The last month of the baseball season is not too important for teams out of contention like the 2018 Detroit Tigers, but each player on the roster still has something to prove. Some players are in better situations than others, but on a team like the current Tigers, there are plenty of question marks going into the offseason.
Thus, September can be an audition for players on the edge of the roster or for those fighting for starting spots in 2019. One player who could do a lot to make his case over the final month of the season is Mikie Mahtook, who has been given every opportunity to play in left field.
Nicholas Castellanos — barring an offseason trade — will remain in right field next season. JaCoby Jones, Victor Reyes, and Mike Gerber have all spent time in the Detroit outfield this year, and Christin Stewart, Jacob Robson, Daz Cameron, and new pick-up Dustin Peterson are just a few of the names who could be in contention for playing time next season. Therefore, the margin of error is not great for prospective outfielders.
Mahtook currently has the confidence of manager Ron Gardenhire, but to keep his spot in the starting lineup next season, he needs to have a big showing to close out the year. So far, he is doing just that. Since returning from Triple-A Toledo in mid-August, Mahtook is leading the team with seven home runs and a 162 wRC+.
Mikie Mahtook Batting
Mahtook joined the Tigers prior to the 2017 season, and he had a solid first year with his new team. His 108 wRC+ was sixth-best in Detroit, and he was a versatile defensive asset, playing all three spots in the outfield. His defensive numbers were not great (-2.9 UZR, -13 DRS), but he did lead the team with a 3.2 BsR.
The story was not the same to start 2018. His numbers took a nosedive in almost every area, and he was absolutely abysmal at the plate during the first half of the season. With zero homers and little ability to get on base, the Tigers sent him down to the minors shortly before the All-Star break.
Plate discipline was one cause of this decline. Mahtook had a contact rate of 81.3 percent in 2017 and featured a .29 walk-to-strikeout ratio. During the first half of this season, his contact rate fell to 76.8 percent, while his walk-to-strikeout ratio dropped to .19. When he did make contact, he was not finding success anywhere in the zone.
As bad as Mahtook was, he looks like a completely different player since returning from Toledo. His walks are way up (.46 walk-to-strikeout ratio) and his power is abundant, despite his contact rate actually falling four percentage points. If this is his audition for next season, he is acing the test so far.
The Tigers have played Mahtook exclusively in left field this season, save for one game in center. This has resulted in average defensive numbers (-0.6 UZR, 1 DRS), which represent a huge improvement over last season. With other center field options in the organization, Mahtook is best utilized in the corner.
This does limit his options for next season, though, with Castellanos a lock for the right field spot as long as he is with the team. Mahtook will need to keep up his power surge to show he is worth the investment in playing time. The 2019 Tigers are not going to be serious competitors, but they will feature some of the future building blocks for the next contending team, whenever that may be. The goal will again be to give the most reps to the players seen as key parts of the future.
Giving Mahtook the gig in left field would mean taking away playing time from other young outfielders on the roster. No ultimate decisions have been made about “outfielders of the future,” but it does not make a ton of sense to waste opportunities on players who do not fit into any long-term plans. Mahtook will only see consistent starts next season if he is deemed to be an important player going forward.
Therefore, Mahtook needs to do everything he can over the next month to prove his worth. There are plenty of other players who would relish the chance to take his place, and another stretch like the first half of 2018 could spell the end for his playing time. Luckily, that might all be forgotten if he ends the season on a tear. As of now, it looks like Mahtook will be right in the mix of things in 2019.