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2018 MLB team preview: The Detroit Tigers aren’t going to be competitive for a while

With the 2018 season almost here, Tigers fans already have their eyes on the future.

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MLB: Detroit Tigers-Workouts Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers had a chance to make their 2018 season interesting. As the calendar turned to February, a record number of free agents remained unsigned. Things were so bad that the remaining free agents created their own spring training so they could still prepare for the upcoming season. Things have improved since then, but this has still been one of the slowest offseasons in recent memory.

Here at Bless You Boys, we dreamed about what 2018 could be. First, we went on a shopping spree of epic proportions, adding the best free agents in the class — yes, all of them — to the current roster in hopes of catching up with the American League’s elite. Then, we got a little more reasonable and still found a team that could maybe compete for a Wild Card spot. We even suggested bringing back Phil Coke because fingerpoints and knuckleballs are fun, dammit.

Needless to say, the Tigers didn’t listen. They signed lefthander Francisco Liriano to a one-year deal at the start of spring training, but have otherwise remained content to let their bevy of minor league signings mix in with a roster that finished the 2017 season on a 6-24 run take its lumps in 2018. They have enough talent to stay out of the AL Central cellar, but that might say more about the Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox than anything.

The Tigers are now entrenched in a long-predicted rebuild. While they have some interesting prospects down on the farm and a few more on the way in June’s MLB draft, the upcoming season is more about development than winning. Everyone in TigerTown is already looking to 2019 and beyond, for better or worse.

Now when’s draft day again?

Fine, let’s talk about 2018

For as bad as the Tigers are projected to be in 2018, they have some interesting pieces on their roster. Their lineup will be headlined by first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who endured the worst season of his career in 2017. Cabrera battled injuries and personal issues throughout the year, and fans are hoping both of those things will be behind him this year. Cabrera looks slimmer than ever down in Lakeland, but that hasn’t translated to on-field results yet. He and veteran DH Victor Martinez will sit somewhere in the middle of the Tigers’ lineup, though the team is hoping to give Martinez more days off in 2018, the final year of an ill-advised contract extension the team handed him four years ago.

Neither is projected to be Detroit’s best hitter, though. That honor falls on the shoulders of Nicholas Castellanos, who led the league with 10 triples last year. Castellanos battled personal issues of his own throughout 2017, but still finished with career highs in home runs (26) and RBI (101). Mikie Mahtook will get the majority of starts in the other corner as he tries to build on a surprising 1.6 fWAR season he put together in 2017. Mahtook played hurt down the stretch, but still finished better than league average at the plate. Rounding out the outfield are presumed leadoff hitter Leonys Martin and Rule 5 pick Victor Reyes, though prospects Mike Gerber and Christin Stewart could make their big league debuts this year.

One prospect that has already arrived is third baseman Jeimer Candelario. The one-time Chicago Cub finished with a flourish last season, producing an .874 OPS in 27 games with the Tigers following a midseason trade. Candelario likely won’t produce that again this season, but a solid offensive performance and progress with his glove will make many fans happy. Jose Iglesias and Dixon Machado should provide plenty of defensive highlights up the middle — they might be the best double play tandem in baseball — but won’t provide much at the plate. While Machado will man second base this year, look for him to slide over to short once Iglesias departs in the offseason (or sooner).

Behind the plate, the Tigers will once again roll with catchers James McCann and John Hicks. McCann is still one of the worst pitch framers in baseball, but made strides offensively last year to finish with a career-best 1.5 fWAR. He finally held his own against right-handed pitching, and is sneakily one of the best hitters in the entire game against lefthanders. Hicks hit the bricks running after an early season call-up, but an awful September (.501 OPS) somewhat ruined a breakout year; prior to September 1, he had an .883 OPS in a handful of at-bats.

Then there’s the pitching. The Tigers had the worst ERA in all of baseball last season, an impressive feat considering they received over 200 excellent innings from Justin Verlander and Justin Wilson, who were traded during the year. Since things haven’t improved much, let’s just run down the list.

Michael Fulmer: the ace of the staff, coming off a 3.5 fWAR season and elbow surgery
Daniel Norris: took a step back in 2017, but was able to log a career-best 101 23 big league innings
Francisco Liriano: veteran lefty that has already guaranteed a spot in the rotation despite falling off in the past two years
Jordan Zimmermann: still dealing with a chronic neck issue that has turned a once-respectable contract into one of the worst in baseball
Matt Boyd: funky lefty that finished strong in 2017, but has been quiet this spring
Mike Fiers: currently housing some sort of animal on his face

The relievers are much tougher to predict. Shane Greene has been tabbed as the team’s closer, but everything beyond that is up for grabs.

