DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers had the worst offense in all of baseball a season ago, so the lineup should look much different by the end of this year’s spring training.
Everyone knows the 2022 season didn’t go how the Tigers had planned. A.J. Hinch led the team to a surprisingly strong 2021, but despite adding free agents Javier Baez, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Andrew Chafin, and trading for Austin Meadows and Tucker Barnhart, Detroit finished a full 11 games worse.
Most of that regression fell at the feet of the offense.
The Tigers finished dead last in MLB in runs, homers, walks, and slugging percentage. They were second-to-last in on-base percentage and OPS, and bottom five in hits, stolen bases, and many advanced metrics.
Some of the reasons for those struggles were out of the team’s control. Riley Greene fouled a ball off his foot in spring training and missed the first two months of the season. Meadows had injuries and mental health struggles that limited him to just 36 games. Several established major-league players looked like they simply forgot how to hit.
New president Scott Harris didn’t make any flashy additions during the offseason, but that doesn’t mean the lineup won’t improve.
Tigers fans will recognize seven of the nine names below, but only four of them spent most of last season as full-time starters.
1. Riley Greene, CF
- 2022 stats: .253 batting average/.321 on-base percentage/.362 slugging percentage, 5 home runs, 18 doubles, 36 walks, 120 strikeouts in 418 plate appearances
The most exciting position player in the organization is coming off a bit of a rough introduction to the major leagues. Greene’s rookie season was derailed when he fouled a ball off his foot moments before ripping a triple off of Gerrit Cole in spring training.
As a result, the presumptive starting center fielder played just 93 games with the Tigers, striking out 120 times in 418 plate appearances (28.7% strikeout rate) with one stolen base and a 99 OPS+ (league average is 100).
There are still plenty of reasons to be excited about the now-22-year-old. He showed a consistent combination of power and speed while advancing through the minors, and there were flashes of both during his first season.
The Tigers lack a true leadoff hitter, but Greene has always profiled as someone who should get on base at a high rate. He spent more than 80% of his time atop the lineup last season, so there’s no reason to expect that to change.
Greene’s top priority should be to cut down on strikeouts.
2. Austin Meadows, RF
- 2022 stats: .250/.347/.328, 6 doubles, 16 walks, 17 strikeouts in 147 plate appearances
The Tigers thought they knew exactly what they were getting when they traded for Meadows just before Opening Day: a reliable power hitter who struggles defensively and might have some lengthy on-base slumps.
So, naturally, Meadows got to Detroit, walked nearly as much as he struck out, played an excellent right field, and didn’t hit a single home run.
When the Tigers lost Meadows, the lineup never recovered. Even though he went 128 at-bats without hitting the ball over the fence, he posted an excellent .347 OBP and developed an early knack for coming through in big moments.
It’s impossible to know what to expect from Meadows going into this season. He hit 60 home runs combined in 2019 and 2021, but took a completely different approach once he got to Detroit. The No. 2 hole is typically reserved for a team’s best hitter, and it’s hard to expect anyone else on this roster to be better than Meadows.
3. Javier Baez, SS
- 2022 stats: .238/.278/.393, 17 home runs, 27 doubles, 26 walks, 147 strikeouts in 590 plate appearances
It’s time to turn the page on last season and stop beating a dead horse. Most of you probably know my feelings about the team’s decision to sign Baez -- if not, you can find them here (before they signed him) and here (midseason) and here (after the season).
Let’s move on. Baez is prepping to represent Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic next month before joining the Tigers and trying to bounce back from the worst full season of his career.
When the Tigers signed Baez, they were hoping to energize the roster with his massive power, electric speed, and dazzling defensive athleticism. Now that he has a chance to opt out of his contract and hit free agency after the season, maybe that incredible talent will shine through.
Baez will bat in the heart of the lineup in part because he’s making $22 million, but also because he remains the most accomplished MLB hitter on the roster, aside from Miguel Cabrera.
4. Eric Haase, C
- 2022 stats: .254/.305/.443, 14 home runs, 17 doubles, 24 walks, 97 strikeouts in 351 plate appearances
Maybe the Tigers will stick Spencer Torkelson back in this spot, or default to Cabrera -- I really don’t know. But the most deserving hitter is Eric Haase.
One of the few Tigers who finished with above-average offensive numbers last season, Haase put together quality at-bats and hit the ball relatively hard. He’s athletic enough to play a solid outfield, but considering the Tigers’ hole at catcher, he should start the season as the No. 1 option behind the dish.
While the strikeout rate still isn’t great, an improvement from over 31% the previous two seasons to 27.6% last year is significant progress -- especially for a power hitter. Haase does most things fairly well, and the sum ends up being greater than the individual parts.
5. Miguel Cabrera, DH
- 2022 stats: .254/.305/.317, 5 home runs, 10 doubles, 28 walks, 101 strikeouts in 433 plate appearances
Hinch showed some willingness to drop Cabrera in the batting order last season, but the 39-year-old still ended up spending the majority of his time in the No. 3 or No. 4 slots because nobody else earned them, either.
It was another rough season for one of the greatest hitters of this generation. Cabrera joined the exclusive 3,000 hit club but only totaled 101 hits and five home runs across 397 at-bats.
This is the final year of Cabrera’s contract, and the symbolic end of what was once a thrilling era of baseball for Tigers fans. Father Time is undefeated, though, and Cabrera’s strikeout, walk, and hard-hit rates have plummeted over the past half-decade.
