The MLB Hot Stove might still be frozen in the dead of winter, but spring training is right around the corner. The Detroit Tigers might still add a couple of pieces as we move closer to February 13, but odds are the roster we see today is largely the same as the one that will take the field on February 22 against Southeastern University, and again on March 29 against the Toronto Blue Jays. Our season preview will kick into high gear as we get close to spring training, but we figured now would be a good time to start looking at what to expect from the Tigers in 2019.
To kick off our preview, we’re stealing a neat idea from MASN Sports’ Mark Zuckerman, a beat writer for the Washington Nationals. Have the Tigers gotten any better at each position? Are they worse off than they were last year? Or do things pretty much look the same?
This week’s question: Are the Tigers better, worse, or the same at each position heading into 2019?
To answer this question, I polled the staff and asked them for their answers at each position. The vote totals are listed in parentheses (order: better-worse-same) at the top of each section. You can see our individual votes here.
Catcher: Better (4-2-3)
Zane: While Grayson Greiner starting for the team in 2019 is not anything to write home about, he is absolutely an upgrade to James McCann. Sure, McCann was known as “McCannon” for a reason, but he was also known for subpar pitch framing. Despite the fact that he was worth 11.1 runs defensively in 2018 (per dWAR), he was still a replacement level player due to his abysmal offensive numbers. He posted a .267 on-base percentage in 2018, and only managed an OBP above .300 once in his four-year tenure as the Tigers’ starting catcher. Greiner is likely a long-term backup catcher. But as long as top catcher prospect Jake Rogers can get on base more often, his best-in-the-minors defensive grades should make him a long-term answer at catcher. Until then, the worst-case scenario is that Greiner posts replacement-level numbers like McCann.
First base: Better (8-0-1)
Whether Miguel Cabrera can stay healthy and productive for a full season as he enters his late 30s is up for debate, but it’s probably fair to assume that Cabrera will play more than 38 games in 2019. He was productive when he was in the lineup last year, managing a 130 OPS+ in 157 plate appearances, but finished with just 0.6 rWAR after he had season-ending surgery in mid-June. Even if he finds his way to the disabled list at some point, just having him in the lineup more often should be a big upgrade for a Tigers offense that sorely missed his bat last year.
Second base: Same (2-1-6)
The Tigers gave Dixon Machado more starts (61) than anyone else on their team last season, but Niko Goodrum was right on his heels with 59 starts at the keystone. Having Goodrum play second more often — which we assume is the team’s plan right now — could be a nice upgrade, but he is projected to take a step backward offensively. Given his defensive limitations, this could ultimately be a major hit to his value. There is time to remedy this situation, though; there are plenty of second basemen still available, including shortstop Jordy Mercer’s former double play partner, Josh Harrison.
Shortstop: Worse (0-8-1)
Speaking of Mercer, he is an acceptable stopgap shortstop who signed a reasonable one-year deal. However, he is not Jose Iglesias. Mercer’s offensive floor is arguably higher than Iglesias’, as he has at least managed an 85 wRC+ in each of the past three seasons. However, Iglesias is a far superior defender, and has more career fWAR than Mercer in nearly 200 fewer games. The Tigers had their reasons for moving on from Iglesias, but unless one of their prospects exceeds expectations and claims the job earlier than expected, the shortstop position will be a downgrade in 2019.
Third base: Better (5-0-4)
Jeimer Candelario had an acceptable first full season as the Tigers’ third baseman in 2018. He got off to a hot start, but battled a wonky wrist and a lengthy slump throughout most of the summer. Our staff was split on whether he will be noticeably better in 2019, and statistical projections are similarly indifferent; Candelario is projected by Steamer for a 101 wRC+ (up from 95 in 2018), but roughly the same WAR total in a similar number of games played.
Left field: Better (8-0-1)
I’m totally going to throw Ashley under the bus here, even if she ended her comment by saying “Offensively, his place in the lineup will hopefully be a huge upward movement.” Christin Stewart might not be anything great defensively, but his offensive upside is certainly worth the risk. Steamer is projecting him for a 111 wRC+, which would have been second on the 2018 Tigers among players with at least 200 plate appearances.
Center field: Worse (0-6-3)
We were not optimistic about Leonys Martin at this time last year, especially as Ron Gardenhire insisted on batting him at the top of the lineup. Both Martin and Gardenhire proved us wrong, though, and Martin produced 2.5 fWAR in just 84 games (roughly a five-win pace) before he was traded to the Cleveland Indians in July. JaCoby Jones filled in admirably once Martin was traded... but only on the defensive side of the ball. Though he took a major step forward offensively in 2018, Jones still has a long way to go if he is to be the team’s center fielder of the future.
Right field: Same (2-0-7)
There is a case to be made that Nicholas Castellanos could regress a bit after producing a career-best 130 wRC+ in 2018, but we aren’t buying it. Most of our writers think Castellanos will be the same player he was last year — a three-win outfielder who can help carry a lineup. Unfortunately, his poor defense puts a cap on his value, so unless his bat takes another step forward, he probably just is what we have already seen at this point.
Designated hitter: Better (9-0-0)
Poor Victor Martinez. While he enjoyed a nice surge in the second half of 2018, his last couple seasons left a lot to be desired out of the middle of the Tigers’ lineup. Our staff unanimously predicted that whoever fills that role — likely a mix of John Hicks, Miguel Cabrera, and a few others — will be an upgrade over Martinez’s 75 wRC+ in 508 plate appearances last season. No American League team received worse production from the DH spot than the Tigers did last year. Luckily, that will probably change in 2019.
Starting rotation: Better (6-1-2)
The Tigers’ 2019 rotation will take a major hit after losing Mike Fiers, but that hasn’t stopped our staff members from expecting improvement elsewhere among the starting five. Michael Fulmer is coming off knee surgery, but is projected to improve on his 4.69 ERA from a season ago. Daniel Norris once again showed flashes of promise in 2018, and will likely give the Tigers more than the 44 innings he managed last year if he sticks in the rotation. Tyson Ross and Matt Moore could help improve on the replacement level production Francisco Liriano offered last year as well.
Bullpen: Same (2-1-6)
It will be hard for the masses to expect much improvement from a subpar bullpen that has seen very little turnover over the course of this offseason. This goes doubly so when those masses are as jaded as Tigers fans are when it comes to their bullpen. There are a couple of new faces around — Rule 5 pick Reed Garrett is interesting, and Blaine Hardy might spend more time in the ‘pen this year — but Joe Jimenez and Shane Greene will still be the ones protecting leads in the late innings, for better or worse.
Side note: Count me among those who think the bullpen will be a tick better in 2019. I think Jimenez will avoid whatever wall he hit last summer, and I’m excited to see more out of Drew VerHagen and Victor Alcantara after what they did in the second half of 2018. Greene might be a bit better as well, and we will likely see flamethrowers like Garrett and Zac Houston at some point.