DETROIT – A new manager. Three free agent signees in the everyday lineup. Two new faces in the starting rotation. Prospects graduating into important roles.
What should we expect from the 2021 Detroit Tigers?
Thursday’s Opening Day lineup reveal wasn’t some massive roster overhaul. Troy Weaver isn’t running the Tigers, after all.
Six of the players in the starting lineup -- Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro, Miguel Cabrera, Jonathan Schoop, Victor Reyes and JaCoby Jones -- were everyday players at the end of last season. When Spencer Turnbull comes off the injured list, the starting rotation will likely have four of the same pitchers from last year.
Yet, everything feels much more different. Maybe it’s because some of the breakouts we saw, particularly from Candelario and Castro, came during a shortened 2020 season. Are they real? Can they be productive players throughout a 162-game season?
What about Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize? They’ve already made a handful of MLB starts, but they did so after an extremely odd offseason and struggled to find their footing.
It’s difficult to predict what we’ll get from these Tigers, but we’re still going to try.
Better lineup construction
Right off the bat, the presence of new manager A.J. Hinch is apparent. This is a guy who took over a rebuild in Houston and turned the franchise into a World Series champion.
His Opening Day lineup is a refreshing sign. Here’s why:
- Robbie Grossman, the favorite to lead the team in on-base percentage, is leading off.
- Candelario, presumably the team’s best hitter, is in the No. 2 hole.
- Cabrera, who led the team in home runs and walks last season, is hitting cleanup.
- Castro and Schoop fill everything out nicely in the No. 3 and No. 5 slots, respectively.
It’s not complicated. It’s just how it should be.
You should expect the Tigers to be one of the worst offensive teams in the American League, but they should still be better than last year.
Grossman is a major improvement over the revolving door we saw in left field. Mazara is a good bet for 20 home runs, and Wilson Ramos can roll out of bed and hit better than Tigers catchers did in 2020.
Plus, we get a full season of Castro and Candelario, who both looked excellent in the spring.
When Hinch goes to the bench, the Tigers actually have some players with upside. There were times Reyes was the best offensive player on the team last year. Now, it’s not a given he’ll even start most games.
Akil Baddoo was a spring revelation. That doesn’t always translate to the regular season, but his tools are loud and exciting. Niko Goodrum and Harold Castro have been starters as recently as last year. Now both are in super utility roles.
Detroit doesn’t have any superstars, but through free agency and promotions, the lineup is at least built up of legitimate MLB players.
The left side of the Tigers’ infield actually has some potential to be very strong with Candelario and Castro. Both have shown flashes of being above-average infielders.
There will likely be times when Castro loses his feel on throws. That was the one knock on him throughout the spring, though it disappeared in the later weeks. I actually think it’s more likely he’ll be a plus defender than a liability.
Cabrera at first base is a weakness. There’s no denying that. Grossman and Mazara aren’t standouts defensively, either, when they’re in the corner outfield spots.
Reyes and Jones have been very good defenders, at times. They’ll need to shoulder the weight for their more offensively inclined teammates.
Ramos is, at best, average behind the plate. The Tigers had some issues with passed balls and wild pitches in the spring, and runners will test Ramos’ arm. He’s here because he can hit.
No proven starting pitchers
The starting rotation will determine whether the Tigers are a pleasant surprise or a complete disaster this season. Every single starter has a realistic chance to be good or disastrous. Lean into the volatility!
Matt Boyd was a legitimate ace as recently as two years ago, when he saw his strikeout rate balloon above 11 per nine. Unfortunately, those whiffs took a step back in 2020, and home run issues put his stats among the worst in baseball.
Skubal and Mize are top 25 prospects who showed flashes of pure dominance in the spring. But both were downright bad in their 2020 debuts, and it’s impossible to know what to expect from rookies in the regular season.
There’s a nonzero chance both could emerge as top-of-the-rotation arms. There’s also a scenario in which they end up in Toledo.
Julio Teheran looked revitalized this spring, throwing harder than he has in years, striking out more than a batter per inning and cutting down the walks. If that carries over into the season, he’s not a bad middle-of-the-rotation pitcher.
If Teheran reverts to his form of the last two seasons, he won’t be in Detroit long.
Then, there’s Turnbull. Starting the season on the injured list is a bad sign for someone who’s easily thrown off his game. When everything is going right for Turnbull, it can be a sight to behold. When he struggles, it spirals quickly.
Jose Urena is probably the one exception. He doesn’t have high upside, but he’s also probably not going to implode to a degree the Tigers have to move on. He’s an innings eater, like a younger Ivan Nova.
Shockingly, the most promising group on the Tigers’ roster might be the bullpen.
Gregory Soto and Jose Cisnero are electric, and both are eyeing critical late-inning roles. They join Daniel Norris as a returning trio that Tigers fans can, dare I say, rely on?
Derek Holland is someone to watch in high-leverage situations. He joined the team as a non-roster invitee in the spring and fired 9.1 scoreless innings, with just one walk and 16 strikeouts.
Bryan Garcia and Buck Farmer have had their moments, too, but the underlying numbers make them a bit difficult to trust.
Tyler Alexander is a safe bet in long relief situations, and Michael Fulmer is trying to figure out the transition from starter to reliever.
If the starters can hang around long enough that Hinch only has to use the top four names above, the Tigers bullpen should be a strength. Once you start dipping into the Garcia-Farmer-Fulmer range, the results are a little less certain.
Building a culture
The Tigers are trying to improve on the field, but even more obvious is the culture Hinch wants to build. That was obvious throughout spring training.
Baddoo, Holland and Harold Castro are on the roster because they earned it in March. Hinch told players that camp was a competition, so he had to follow through and reward players who forced their way onto the roster.
Guys who struggled -- such as Fulmer and Goodrum -- weren’t handed starting jobs. Last season, the Tigers continued to run both out there regularly without justification.
Hinch isn’t afraid to make the difficult decision to promote the culture he envisions for this organization. Whether that’s telling Renato Nunez he didn’t do enough to make the team or sending down Isaac Paredes, there’s a pattern to the moves.
When we understanding the way Hinch works, it’s easier to see the reasoning behind his decisions. The Tigers are still years away from fielding a team that could win the division. These are the building blocks of the foundation being laid.
I think the Tigers are close to a lock to finish in last place in the AL Central.
The Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians have far superior rosters than the Tigers. Even the Kansas City Royals improved this offseason, adding Carlos Santana, Andrew Benintendi and Michael Taylor.
If all five starting pitchers play close to their best-case scenario, the Tigers could finish as high as third in the division. They wouldn’t be in the mix for a playoff spot, but they could flirt with 75-80 wins in that scenario, which is extremely unlikely.
My guess is the offense will be bottom five in the AL. The starting pitching will be bottom half, and the bullpen will have stretches when it gets overworked. A 162-game season is a grind, and the Tigers could experience a few long losing streaks.
The promotions of Matt Manning and some exciting hitting prospects will be highlights, as will Cabrera’s 3,000th hit and 500th home run.
But when the summer comes to a close, the Tigers will finish somewhere around 69-93, I’d say. It should give them another top-five draft choice, and plenty of reason to go out and spend in a loaded free agent class.