The 2018 MLB season is now under wraps, which means it’s time to start looking ahead. FanGraphs has already released their Steamer projections for the 2019 season, giving a dispassionate look at how each MLB team profiles next year. In particular, we’re interested in the Detroit Tigers, and where their major needs are concentrated.
Steamer is based in FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement (fWAR), which, for our money, is the best and simplest method for projecting the season to come. Whichever method one prefers, this is only a rough pass to begin with, so there’s little need to haggle over the details.
Remember that the 2019 roster isn’t a finished product yet by any means. Presumably, the Tigers will sign at least some small number of free agents this offseason. Perhaps a trade will come along that substantially alters the rosters overall forecast, though it doesn’t seem terribly likely at the moment. Players will obviously underwhelm expectations, while others surprise and outperform their projections. Steamer aims to strike a balance between the wide variations one can expect when actual baseball, rather than theoretical baseball, is on the menu again in April. Just as fuel for argument — err, productive, rational and respectful discussion — let’s take a crack at the Tigers roster, knowing that this isn’t anything like a final verdict.
The Tigers have pointedly expressed interest in signing both a shortstop to replace Jose Iglesias, as well as a veteran catcher to take over from James McCann. They could potentially add a veteran on a short-term deal to handle second base, too. Niko Goodrum and Ronny Rodriguez aren’t going to be the Tigers’ starting middle infield, or they are going to have an even rougher season than expected. Nicholas Castellanos could end up traded this winter. But this is the projected outcome as things stand in mid-November.
2019 Steamer Projections
Those projections credit the Tigers with 12.7 fWAR over 5,386 plate appearances in 2019. That’s roughly 800-900 fewer PAs than the average team compiles in a season, so there are plenty of at-bats to be allocated to players yet to be determined. Catcher Grayson Greiner, for example, is projected for 30 games and 119 plate appearances. Steamer has him posting an 83 wRC+, with a value of 0.4 fWAR. Prospects like Dawel Lugo, Brandon Dixon and Willi Castro are each projected for 110 or fewer plate appearances of replacement level production. The same is true for veteran shortstop Peter Kozma, who looks like he will once again provide some depth at the Triple-A level.
The Tigers’ position players were worth just 8.0 fWAR in 2018. The projection for Miguel Cabrera appears pretty crucial, as his return would provide a semblance of foundation to build a lineup around. The loss of Victor Martinez, who posted -1.7 fWAR in 2018, is addition by subtraction, assuming they can better allocate those plate appearances next season. Either way, Steamer like the Tigers to be worth roughly 13 fWAR, a decent improvement, that would have placed the Tigers 23rd among MLB teams in 2018, rather than the 27th place finish they actually managed.
Starting pitcher is another area where the Tigers will almost certainly make a free agent signing. Based on the four current starters and projected contributions from Blaine Hardy, Spencer Turnbull, and Matt Hall, there are 146 of 162 starts filled, leaving 16 to be accounted for in free agency or by other internal options. Top prospects with a year of Double-A experience, such as Beau Burrows and Kyle Funkhouser don’t come into the picture here, but they (and others) could potentially play a role later in the season.
2019 Steamer Projections-Starting Rotation
Certainly, things aren’t going to work out like this, but don’t get caught up in individual projections. The same process that seems to overestimate the likely contributions of Hardy, Hall, and Turnbull balances those projections with a reputation for conservatism toward expectations for active major leaguers. We’re just trying to get a rough idea of what the 2019 Tigers look like before general manager Al Avila and his staff start making moves. And of course, no projection system can account for the toll injuries take on pitchers most of all.
Currently, the rotation looks to be worth 7.2 fWAR next season. They managed 8.8 fWAR in 2018 with the contributions of Mike Fiers and Francisco Liriano. The innings projections for Daniel Norris and Jordan Zimmermann seem particularly optimistic, but if the Tigers can add a solid starting pitcher to the mix, there’s a solid chance they can improve on their overall 2018 value. Still, if all the starters reached those projected innings totals, the Tigers would count themselves pretty lucky.
What this does reflect is that the vastly improved depth in the farm system should provide a level of farm support the Tigers have rarely had over the last two decades. That may mitigate the usual injury issues that plague any rotation. If they can find themselves just a league average starter, they should come in somewhere between 8-10 fWAR next season.
Overall win projection
Right now, the Tigers look set for 67-68 wins next season. Taking the standard replacement level win production, 47 fWAR, you add 13 positional fWAR, and 7.2 fWAR from the rotation, and we’re at 67.2 wins. This is basically right where most expect. However, it is notable that the Tigers can get there without any signings. Their bullpen was worth 2.1 fWAR in 2018; assuming they can produce that much again, the Tigers are looking at 69-70 wins before they make a move.
Viewed from this perspective, it’s not hard to conceive of a handful of veteran signings pushing the Tigers toward a total of 75-80 wins. Of course, the point would then be to trade said players at the trade deadline, undercutting their actual season win total with a fading second half. The Tigers have openings at starting pitcher. They could use a free agent reliever to really solidify the bullpen. They appear to be searching for a catcher, and don’t have a starter set to play both shortstop and second base. Trades could fill or create other openings. But in the end, the 2019 Tigers probably won’t look much different than the 2018 version in terms of their win total.