Cabrera’s victory lap could get a boost from the elimination of the infield shift. He hit .254 a year ago and might see that number rise into the .270 range if more of his hard-hit ground balls find holes.
6. Matt Vierling or Kerry Carpenter, LF
- Vierling 2022 stats: .246/.297/.351, 6 home runs, 12 doubles, 23 walks, 70 strikeouts in 357 plate appearances
- Carpenter 2022 stats: .252/.310/.485, 6 home runs, 4 doubles, 6 walks, 32 strikeouts in 113 plate appearances
The Tigers probably aren’t going to take Greene or Meadows out of the lineup very often, but it sure looks like left field will be a platoon.
Matt Vierling is the clear choice to play the right-handed side of the platoon, with either Kerry Carpenter or Akil Baddoo getting at-bats against righties. Based on how last season went, I’m choosing Carpenter for now (without giving up on Baddoo).
Vierling was the centerpiece of the return when the Tigers traded closer Gregory Soto to the Philadelphia Phillies during the offseason. His value, at this point, has been more theoretical than substantiative.
He makes regular contact and hits the ball consistently hard, which is a great start. But he hasn’t lifted the ball enough for that contact to manifest into extra-base hits -- or really many hits at all.
Vierling is also incredibly fast -- 97th percentile in MLB sprint speed. But that speed hasn’t made him a successful base stealer or above-average outfielder.
Harris and Hinch are hoping they can unlock the potential behind those raw skills. That means Vierling is going to get regular at-bats.
Carpenter, meanwhile, is not as certain to earn a major role. He came up as a 24-year-old rookie in 2022 and acquitted himself well, hitting six home runs in 103 at-bats.
Even though Carpenter struck out far too often last season, he’s earned a chance to win the job in Lakeland. A roster devoid of power can hardly afford to nitpick a player who hit 36 home runs across three levels last year.
It’s not a given that Carpenter will be a low-on-base guy, either. He owns a career .355 OBP across more than 1,000 minor-league at-bats, and walked as many times as he struck out (17) in 35 Triple-A games before the promotion.
The Tigers don’t want to do this to Cabrera, but if Carpenter and Baddoo are both producing, whoever isn’t playing left field should earn some starts at designated hitter against righties.
7. Jonathan Schoop, 2B
- 2022 stats: .202/.239/.322, 11 home runs, 23 doubles, 19 walks, 107 strikeouts in 510 plate appearances
It’s possible 2022 was an aberration for Schoop, who’s only 31 years old and has been one of MLB’s most quietly consistent hitters since 2015.
One season removed from a 22-homer, 30-double campaign in which he posted his third-straight OPS over .750, Schoop completely fell apart in 2022. It was his worst season since he came up with the Baltimore Orioles as a 22-year-old in 2014.
While his elite defensive numbers might take a hit with the elimination of the shift, Schoop should be much better at the dish. Expect him to end up closer to his career OPS of .727 than... whatever that was last year.
8. Spencer Torkelson, 1B
- 2022 stats: .203/.285/.319, 8 home runs, 16 doubles, 37 walks, 99 strikeouts in 404 plate appearances
Nobody is giving up on Torkelson after one season, but it’s justified to feel discouraged. There wasn’t much to like about what he did in the batter’s box.
Maybe Torkelson won’t be the superstar the Tigers envisioned when they picked him No. 1 overall in 2020, but the patterns in his minor-league track record are too consistent to ignore.
The Tigers were aggressive in moving Torkelson through the minor leagues. Every time he reached a new level, he would struggle for a few weeks before settling in and providing power and a high OBP.
It’s not surprising that the jump from Triple-A to MLB is proving to be the most difficult. It also wouldn’t be surprising if he figures it out in 2023.
Torkelson swung and missed a bit too much as a rookie, but his strikeout rate was nowhere near alarming. On the contrary, his 9.2% walk rate suggested he saw the ball well.
The problem is he didn’t do any damage on pitches in the zone. We’re talking about a consensus top-five prospect who hit 54 home runs in college and 30 in his only minor-league season -- yet he was fouling off center-cut, low- to mid-90s fastballs.
Torkelson’s debut season was immensely disappointing, but he hit the ball hard, drew walks, and didn’t chase pitches out of the zone. Unless you think he forgot how to crush borderline batting practice level fastballs, you shouldn’t be too worried about Torkelson -- yet.
9. Nick Maton, 3B
- 2022 stats: .250/.341/.514, 5 home runs, 2 doubles, 10 walks, 29 strikeouts in 85 plate appearances
Did the Tigers forget Jeimer Candelario is gone and they need a third baseman? It’s a fair question. As it stands, newcomers Nick Maton and Tyler Nevin seem to be the primary competition for September incumbent Ryan Kreidler.
Other than a 41-game tear at Toledo in 2021, Kreidler hasn’t shown much offensive upside as a pro, and that didn’t change when he joined the Tigers.
Nevin, meanwhile, posted a .560 OPS in 184 plate appearances with the Orioles last season after a couple of solid months in Triple-A.
It feels like this is Maton’s job to lose, pretty much by default.
As a super utility backup for the Phillies last season, Maton posted an .855 OPS across 85 plate appearances. His walk rate was a positive, but the strikeout and hard-hit percentages cast doubt on his small-sample-size success.
Maton didn’t really hit in the minors until last year, when he posted an .804 OPS in 57 games at Triple-A. One thing he’s done well at each stop: draw walks and get on base. That could give him the inside track to a majority share of reps at third base.