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Mailbag: What would it take for the Tigers to finish .500?

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Spoiler: a lot.

Detroit Tigers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

All winter long, we have resigned ourselves to the idea that the Detroit Tigers are not going to be very good in 2018. There are several reasons for this. Their star-studded roster is no more, depleted by numerous trades designed to net young, talented prospects (though opinions on the execution of said trades may vary). They had one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball, and have since lost their two best pitchers. Multiple statistical projection systems predict they will have one of the worst records in baseball, saved from the AL Central cellar only by their equally awful division rivals.

But Opening Day is almost here, and now is time for optimism. The Tigers no longer have Justin Verlander or J.D. Martinez or Justin Upton, but have started to revamp their once barren farm system. The current major league roster is young and unproven, but there is talent to be found in key areas. Maybe new manager Ron Gardenhire helps the team gel a la former skipper Jim Leyland did in 2006, and the team rides a fast start and a surprising bullpen to a postseason berth.

Even a .500 season would be a surprise for these Tigers. But it’s possible, if a lot of things go right.

subic sailor: 2018 Tigers vs 2010 Twins: I see a lot a similarities between the two. Power 3,4,5 hitters and bottom of the order not good but can turn the lineup over. We are not as good defensively as they were but we are improving. Can the pitching carry us to .500?

In a word, no. The Tigers are projected to have one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball, and are coming off a season in which just five pitchers finished with an ERA under 4.00. They had the worst ERA in baseball, and Justin Verlander is gone. Michael Fulmer is a capable starter, but everyone else in their rotation is a major question mark, and the bullpen is as unproven as it gets.

Now, the 2010 Twins weren’t too different. Sure, they had won 87 games the year before, but their pitching staff finished with the eighth-highest ERA in baseball. They were led by notable aces like Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn, and relied on familiar face Francisco Liriano for steady innings. The bullpen was led by a shutdown closer, while the rest of it just came together — only one other reliever logged more than 50 innings.

But the comparisons stop there. Here are the ZiPS projected WAR values of some notable pitchers on this year’s Tigers staff:

Michael Fulmer: 2.9
Daniel Norris: 1.6
Matt Boyd: 1.5
Jordan Zimmermann: 1.2
Shane Greene: 1.0
Francisco Liriano: 1.0
Alex Wilson: 0.8
Joe Jimenez: 0.6

That’s not going to get it done. Even for a .500 team with an above-average offense like these Tigers are hoping to be, it takes some overperformance. The pitchers above are projected for just 10.6 WAR, and that includes six starters. A .500 team would need at least 15 WAR from this group, which is harder to squeeze out than you might think. Major steps forward from both Fulmer and Norris would be the best way to achieve that goal, but it’s also possible that the rest of the group steps up.

Oh, and then they need to produce 20-25 WAR on the offensive end. The 2017 Tigers combined for 14.8 fWAR, but nearly all of that production is now playing elsewhere. The likely 2018 Opening Day lineup (with a couple bench pieces) is projected for 13.1 WAR, a number the Tigers will have to nearly double to approach .500. Some of that is easy to find — Miguel Cabrera could double his 2.0 WAR projection, and Jose Iglesias could add a win or two in a contract year — but picking up another 10 wins is a stretch.

It’s possible, of course. But a lot of things will need to go right.

rschutzpah: Casey Mize threw a no-no. Future Tiger and 1-1 pick?

For all the preseason talk surrounding Florida’s Brady Singer, Auburn’s Casey Mize has looked like the SEC’s best pitcher so far. Through five starts, he has a perfect 5-0 record and an incredible 17.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The 6’3 righty is pushing himself into the conversation for the top overall pick, and his no-hitter on March 9 certainly didn’t hurt. Mize has the requisite velocity to go 1-1, with a plus fastball that sits in the mid-90s. His best pitch, however, is a nasty splitter that reaches the upper 80s. He also features a slider that could also be a plus pitch.

More importantly, Mize’s mechanics are smoother than Singer’s, and his sturdy build (6’3, 210 pounds) should allow him to handle a starter’s workload at the pro level. Singer is a bit lankier at 6’5, 200 pounds, and his delivery has a couple of mechanical flaws that some are worried could lead to injuries down the road. That he’s a slider-heavy pitcher doesn’t help (even if we as a baseball-loving society are horrible at predicting which pitchers will actually get injured). However, he’s still a lock to go in the first round. He also throws in the mid-90s, and his three-quarters delivery, while a possible injury risk, helps him hide the ball well. His 1.97 ERA in 32 innings isn’t far off what Mize has produced.

But if we’re making a wish list, give me Oregon State’s Nick Madrigal. The diminutive second baseman would have never been considered a top overall pick years ago, but times have changed. Madrigal has double-plus bat control and speed, according to FanGraphs, and could develop enough power to turn into a Jose Altuve or Dustin Pedroia-like player. Madrigal broke his hand earlier this year, but should return before the end of the season. Even if his numbers don’t bounce back — hand and wrist injuries take a while to fully heal — he looks like the best position player in this year’s draft class.

mrsunshine: Are there any players the tigers have re-assigned so far that you wish had made the team?

We haven’t seen many surprises as the Tigers whittle their roster down to just 25 players. The hard decisions don’t normally come until the end of spring training anyway, but for a team with so many position battles, it’s surprising that we haven’t seen one or two moves out of left field yet.

That said, I would have liked to see lefthander Ryan Carpenter make the roster. The former Colorado Rockies prospect had a strong season in Triple-A last year, striking out over a batter per inning while fanning more than four batters for every walk. Carpenter also put together a solid spring, striking out 12 batters in 9 23 innings before being optioned to the minors. Odds are we’ll see him at some point this year, but I thought he would have had a better shot at the Opening Day roster with Blaine Hardy currently recovering from a shoulder injury.

fulmer ftw: What is Jacoby Jones’ future? Is he destined to play CF or will he become a super-utility guy? Can he play 2B?

Whether Jones becomes Detroit’s full-time center fielder or a “super-utility” player depends more on the players around him than it does his own profile. If the Tigers have other players they can plug into different spots, Jones will shift around quite a bit. Ben Zobrist is the gold standard here, and I think Jones is athletic enough to handle that many positions. He played a passable shortstop in the minors, by most accounts, and should be able to handle the transition to just about anywhere else on the diamond.

The key is his bat, though. Jones looked the part of an above-average center fielder in his time as the starter last year, and the defensive metrics (small sample size warning!) mostly agreed. He was worth +5 defensive runs saved in about 360 innings, or 40 games. His biggest issue, as we know, was the 17.7 percent swinging strike rate he put up on the other end. Only 10 players with at least 150 plate appearances whiffed more often. If Jones can take major strides forward offensively, he could be an above-average player no matter what position(s) he plays. He would be a plus defender at most spots, and has enough pop in his bat to offset what will likely be a low batting average at peak. But almost no amount of power or defense can overcome a 42 percent strikeout rate. If Jones doesn’t hit, he won’t stick at any position.

As always, thank you for reading! Feel free to submit questions for our next mailbag in the comments below.