DETROIT – Could the first half of the 2022 season have gone any worse for the Detroit Tigers?
Sure, they could be 0-92. That’s statistically worse than 37-55. But really, is there any tangible difference?
As players head home for the All-Star break, the Tigers sit 18 games below .500, 12.5 games back in the AL Central Division, and 12.5 games out of the wildcard race.
After the owner and general manager declared the rebuild over, fans expected more -- a lot more.
But instead, the Tigers are actually worse than they’ve been almost every other season of this long, miserable rebuild. They dropped eight of nine games heading into the break, giving them a .402 winning percentage.
In terms of this rebuild, only in 2019, when the team was 30 games below .500 at the midway point, were the Tigers worse than this year.
As horrifying as the record looks, it’s not even the worst part of this debacle.
Struggling young players
Part of the excitement surrounding this season spawned from what young players did in the second half of 2021.
Akil Baddoo is the most obvious example. He joined the team as a Rule 5 pick last offseason and instantly became the most electric player on the team. He hit 13 home runs, 20 doubles, and seven triples while stealing 18 bases and posting a 2.1 WAR.
All that from a player who hadn’t previously appeared in a game above Single-A.
Nobody would have been surprised to see Baddoo take a small step back in his sophomore campaign, but few predicted the bottom would completely fall out like this.
Baddoo was so bad early in the season that the Tigers were forced to demote him to Triple-A. After some initial struggles, he started to show positive signs, so the Tigers called him up.
Since returning, Baddoo is 2-for-15 with a pair of singles and four strikeouts. Overall, he’s batting .138 this season with two extra-base hits, one stolen base, and 19 strikeouts in 70 plate appearances.
Baddoo isn’t the only young player falling short of expectations. Derek Hill, Daz Cameron, and Kody Clemens have all been, well, non-factors. Willi Castro is still uninspiring. There simply aren’t many reasons to expect productive careers from any of those players.
Underwhelming top prospects
Spencer Torkelson, the team’s No. 1 overall pick in 2020, figured to be about as safe a bet to boost the lineup as you could expect from a rookie. Not only was he the most polished bat in the draft two years ago, he quickly mastered each level of the minor leagues despite aggressive promotions from the Tigers.
But even though the team was incredibly patient, Torkelson couldn’t get going. It would be one thing if the 22-year-old was experiencing typical young player struggles, but he’s been one of the worst qualified players in all of MLB.
Torkelson is worth -1.4 WAR so far this year, which means he’s been much, much worse than even a replacement-level MLB player. Say all you want about being young and needing some time to adjust, but the Tigers certainly didn’t think one of the foundational pieces of their future would ever look this lost at the plate.
Torkelson has struggled to hit average fastballs in the zone, often turning them into lazy fly balls or fouling them off. His strikeout rate doesn’t warrant panic, but pair it with a lack of power and on-base production, and the profile as a whole looks awful.
Fellow top-five prospect Riley Greene looks much better by comparison, but it’s not like he’s been overly impressive at the plate, either. Greene owns a .709 OPS -- slightly above league average -- but the power and speed haven’t yet translated into many home runs or stolen bases.
It’s a positive sign that Greene owns a .344 on-base percentage, but in his last 14 games, his slash line is an underwhelming .220/.281/.322. That seems to happen to hitters who spend time with the Tigers’ MLB staff.
Early in the season, while the Tigers were free-falling their way out of contention, Tarik Skubal provided a brief ray of hope every fifth game. Through 11 outings he owned a 2.33 ERA, 2.08 FIP, 0.944 WHIP, and a .558 opponent OPS.
But the wheels have completely fallen off. Over the past month, Skubal has made seven starts. In that span, he owns a 7.46 ERA, 4.80 FIP, 1.69 WHIP, and a .924 opponent OPS. His ground ball and swinging strike rates are holding steady, but the strikeouts are down overall, and the quality of contact is downright alarming.
Skubal is only 25 years old, but it looked like he was already trending toward the ace potential he flashed in the minor leagues. Unfortunately, many of the issues that handicapped him in 2021 reemerged over the past five weeks -- walks, home runs, and an inability to limit hard contact.
There’s reason to believe Skubal could get back on track in the second half, but for a fan base that’s been hammered by bad news over the past eight seasons, looking for signs that players “might” be good is starting to get a bit old.
Nightmare contract for Javier Baez?
During the offseason, we did an exercise ranking the six potential free agent shortstops the Tigers could sign. We ranked Javier Baez dead last among those six.
