Opening Day 2018 marks the beginning of a new era of Tigers baseball, and while a rebuild is not ideal, general manager Al Avila and the Tigers front office have, at the very least, brought together a cast of entertaining players and coaches.
While the team lacks the firepower of baseball’s legitimate contenders, the Tigers enter 2018 playing in baseball’s worst division in a league with three great teams (the Yankees, Astros, and Indians), one very good team (the Red Sox), a few fringe contenders (the Angels and Mariners), and a whole lot of question marks.
Speaking of question marks, the 2018 Tigers roster is full of them. Franchise cornerstone Miguel Cabrera and slugging outfielder Nicholas Castellanos are leaving hoping to live up to their sky-high potential at the plate. Star pitcher Michael Fulmer and potential studs Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd flashed brilliance in 2017 but could not do so consistently (Fulmer’s season, in particular, was mired by injury). Former superstar pitcher Jordan Zimmermann has been given a vote of confidence by new manager Ron Gardenhire.
Gardenhire, while he is not the most analytically-minded pick for manager, knows a thing or two about leading young teams and will hopefully maximize the potential of the Tigers young guns, former superstars, and even the prospects who will join the team as time goes on.
Former superstars, young guns, and prospects. These are the three key storylines to the 2018 Detroit Tigers and onward.
A Renaissance for Former Stars?
Miguel Cabrera, Jordan Zimmermann, Victor Martinez, and Francisco Liriano are former star players looking to recapture their former magic in 2018.
Miguel Cabrera was bad in 2017. He finished the season with a .249 average, 68 points below his career average, had a below-average 91 wRC+, and was in general worse than even a replacement-level player. You might as well have put Tigers backup catcher John Hicks at first base for 130 games. That said, there is hope for Cabrera. Excluding last year, he has been a superstar for a long time. He finished top 15 in MVP voting every year from 2005-2016. Remember David Ortiz in 2009? He struggled his way to a .238/.332/.462 average, then bounced back the following year and continued to be a nightmare for pitchers until he retired following his age 40 season. Cabrera is going to be okay.
Victor Martinez, unfortunately, is not as likely to bounce back, but the Tigers only have him signed through the end of the season. Martinez struggled mightily with injury last season and posted a very unlucky .280 BABIP. There are no guarantees he plays well this year, but he could surprise. After all, he had an OBP above .350 as recently as 2016, and looked good in spring training.
Jordan Zimmermann and Francisco Liriano both have struggled since their strong 2015 campaigns, but Ron Gardenhire seems to believe they are poised for success in 2018. Perhaps there’s something to this confidence. Both Zimmermann and Liriano had a FIP nearly one run lower than their ERA, suggesting a lot of bad luck. Furthermore, Zimmermann and Liriano have both dealt with injuries that led to mechanical issues in their deliveries. Thankfully, the Tigers have hired the man who helped Jake Arrieta become a superstar: pitching coach Chris Bosio. It would not be surprising if at least one of the two bounced back.
Prove It or Lose It
In 2015, the Tigers “retooled” and acquired Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, and Matthew Boyd. Ever since, the three have inevitably been compared to one another.
Daniel Norris was the highest prospect of all three and may still have the highest ceiling, but he has not pitched consistently. His LOB% plummeted from 80.7% to 68.6%. He walked over a batter more per nine innings than he did in 2016. Thankfully, he got through more innings last year and still had about eight strikeouts per nine. The most surprising thing about Daniel Norris is that he is still only 24 years old. In spite of his youth, Norris will need to prove himself as a starter this season, especially with Mike Fiers looming.
Michael Fulmer was a top-100 guy in need of another pitch, who became a star upon developing a devastating slider. Fulmer is the best player on the Tigers today and should be an ace for many years should he stay healthy.
Then there’s Matthew Boyd. Just last offseason, Fangraphs stated that Boyd is “on the verge of becoming a steady No. 2 or No. 3 [starter].” On September 17, after an up-and-down year, he nearly threw a no-hitter. This is the year for Matthew Boyd to show what he’s made of as he enters his age 27 season. The key, per Fangraphs, may be his fastball. While his pitch values for his off-speed pitches improved in 2017, his fastball fell from -0.7 to -11.8 (which means Boyd four-seamer gave up nearly 12 more runs than average). If Boyd can mix his pitches up better in 2018, he may finally become the mid-rotation starter he is capable of being.
Prospects. The Tigers want prospects. While the team currently has a plethora of young pitchers in the minors, including Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, Beau Burrows, and the currently-injured Franklin Perez, the team needs more positional prospects beyond catcher Jake Rogers and outfielder Daz Cameron. There is not much to say about these guys currently, but they will all be key players to follow throughout the 2018 campaign (even though only Perez and Burrows have a chance of seeing legitimate time with the big-league team at any point). Further, the team will add prospects in the 2018 MLB Draft with their number one pick, and may trade away a player or two should someone like Mikie Mahtook, Shane Greene, or Jose Iglesias draw interest. The farm is trending up.
Speaking of prospects, there are two guys who many pundits have largely forgotten. The first is starting third baseman, Jeimer Candelario. Candelario broke onto the scene in 2017 and posted a solid .359 OBP in limited action. He has 20 home run potential, plate discipline, and is hitting in the two hole. There’s a lot to be excited about with the former top prospect.
Additionally, reliever Joe Jimenez will enter 2018 with a fresh start after a very difficult 2017 campaign. Jimenez was a dominant closer in the Tigers farm system and has been hailed as the team’s future closer for years. Should Shane Greene be dealt at the trade deadline, he may step into that role in 2018. That said, he needs to perform first, and unfortunately, a 12.32 ERA will not cut it.
It’s year one of the rebuild and hopes are not nearly as high as years past. There’s plenty of positives to focus on though. The Tigers have major bounce-back potential in their veterans, breakout potential in their younger guys, and various prospects to watch throughout the season. The AL Central is laughably weak, the AL Wild Card race could be a mess, and every key player on the team is healthy. We are entering Opening Day and every team is tied for first. Let’s play ball and see what this team is capable of.