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Let’s take a look at the Tigers positions ripe for improvement

Not many positions have a clear plan going forward.

Chicago White Sox v Detroit Tigers Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

With the conclusion of the 2018 season, the Detroit Tigers are one step farther down the path of their long rebuilding journey. The most recent campaign showed signs of hope, but was not too pretty on the whole. The offense, in particular, had a rough time all year; the Tigers ranked 26th in runs scored, 28th in wRC+, and 27th in fWAR by position players.

Hopefully this represents rock bottom. 2018 was easily the worst performance by Detroit batters in quite some time, and the growth of younger players and addition of prospects next season should provide a nice boost. Of course, the return of Miguel Cabrera will play a big role as well, assuming he can stay healthy.

To figure out how the Tigers can return to their winning ways, it makes sense to look at what was going well during their four straight division titles. During that stretch, the Detroit offense ranked first in wRC+ and fourth in fWAR. Since then, those rankings sit at 14th and 22nd, respectively. To bridge this gap, the Tigers need to bounce back all across the diamond.

Tigers position player fWAR

Position 11-14 Avg fWAR 11-14 Rank 15-18 Avg fWAR 15-18 Rank
Position 11-14 Avg fWAR 11-14 Rank 15-18 Avg fWAR 15-18 Rank
C 2.5 16th 1.4 20th
1B 4.8 2nd 2.7 10th
2B 2.1 17th 2.9 13th
SS 3.3 7th 1.9 21st
3B 4.0 5th 2.0 22nd
LF 2.8 15th 2.5 15th
CF 3.7 15th 2.1 24th
RF 2.0 21st 2.8 11th

Catcher: It can only go up from here

Alex Avila was never the game’s top backstop, but he was average at worst during the Tigers’ playoff runs. He consistently recorded wRC+ values near average, which is something the position has lacked since he ceded the starting role.

James McCann is not the answer at catcher, and it seems like the Tigers recognize that and are willing to say goodbye. He was miserable at the plate this season, and as a result, Detroit was one of just four teams with negative catcher fWAR.

Where the solution lies is unclear. Grayson Greiner was serviceable in limited action at the end of the season, and Jake Rogers has a lot of potential, but it probably makes sense to throw a veteran into the rotation as well. The Tigers should be better next year, but it might not be a huge improvement.

First base: Stay healthy

If Cabrera is healthy, the team should stay within the top ten at first base as they have for years. If he continues to struggle with injuries, the results are going to be more of the same (19th in fWAR in 2018). Banking on an aging star is a risky plan, but the alternatives are bleak.

There could be some limitations even with a healthy Cabrera in 2019. The Tigers would be wise to move him into the DH role for a good portion of his outings, which would help preserve his health, but would hurt the first base production with no solid backup in place.

However, this would still be an overall benefit to the offense. Detroit ranked dead last in designated hitter fWAR last season. Though not included in the table above, the Tigers dropped from one of the best at the position from 2011-2014 to below average over the past four seasons, which obviously follows the decline of Victor Martinez.

Second base/Shortstop: Lots of options, little certainty

Ian Kinsler is already gone. Jose Iglesias is on his way out. The days of a dynamic middle infield in Detroit are likely a memory at this point. In 2018 the Tigers ranked 28th in second basemen fWAR, and non-Iglesias Tigers ranked 29th. There is a huge need at both positions with no straightforward solutions.

Dawel Lugo was the only true prospect to earn decent playing time in Detroit this season, but the results were not promising. It makes sense to give him an extended look next year to see what he could be, but he may not prove himself as a long-term solution.

There are a plethora of shortstop prospects throughout the organization, and at least a couple should got a shot with the Tigers in 2019. Hopefully one of Isaac Paredes, Willi Castro, or Sergio Alcantara can fill one of the spots in the middle infield, but it will take some time for the team to rebound here.

Third base: A rare certainty

Of the eight positions across the field, very few have a clear occupant for the future. Third base may be the most certain of any spot, with Jeimer Candelario looking more than capable during his first full season with Detriot.

Candelario ranked 16th at the position with 2.5 fWAR, recording a slightly below-average 95 wRC+, which was fine for this stage in his career. Just as encouraging was his 3.2 UZR, giving hope that he can stay at third base defensively.

Left field/Center field: More kids

There really are not a whole lot of veterans to take up outfield positions, so the 2019 outfield might be a rotation of prospects and younger players. Victor Reyes (-1.0 fWAR) and Mikie Mahtook (-0.2 fWAR) are fine to keep around, but did not do enough to lock down a spot next season.

That should give JaCoby Jones, Christin Stewart, and Mike Gerber opportunities to prove themselves in 2018. Jones has room to grow at the plate, but was outstanding in the outfield with 21 DRS and 12.3 UZR. Meanwhile, Stewart was a mess defensively, but ended with 120 wRC+ in limited playing time.

Prospects Daz Cameron and Jacob Robson should also see at least a little action in Detroit, as neither left field or center field is set in stone going forward. Even during the playoff seasons, the Detroit outfields were not the team’s strength, so it there is every reason to try out multiple options where available.

Right field: Sticking around

It is not 100 percent certain that Nicholas Castellanos will be a Tiger in 2019, but if he does return, his home will be back in right field. The results with the glove were about as expected (-12.9 UZR, -19 DRS), but at this point it is what it is.

Castellanos was the best batter on the team (130 wRC+) and a crucial part of the lineup going forward. At just 26 years old, he is becoming a veteran presence due to roster turnover, and his return would help form a solid core with Cabrera and Candelario.

A lot of question marks

There are plenty of uncertainties around the diamond with a variety of youngsters hoping to make an impact next season. As the roster currently stands, over half of the spots will be up for grabs and there will probably be a heavy amount of turnover during the course of the year.

Having a healthy Cabrera and a returning Castellanos is vital for a team with so many moving pieces. 2019 is poised to be another season full of growing pains, but it may be the first time the “roster of the future” will be faintly visible, albeit from a distance.