Here’s the thing: Baez’s struggles can’t really be attributed to strikeouts. His sub-24% strikeout rate is actually only slightly below league average.
Even the Baez skeptics wouldn’t have expected him to finish the first half with such awful numbers. The 29-year-old is sporting a .251 OBP, a .626 OPS, and a 78 OPS+ (MLB average is always adjusted to 100).
The problems affecting Baez are actually even more concerning, because the strikeout rate could conceivably get worse at any moment.
Baez isn’t hitting the ball hard anymore. He ranks in the 21st percentile in terms of average exit velocity and the 19th percentile in hard hit percentage. Last season, he finished in the 67th and 74th percentiles in those stats, respectively.
Even though the strikeouts have improved on the surface, the actual issues that lead to elevated strikeout rates are still crushing Baez’s value. He’s among the worst players in MLB in terms of chase rate, whiff rate, and walk rate. In other words: He’s still swinging outside the zone and whiffing as much as anyone in the game.
Baez’s 4.4% walk rate is right on line with his career average. The difference this season: He isn’t impacting the ball in a way that allows him to overcome that weakness.
The 29-year-old still ranks in the top third of MLB players in sprint speed, but that’s manifested in only three stolen bases, and it’s had minimal impact on the base paths because he’s so rarely getting there in the first place.
Baez has incredible range at shortstop and makes some stunning defensive plays, but he’s tied for the fifth-most errors in baseball with 11, and that number could easily be higher if not for Torkelson bailing him out on dozens of throws in the dirt.
Despite a small payroll and a massive need at the position, the Tigers decided they didn’t want to pay up for any of the elite free agent shortstops, such as Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, or Trevor Story.
As a result, they’re paying $20 million this season for a player who has so far given them 0.6 WAR.
Do I think Baez will be better than this going forward? Yes, absolutely. He’s not the first player to struggle in his first season switching leagues, nor the first to have a down year to kick off a big contract.
But Correa is mashing a division rival into first place. Story has 15 homers and 10 steals while playing elite defense for Boston. Seager is a 3-WAR monster with 22 home runs and outstanding metrics. On the same infield, Semien, despite a miserable first month, is up to 13 home runs, 15 doubles, 17 steals, and 2.2 WAR.
Even Chris Taylor, the fifth-ranked option in our aforementioned November article, has been better offensively than Baez, with 19 doubles, a .319 OBP, and a 102 OPS+ while playing all three outfield positions for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Tigers knew they had to sign a shortstop this offseason or the fan base would revolt. They did the bare minimum by choosing Baez, and now they’re getting the bare minimum in return.
Where is Eduardo Rodriguez?
Where is Detroit’s other high-profile offseason signing, Eduardo Rodriguez? Well, apparently, even the team doesn’t know.
Al Avila paid Rodriguez $77 million to be a reliable starter in an otherwise unproven rotation over the next five years. But he’s been the opposite of reliable -- Avila, A.J. Hinch, and company said they haven’t even heard from him since he left the team for personal reasons.
Rodriguez initially hit the injured list in mid-May. Before he could rejoin the team, it was announced he was taking unpaid leave to deal with personal matters.
Since then, nothing. No news. No meaningful updates. Will Rodriguez be back this season? Will he be back ever?
It’s hard to blame this one on anybody because it’s such a strange situation. That won’t make Tigers fans feel any better, though.
Strange season for Austin Meadows
I don’t even know where to start with Austin Meadows. His Tigers tenure has been strange since the moment he joined the organization.
First of all, the trade for Meadows came out of nowhere, in the middle of the night, just days before the opener.
Then, in the 36 games he played for the team, Meadows hit zero home runs in 147 plate appearances. Zero. We’re talking about a player who crushed 27 bombs in 2021, and 33 in his only other full season in 2019.
In mid-June, Meadows was placed on the injured list with vertigo. About a week after his return (Meadows went 5-for-27 with a .550 OPS), he hit the COVID IL. More than a week later, before starting a rehab assignment, Meadows was shut down with strains in both of his Achilles tendons.
Both? What? Meadows wasn’t even on the field.
When he finally started a rehab assignment, it lasted only two games. Meadows was shut down again with soreness in both Achilles tendons, and Hinch said the process was going to have to start all over.
This would be by far the strangest situation for most other MLB teams this season, but for the Tigers, it seems almost normal next to what’s happening with Rodriguez.
Together, they create an all-time “What did we do to deserve this?” type of scenario for the organization.
Meadows and Rodriguez are the two most high-profile players missing from the Tigers’ roster, but they certainly aren’t the only ones.
