546 OPS. He struck out 23 batters and walked just five in 24 innings. His swinging strike rate rose to an elite 15% over that span.
Then, as a full-time reliever in 2020, Norris posted a 3.25 ERA, 2.87 FIP, 1.157 WHIP over 27.2 innings. He struck out 28 batters and walked just seven.
Norris isn’t a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher that his prospect rating promoted, but he’s been excellent in a variety of shorter-outing roles.
10. What does an AJ Hinch-led Tigers team really look like?
It’s one thing to be aggressive on the base paths and test a bunch of players out at different positions in spring training. It’s another to do it over the course of a 162-game season.
Hinch knows what he’s doing. He took the rebuilding Houston Astros to a World Series in a matter of three years, and he’s hoping to lead a similar type of turnaround in Detroit. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see noticeable improvement in Year 1.
11. Is Matt Boyd an ace or not?
The answer is probably no, but the Tigers are trotting him out there on Opening Day. Boyd was legitimately ace-like for half of 2019 and has been legitimately bad since.
Home runs are a major, major issue for Boyd, to the extent they’ve overshadowed even his greatest strikeout efforts. He’ll never be great at keeping the ball in the yard, but if he can just have a bad home run rate instead of a disastrous one and pair that with the type of swing-and-miss stuff he showed in 2019, he’ll bounce back.
12. Can Spencer Turnbull finally put it all together?
Starting the season on the injured list isn’t a great start, especially for a pitcher who seems to get thrown off easily when things don’t go as planned.
Turnbull looked unhittable at times last season, especially during intrasquad games. But sometimes he loses his control and bad innings spiral out of control. He’ll be 29 years old by season’s end, so the Tigers are certainly hoping to see progress.
13. Can Miguel Cabrera sustain his 2020 power surge?
Anyone hoping for Cabrera to be an above-average offensive player is doing so based on numbers from about five years ago -- his last really good season was 2016 -- but considering he was such a transcendent hitter, it’s hard to blame them.
Over the past four seasons, Cabrera’s OPS is .749, which is below league average. His home run power did return in 2020, though, as he hit 10 bombs in just 57 games.
That’s about a 26-homer pace if Cabrera played 150 games this season. Considering that would be only his second season above 25 homers since 2013, the Tigers would gladly take it.
14. Does Victor Reyes have another surge in him?
When you watch the Tigers, Reyes doesn’t really do anything that stands out. When you check the box score, his stats don’t jump off the page. Yet somehow, it always feels like he’s helping the Tigers win games.
He’ll have to fight another uphill battle in a crowded outfield this season, but Reyes is the kind of player you should count out at your own risk.
15. How long will Bryan Garcia last at closer?
The Tigers will technically go with a closer by committee to start the season, but considering he ended 2020 in the role, Garcia figures to at least be part of that mix.
Garcia was surprisingly successful in the role despite issuing 10 walks and striking out just 12 batters in 21.2 innings. To actually win the job and secure it over a full season, he’ll need to improve both of those rates significantly.
16. Will Derek Holland ever give up a run?
Hinch didn’t have a choice but to award Holland a roster spot after he struck out 16 batters and issued just one walk in 9.1 scoreless innings this spring.
The veteran starter has reinvented himself for a relief role, and if spring training is any indication, the Tigers might have struck gold. Holland flashed the increased velocity and nasty secondary stuff that suggests his conversion to the bullpen could be successful.
17. Are walks still a concern for Jose Cisnero?
Cisnero was so, so good for the Tigers last season, even though there was never really a time when he seemed like the No. 1 option out of the bullpen. That distinction was passed between Soto, Norris and Garcia.
But Cisnero was incredibly consistent, and the key was a career-low 3.0 walk rate. He cut that down from 4.8 walks per nine innings his previous 68 games at the MLB level.
This spring, Cisnero issued seven walks in 7.1 innings. It’s too small of a sample size to raise the alarm, but considering he has a much longer history of bad control than good, it’s something to keep an eye on.
18. Was the end of spring training a last stand for Michael Fulmer?
Full disclosure, after last season, I thought Fulmer was done being an asset to the Tigers. It didn’t help when he allowed 10 runs on 10 hits, three home runs, two hit batters and five walks while only striking out three in six innings to start the spring.
Fulmer finished the spring on a high note, though, particularly in a pair of outings on March 21 and 25. He threw a combined seven innings, striking out 10 batters while allowing just one run on four hits, a walk and a hit batter.
There’s still a long way to go, but Fulmer is at least showing signs he could find a role in the Tigers’ bullpen.
19. Where did Niko Goodrum’s hit tool go?
In 2018 and 2019, Goodrum showed all the signs of an ascending hitter. He hit 56 doubles, eight triples and 28 home runs in 243 games while improving his walk rate and stealing 24 bases.
Last year, he struck out 69 times in 158 at-bats and posted a .598 OPS. This spring, he whiffed 19 times in 46 at-bats. The strikeout rate is robbing Goodrum of any chance to showcase his speed on the base paths and his extra-base power.
From starting shortstop to sharing the super utility role with Harold Castro, Goodrum finds himself in a much worse position to begin 2021.
20. How real is the Julio Teheran resurgence?
Other than one awful inning in his last outing, Teheran was excellent this spring. Even more important than the stats was his velocity and the way he used it to generate more strikeouts.
Teheran had an awful 2020 season with the Los Angeles Angels, but he was confident enough in himself to accept a minor league deal with the Tigers over other MLB options. That’s already paid off as he made the Opening Day rotation. Now, he’ll have a chance to prove it’s real.
21. Will Robbie Grossman lock down the leadoff spot?
Tigers fans were spoiled with Curtis Granderson, Austin Jackson and Ian Kinsler at the leadoff spot for so many years, and the last couple of seasons have been rough.
Finally, though, there’s a legitimate leadoff candidate on the roster: Grossman. He has a career .350 on-base percentage and validated it this spring. There’s also some serious power potential in his bat, as he hit eight home runs in 51 games last season and three more this spring.
22. Have we seen the last of Renato Nunez?
When the Tigers cut Nunez, it was a bit of a surprise, considering an apparent opening at first base. Nunez has MLB power and fits well into the middle of the order.
Unfortunately, he’s not a reliable defender, and he didn’t exactly force his way onto the team this spring. He did accept his assignment to Triple-A, however, so if the Tigers need a bat, he figures to be one of the first calls.