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Tigers Den Roundtable: Who has been the biggest surprise of 2018?

The Tigers have surprised us as a team, but which players have been most impressive so far?

Tampa Bay Rays v Detroit Tigers Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

We’re nearly 30 games into the 2018 season — 30 games already! — and the Detroit Tigers have been a pleasant surprise. They haven’t raced out to an early division lead and aren’t generating any serious playoff buzz, but are a respectable 13-16 after their first 29 games. They enter play on Thursday in second place in the wonderfully mediocre AL Central Division, and have as many wins as the Los Angeles Dodgers. This may not continue, but the Tigers are surprisingly watchable, which is all we really hoped for heading into the season.

Let’s talk about how they have gotten there. Surprising teams are comprised of surprising players, and the Tigers have several of those on their roster in the early going. Here’s what the BYB staff had to say about some of the individual performances we’ve seen so far.

This week’s question: Which Tiger has been the most impressive and/or surprising through the first month?

Ron: I would say Joe Jimenez has been the most impressive so far. After last season, I knew he would bounce back and have a good year this year, but it also made me think he wasn’t going to develop into as good of a bullpen arm as all the experts were saying. This first month of the season has erased that doubt and added some confidence that the prior scouting was correct. Joe was one of the most dominant relievers in all of baseball in April. When he finishes developing in the next few years, I think he be within the top 10 relievers every year.

Patrick O.: The most surprising Tiger thus far has been JaCoby Jones. We know that he has an impressive skill set, but when he was up with Detroit last season, he looked completely overmatched at the plate. He hit just .170 with a 34 wRC+, and struck out a whopping 42.2 percent of the time. It looked like a sure bet that he would be back in the minors and might never make it back up. That’s just a huge gap to close before he could handle major league pitching. Well, he is now batting .280 with a .337 on-base percentage, and a wRC+ of 116. He has cut his strikeout rate down to 24.1 percent, and looks like he may actually contribute to the Tigers’ next contender.

Chris: I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Leonys Martin. For someone who was expected to a nightmare at the top of the lineup, he’s been perfectly adequate for the Tigers to this point. He has hit for a solid .267 average and a respectable .325 on-base percentage, as well as exhibiting more home run power than expected. His 19.3 percent and 7.0 percent strikeout and walk rates, respectively, aren’t spectacular, but they are better than numbers he has posted previously in his career. There are still parts of his game that aren’t that great, but experimenting with him in the leadoff spot has, so far, produced perfectly acceptable results.

John: I’m going with Jeimer Candelario, At this point, he has an .877 OPS, which is second only to Miguel Cabrera. Candelario also ranks in the top three [among Tigers hitters] in pretty much every offensive category. He leads the team in WAR (1.0 rWAR and 1.1 fWAR), and while he has committed five errors at third, his defense is a joy to witness compared to the visual atrocity we were forced to endure with the last few years of Nicholas Castellanos.

Rob: Since everyone good is already taken, I’m going to double up on Candelario. Like John said, he ranks among the best players on the team in nearly every offensive category. We expected him to take a step back this season after a hot finish in 2017, but if anything, he has gotten better. He looks dangerous from both sides of the plate, and commands the strike zone as well as advertised. Perhaps the most surprising thing about him, though, is his power. He has hit multiple balls to the deepest reaches of Comerica Park already, flashing more raw power than I realized he had when he first arrived from the Cubs last year.

Jeff: I’m going with Jones. He was so lost at the plate last year, I was wondering if he was ever going to be able to hit enough to stay at the big league level. He has gotten off to a much better start this year and it’s not all smoke and mirrors. He has considerably lowered his strikeout rate from 42 percent to a league average-ish 24 percent. And while I don’t think he will maintain a .340 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), his peripherals are much better. He has a hard hit rate of around 43 percent and a line drive rate of around 30 percent. If it wasn’t for Leonys Martin’s hot start, I would like to see how Jones handles center field full time again.

Ashley: I’m still impressed with Francisco Liriano. I know he was also my selection for our small sample size question previously, but he has just been a really solid one-year pick up for the Tigers. I don’t even care if he’s generating trade value for the team or not. The Tigers needed a guy to eat innings every fifth game. With Liriano, they have found a guy who can do that and win. He has a 3-1 record, a 3.38 ERA, and a 4.49 FIP. None of the numbers are mind-blowing by any means, but he has absolutely exceeded any of the expectations I had for him or Mike Fiers ahead of this season.