Casey Mize, another former No. 1 overall pick at the heart of the rebuild, pitched just 10 innings before getting shut down with an injury that ultimately led to Tommy John surgery. So not only will he be away from the team for the rest of 2022, but it’ll greatly impact next season, too.
Matt Manning pitched eight innings before being shut down with his own throwing arm issues. The frustrating whiplash of rehab starts turning into setbacks brought into question whether Manning faced a season-ending situation of his own, but for now, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Prospect Joey Wentz got hurt during a promising second career start. Alex Faedo is dealing with a hip issue. Wily Peralta is out until at least August. Rony Garcia and Tyler Alexander spent time on the IL. All the while, Spencer Turnbull remains out after last year’s Tommy John surgery.
In the bullpen, the Tigers started the year without Jose Cisnero, Kyle Funkhouser, and Andrew Chafin. While Chafin returned and has pitched well for the Tigers, the other two have yet to take the mound. Funkhouser recently had his rehab shut down entirely.
Greene broke his foot days before the season began. Robbie Grossman, Derek Hill, Jeimer Candelario, Cameron, and Baez have all spent time on the injured list. Victor Reyes went on the IL twice.
Detroit’s bullpen managed to overcome a long list of injuries, but the lineup and starting staff have crumbled even further under the weight of their losses.
Uninteresting trade deadline
In past years, the Tigers have at least generated some trade deadline buzz because they had players who could help teams that actually, you know, compete for something in the second half.
This year, there probably won’t be much to get excited about. The most obvious candidates to be moved on the offensive end -- Candelario, Grossman, and Schoop -- have been so completely lost at the plate that their value is minimal. If Avila moves them, the Tigers aren’t likely to get much more than a low-grade prospect in return.
A few months of Michael Fulmer might have teams calling, but rentals don’t fetch as much as they used to. Does anyone have confidence that the Tigers can get comparable value in return for Gregory Soto or Joe Jimenez, two players who aren’t impending free agents?
The Cubs will have a bidding war for Willson Contreras. Cincinnati Reds fans should be following Luis Castillo rumors for the next two weeks. The Pirates could move Bryan Reynolds for a fortune.
The Tigers don’t have any trade chips of that caliber.
The Tigers sent two players at the All-Star game this year, thanks to Miguel Cabrera being added as a “legacy” selection.
But Cabrera, even if he gets a hit in the game, doesn’t represent hope for the future. Tigers fans have enjoyed watching him for the past 15 years, but he’s nearly 40 years old and will only be on the roster for one more season.
Soto, meanwhile, is making his second-straight all-star appearance. He’s part of the team’s future, but an oft-erratic closer isn’t likely to convince Tigers fans to tune into the Midsummer Classic.
The Los Angeles Angels stink, but their fans get to watch Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani -- two titans in the sport -- during the All-Star festivities. Seattle has Julio Rodriguez. The Rangers are represented by Seager in the home run derby.
Miami Marlins fans will see Sandy Alcantara pitch following his historic first-half run of seven-plus-inning starts. Washington Nationals fans still have Juan Soto to look forward to, even amid trade rumors.
Even the Baltimore Orioles get to bask in the glory of recent success after they ascended to .500 thanks to a late 10-game winning streak.
Tigers fans will spend the All-Star break recovering from three months of letdown, and the only potential consolation is their soon-to-be-retired designated hitter poking a single through the right side or their closer throwing a high-stress inning in an exhibition game.
Positives from the first half
If you squint really hard, you can make out a few positives from the past three months.
Alex Lange looks like a legitimate late-inning weapon out of the bullpen. He’s followed up a strong finish to 2021 with a 2.29 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings while pitching more than any other reliever.
Lange, without a doubt, should have been the team’s All-Star representative over Soto. He’s been better in every way.
Cabrera is still below replacement level overall, but since the actual results of the games are meaningless for the Tigers again this season, watching the future Hall of Famer rack up 82 hits in 79 games has been a fun silver lining.
Chafin, Jimenez, Will Vest, and the bullpen as a whole deserve recognition for their consistent, reliable production despite a lack of support from the rest of the roster.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Eric Haase is quietly having a really strong year. He leads the team in WAR and sports a solid .731 OPS. Since June 16, Haase is slashing .328/.378/.627 with five home runs in 23 games.
Haase ranks as an above-average defender and is around the top quarter of the league -- not just catchers -- in terms of sprint speed.
There haven’t been many positive developments for the Tigers, but if you’re looking for hope, Haase, Lange, and a few other bullpen arms look like building blocks.