DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers didn’t deliver on their promise of better baseball this summer, falling apart even faster than most other seasons during the long rebuild. But is there any hope of that changing next year?
Right now, the team is 15 games below .500 and double digit games out of both the division and wildcard races. The rebuild was supposed to be over, but instead, 2022 has turned into another disaster.
So, once again, Tigers fans are forced into “maybe next year” mode. But what is there to look forward to?
Since the very start of this rebuild, the Tigers have gone all-in on starting pitchers. They used their first-round picks on right-handers in back-to-back-to-back drafts from 2016 through 2018.
Well, starting pitching is about the only positive (we’re using that term loosely here) coming out of this season, but, ironically, those three first-rounders don’t have much to do with it.
Matt Manning’s medley of injuries have kept him from the team for three months. Alex Faedo has allowed 17 earned runs in his last 15 innings and fallen out of favor. Casey Mize probably won’t be a factor until 2024 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
But still, the pitching staff has managed to stay afloat, even while offseason signings Eduardo Rodriguez (restricted list) and Michael Pineda (injury) missed most of the first half.
Tarik Skubal once looked like a budding ace for the young staff. Through 11 starts, he owned a 2.33 ERA, 2.08 FIP, and had struck out more than a batter per inning. Unfortunately, his last five outings have been ghastly: a 9.00 ERA, 6.03 FIP, 1.024 opposing OPS, and a much lower strikeout rate.
He’s not as bad as his last five outings suggest, but Skubal might not be an ace, either. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Beau Brieske was the Tigers’ minor league pitcher of the year in 2021, but his first taste of MLB hasn’t been nearly as smooth. While the surface numbers are respectable -- a 4.54 ERA and 1.28 WHIP -- his underlying metrics are alarming.
Brieske ranks in the bottom 10% of MLB in terms of expected ERA, expected batting average against, and expected slugging percentage against. His walk rate is average, but the strikeout rate and quality of contact numbers are both very concerning.
There’s a chance Brieske can be a decent big league pitcher, but he has to get better -- a lot better.
Monday’s doubleheader sweep of Cleveland began with an encouraging debut from Garrett Hill, who allowed just two hits, one walk, and one run in six innings to earn his first victory. Hill has been incredibly dominant in the minors, so there’s hope he could contribute to the MLB rotation as soon as this year.
Long story short: The Tigers have plenty of options to fill their five starting rotation spots next season -- the question is whether those are good options.
Skubal, Rodriguez, and Spencer Turnbull, who is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, are likely to be at the top of next year’s rotation. Manning, if healthy, will join them. Brieske, Hill, Faedo, and Joey Wentz are also in the mix.
Without at least one free agent signing, the Tigers are probably looking at a below average starting rotation next year. It’s possible to win with that group, but the offense and bullpen would need to carry the load.
Yeah, this is where it gets a whole lot worse. Other than Riley Greene, there haven’t been many positive offensive developments for the Tigers this season.
Nobody is giving up on former No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson, but his rookie campaign has been, in a word, disastrous. He’s not getting on base, he’s not hitting for power, and he’s not even doing damage on low-90s fastballs right down the middle.
Even if Greene and Torkelson both turn out to be middle-of-the-order bats, unprecedented regression from veterans Jeimer Candelario and Jonathan Schoop created two new holes in the lineup, and Akil Baddoo no longer looks like a surefire long-term solution.
Where can the Tigers turn?
Javier Baez is playing better recently, but his OPS is still hovering around .600, and the strikeouts are as bad as ever. He’s entirely reliant on opposing pitchers making mistakes, because if they don’t throw pitches in the strike zone, Baez will surely get himself out.
Austin Meadows got off to a strong start, but has been away from the team for weeks at a time due to various issues. Oh yeah, and he unfathomably hit zero home runs in 128 at-bats.
Eric Haase, meanwhile, is proving once again to be a valuable player in a variety roles. He might not be the team’s preference as an everyday catcher going forward, but he’s been the best option two seasons in a row. The Tigers can’t really afford to be picky.
So, tentatively, six of the nine starting spots in 2023 could be filled like this:
- Catcher: Haase
- First base: Torkelson
- Shortstop: Baez
- Center field: Greene
- Right field: Meadows
- Designated hitter: Miguel Cabrera
But what about the rest of the lineup? Will we get yet another year of Willi Castro, Harold Castro, and Victor Reyes?
Maybe Kody Clemens or Ryan Kreidler will seize control of the open infield spots. Daz Cameron deserves an opportunity to play everyday in the outfield after showcasing some of his tools before an IL stint. Maybe Baddoo will figure out his swing at Triple-A and get back in the mix.
But other than a few weeks of Greene, the Tigers haven’t produced much exciting offensive potential within the system, and there’s certainly no track record of developing that from unexpected sources.
Michael Fulmer is a free agent after this season and is likely to be traded at the deadline, but otherwise, Detroit’s strong bullpen could stay mostly intact for 2023.
Gregory Soto can be frustrating, but he’s mostly reliable in the closer’s role. Jose Cisnero is on the way back from injury and will join an excellent late-inning corps of Alex Lange, Joe Jimenez, Will Vest, and Andrew Chafin.
The bullpen might take a few hits before the trade deadline this month, but the group as a whole should still be fine for next year.
Is there hope?
If you were hoping to see postseason baseball return to Detroit before the end of Cabrera’s contract, I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Even if many of these dominoes fall in the Tigers’ favor -- and that’s a big “if” -- the starting rotation and offense are only going to be solid. There aren’t many potential difference-makers on the doorstep.
The 2022 season has been a massive disappointment on its own, but the damage done to the team’s future might be even greater. All the high draft picks, prospect development, and salary cap maneuvering of the past six years have built up to this point, and it doesn’t look like the Tigers are in a position to capitalize on any of it.
The tide can turn in a hurry for MLB franchises, so don’t give up hope. But it sure looks like 2022 will end up being more than just a speed bump on the Tigers’ quest for contention.