As the Detroit Tigers creep closer the 2018 season, many question marks remain. Both the team and its fans recognize that winning is more of a secondary motive this season, as focus on player development and strengthening the organization have moved to the forefront. Accordingly, the nine Tigers to take the field might look a little different every night.
This is a stark change from the past decade, where Detroit enjoyed streaks of consistency and familiarity in many parts of the roster. In many instances, the Tigers were able to trot out the same lineup every game, and even saw continuation from year to year.
2018 will not follow this vein, as many of the key contributors from past seasons are now gone. To illustrate what may lie ahead, I took a look at the top players at each position by innings over the past ten years. The results may not be surprising, but they help emphasize the foreign world that lies ahead.
Catcher: Pass the baton
Catching naturally leads way to more rotation than other positions, and it has been one of the more fluid positions for Detroit over the past decade. From 2007 to 2010, four different players led the team in innings behind the plate for a season, including names like Pudge Rodriguez and Gerald Laird.
2011 brought some stability, with Alex Avila receiving the majority of the reps for four years before giving way to James McCann, who has been the main catcher for the past three years. During this stretch, McCann has averaged around 61 percent of the innings at the position, which might be the case again this season.
Corner infield: Cabrera’s world
In terms of stability, no position has been stronger than first base for the Tigers. Miguel Cabrera has recorded the most innings at first base since joining Detroit, aside from 2012 and 2013 when he moved to third base after the acquisition of Prince Fielder. However, Cabrera has only averaged 73 percent of the team’s total innings at first base during the past four seasons due to health concerns. This trend may continue in 2018.
Third base has been a similar story for the most part. Brandon Inge led the way up until 2012, and Cabrera took most of the innings during the next two seasons. Nicholas Castellanos emerged in 2014 and has recorded 76 percent of the innings since, but the position looks like it’s transitioning to Jeimer Candelario.
Middle infield: Chaos to stability to unsure
Tigers fans are well aware of the team’s difficulties in locking down a solid double play tandem. Placido Polanco and Jhonny Peralta both logged seasons of over 80 percent of the available innings at second base and shortstop, respectively, but Detroit also suffered multiple years with no player recording even 50 percent of the innings at a given spot.
That all changed with the acquisitions of Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias. The past few seasons have been a rarity for Detroit with not only one, but both middle infield positions occupied by the same player almost every night for multiple seasons. Unfortunately, that time has ended. Kinsler is already gone and Iglesias is likely on his way out as well, liking reverting the Tigers back to a concoction of options up the middle.
Outfield: Rough around the edges
No position has been more difficult for Detroit to fill than left field. From 2007 to 2014, 17 different players played at least 20 percent of the year’s innings at the position. Accordingly, very few inspired much confidence at the plate. That all changed with Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton, but following the recent trend, both have been traded by the Tigers.
Right field has been slightly more stable, with stretches of players taking the lead for a couple seasons at a time. Magglio Ordonez commanded the position through the end of the decade, and Brennan Boesch and Torii Hunter had a couple years of consistency as well. J.D. Martinez overlapped with both Cespedes and Upton and left a gap just as large upon his departure.
The one position in the outfield that has been solid is center field, where Curtis Granderson and Austin Jackson played over 80 percent of the innings up until Jackson was traded. Since then, it has been a little adventurous with Anthony Gose, Cameron Maybin, and Mikie Mahtook all seeing significant innings.
Outfield is one of Detroit’s biggest question marks for 2018. There are a handful of options on the roster, and even more waiting in the minors, but very few look like sure bets outside of Leonys Martin, who should get a good run in center field. With three positions up for grabs, expect to see the theme of turnover continue across the outfield as it has through much of the past ten seasons.
The Tigers had been spoiled during the front end of this decade with consistency across the roster, which played a large role in four straight division titles. This season will bring about many changes, which is not a bad thing for a team looking to rebuild.
Detroit will have every opportunity to see what talent exists throughout the system as they mix and match new players and positions. While this comes with uncertainty and unpredictability, there is really no alternative for the team at this time. If everything goes according to plan, many of the players who see some time this year will be staples as the cycle turns over.