In years past, this was a difficult exercise. Balancing between positive and negative predictions without going too far was a tricky act, but one I did with decent accuracy last year (I’m calling it 2 out of 5).
This year is different. Everyone expects the Tigers to be awful, so “bold” predictions about bad things don’t seem so bold. “Miguel Cabrera stinks again?” Everyone is already predicting that. “The Tigers lose 110 games?” We already told you that won’t happen.
Nope, we get to be a bit more positive this year. The Tigers might still be bad, but if these things happen, things will at least be interesting in 2018.
The Tigers are in first place on May 1
We saw this plenty when the Tigers were on top of the AL Central. Bad team gets hot early, people freak out because hey maybe they actually might be good. Bad team falls off to some degree, and ultimately does not make the postseason. It happened in 2011 with the Cleveland Indians — remember how fun that stretch run was? — and in 2012 with the Chicago White Sox (less fun).
This year, it’s the Tigers’ turn. They have a healthy roster heading into Opening Day, and some of their key players are rounding into form. Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez look healthy and spry, while we’re seeing encouraging things from Francisco Liriano and Jordan Zimmermann. The Tigers had a knack for starting hot under Brad Ausmus, and even did so in 2015 before falling apart later in the year. The schedule even plays to their favor this year, with just seven of their 29 games in March and April coming against teams that made the playoffs last season.
The entire 2018 season might not be fun, but April sure could shape up to be a nice month.
Victor Martinez posts an .800 OPS... but is still below replacement level
I don’t know if this is actually possible, but Martinez is probably our best bet to test this hypothesis. Martinez is just one year removed from a solid offensive season, in which he hit .289/.351/.476 with 27 home runs and 86 RBI. Advanced metrics tell us he was about 20 percent better than the league average hitter, and between 0.8 and 1.5 WAR depending on your preferred brand.
Last year, Martinez was awful. However, many people have forgotten about the hernia surgery Martinez had in October 2016 shortly after the season ended. I can’t blame you — we didn’t find out until almost three months later. Martinez scuffled to an 85 wRC+ in 2017, looking as sluggish as Miguel Cabrera did the season following his core muscle repair surgery (performed by the same surgeon, for what it’s worth). Martinez has looked like his old self during spring training, hitting .283 with five home runs. He might sell out for a bit more power and strike out a little more in 2018, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him have one last above-average offensive season.
But those knees, man. Martinez is slower than a sundial and rates as one of the worst baserunners of all-time. He isn’t getting any faster at age 39, and could potentially sap even more value with his awful footspeed this year.
Shane Greene gets the save in the All-Star Game
Don’t ask me about the logistics of this one, but it’s happening. Greene has shown flashes of being a truly dominant reliever over the past two years, with 132 strikeouts in his last 128 innings. He didn’t generate quite as many whiffs in 2017 that he did the year prior, but still managed a career-high 25.8 percent strikeout rate. The low swinging strike rate seems like a blip given how nasty his stuff is — his fastball averaged 96 mph last year while the cutter sat around 89 — and a rebound on that front should push his strikeout rate even higher. His command will continue to be a problem at times, but it didn’t stop him from going 9 of 10 in save opportunities with a 2.49 ERA after Justin Wilson was traded last summer.
Dawel Lugo is worth at least 2 WAR
Assuming things go well in the minor leagues, Lugo feels like a safe bet to get some consistent playing time in the majors after the July trade deadline. Shortstop Jose Iglesias will almost certainly be offloaded somewhere, and Dixon Machado will likely move across the bag to his natural position for the next few years.
This leaves an opening at second base, where Lugo started working shortly after he arrived in the Tigers organization last year. Reports indicate the transition is going better than expected, with Lugo’s soft hands and decent footwork a natural fit at the keystone. He could project to be an above-average defender there in the near future, with questions about how his body type will affect his range long term. In 2018, however, he should provide a little value defensively.
Lugo’s bat is the bigger question mark. He has shown almost no plate discipline in the minor leagues, though he did improve his walk rate in Double-A last year. However, as a new prospect just reaching the majors, Lugo could see a higher proportion of fastballs in the strike zone. Call it a hunch, but I could see him feasting on those early on to put up a BABIP-fueled line that gets everyone excited, and more importantly, makes this prediction look great when we revisit these next March (we won’t).
Nick Castellanos is a Gold Glove finalist
The key to this one is the BBWAA continuing to be bad at their jobs. Gold Gloves have long been mocked for their inaccuracy when it comes to actually identifying the best defenders in the sport. That Derek Jeter has five Gold Gloves while Jack Wilson and Brendan Ryan never won a single one is a joke. Things have gotten a little better in recent years, but these picks should be taken with a major grain of salt.
That said, I think Castellanos will be better than expected in the outfield this year. He will take the occasional bad route, but will benefit from the greater positioning freedom his new position allows. Also, I think he will rack up a bunch of assists like J.D. Martinez did in 2015 when no one knew how strong his arm was. That, plus a .900 OPS, will put him in the Gold Glove conversation before Mookie Betts wins it again.
BONUS: Buck Farmer will be the closer by season’s end
Every year, I pick a name out of a hat as the player who will finish the year as closer. I was right last year with Shane Greene, but have not gotten anywhere close in years prior. I expect the same to happen this year, but will rationalize this one by saying that Ron Gardenhire won’t trust Joe Jimenez to close games after two bad outings in July just before Shane Greene gets flipped to a contender.