Shane Greene: closer who should out-perform his projections if he stays healthy
Alex Wilson: tried to sneak into the rotation earlier this spring, but will resume his role as a dependable relief arm
Joe Jimenez: huge arm that struggled wildly in his rookie season, but seems on better footing this spring
Daniel Stumpf: the lefty
Blaine Hardy: the other lefty
Chad Bell: the other other lefty
Drew VerHagen, Buck Farmer, Warwick Saupold, Artie Lewicki, Ryan Carpenter: current and/or former starters who could see time out of the bullpen in some sort of role

There’s a lot of “idk” when it comes to the Tigers’ bullpen, in part because the team has been largely mum on who is sticking around and who will be sent to the minors. VerHagen has the edge on others because he is out of minor league options, but it’s anyone’s guess how much that will play into the Tigers’ decision-making later this month.

But enough about that. Let’s get to the fun part.

The 2019 arrivals

While their farm system is still ranked among the bottom-third in baseball even after gutting their major league roster, the Tigers picked up a number of high-upside prospects in last season’s trades. But rather than run down the list in order — you can click over here for that — let’s take a stab at when they will arrive in Detroit.

First up will likely be top prospect Franklin Perez, a talented righthander who reached Double-A in his age 19 season last year. Perez is starting to creep further up the prospect rankings, but his overall projection seems limited to that of a No. 2 or 3 starter. He will start the year in Double-A, along with righty Beau Burrows. The 21-year-old Texan quietly had a breakout season in 2017, striking out over a batter per inning at two levels, including Double-A. General manager Al Avila has said that both pitchers will remain in the minors for all of 2018, but we wouldn’t be surprised if either forced their way into a call-up at some point next year.

We mentioned outfielders Christin Stewart and Mike Gerber as potential 2018 call-ups, but we might not see much of them until next season. Stewart is more of an old-school slugger type with questionable (at best) defense, while Gerber is a prototypical fourth outfielder who might be able to squeeze his way into platoon duty if he makes enough contact at the big league level. Stewart, in particular, might have trouble finding at-bats in the big leagues this year with Victor Martinez around. While the organization doesn’t want to pigeon hole Stewart into a DH role right away, having that spot available in 2019 should get him a lot more playing time.

2020 and beyond

If things go well, 2020 could be the year we start to see most of Detroit’s latest crop of prospects reach the majors. Alex Faedo, their 2017 first round pick, should move quickly through the farm system. However, anticipating a 2019 debut is a little aggressive for the hard-throwing righty, who still has some command issues to sort out. Righthander Kyle Funkhouser could be in the same boat, but with elbow issues mixed in as well. He was enjoying a monster 2017 before a forearm strain sidelined him from mid-June onward. When on the mound, however, he looked the part of the potential first round pick most thought he would be in 2015.

On the offensive side, all eyes will be on outfielder Daz Cameron and catcher Jake Rogers. The former Houston Astros prospects both enjoyed breakout seasons in 2017, but still flew under the radar. Cameron looked a lot like his father over the final few months of the year, producing a .927 OPS from June 1 onward. He will start in High-A in 2018, so a 2020 debut might still be a bit aggressive for him. Rogers, on the other hand, started to hit for power in High-A while continuing to draw plenty of walks. The 22-year-old is already considered the best defensive catcher in the minors, but could become a star if the bat pans out too. With James McCann’s contract set to expire following the 2020 season, Rogers could get a year as his understudy before taking over the starting job.

Things might not really come to fruition for the Tigers until after that, though. Young prospects like Matt Manning, Isaac Paredes, and Sam McMillan won’t be ready until 2021, if ever. There isn’t a ton of depth behind the guys mentioned above either, though Derek Hill and Gregory Soto have some upside. Even if the Tigers nail their first round pick in 2018, they still have a long way to go before returning to contention. With so many questions surrounding ownership and the front office — some aren’t convinced general manager Al Avila is the right guy for the job — we Tigers fans could be looking at another lean period before the team gets back to winning.

But hey, it will be better than 2018, right?