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The Tigers 2019 ZIPS projections offer few rays of hope

It’s, not great! But you knew that already.

MLB: Winter Meetings Daniel Clark-USA TODAY Sports

Predicting the future is a shadowy business, with a long history of ill repute and downright shenanigans. Things have changed in the modern era, and particularly where baseball is concerned. Projection systems are everywhere, and are constantly being tuned to improve their ability to estimate player performance.

One of most popular publicly accessible systems, is Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projections for FanGraphs. They released his 2019 ZIPS for the Detroit Tigers on Monday, and it’s not pretty. Certainly there are some interesting bright spots, and ZIPS is a little more bullish on the pitching staff than the Steamer projections, released back in November, were, but it’s still a pretty grim assessment of the Tigers’ current predicament. You should give the piece a read, as Szymborski adds a lot of context in his notes on the Tigers’ roster.

Before we proceed, allow us the usual projections disclaimer. ZIPS isn’t trying to guess how many innings or plate appearances a player is going to receive. Those decisions are made by teams, and the success or failure of a player during the season can drastically alter their workload. Add in the unpredictability of injuries, and there just isn’t much point trying to guess at all the factors involved. ZIPS is just trying to gauge what a player is likely to do based on what past players of similar age, numbers, and experience have produced.

The Tigers pitching staff looks decent

ZIPS is a little more optimistic about the Tigers’ pitching staff than Steamer was, but it’s still projected to be a mediocre group. In ZIPS’ opinion, the Tigers might be screwing this up if Daniel Norris and Blaine Hardy are passed over for rotation spots. Both are projected among the Tigers’ four most valuable pitchers, with Jordan Zimmermann, Tyson Ross, and Matt Moore all trailing far behind. This will come as no surprise to a strong Blaine Hardy fan contingent. It also makes clear that Daniel Norris is still one of the most talented arms in the organization, and for the Tigers to start giving up on him so young would be foolish.

Unsurprisingly, Michael Fulmer and Matt Boyd project to be the Tigers’ two pitching MVPs in terms of overall value, while Joe Jimenez easily takes the prize for best reliever. However neither Boyd nor Fulmer is expected to do much beyond providing league average production. It’s perfectly reasonable to hope that Fulmer can stay healthy and outdo these projections, or that Boyd’s revamped slider can carry him to a bit of a breakout season at age 28. ZIPS is conservative, and has to account for the possibility that either could just as easily struggle through a mediocre, injury plagued year. In Jimenez’s case, the Tigers seem primed to waste his next few seasons, and will probably have to consider trading him if he posts a good first half.

Admittedly, this is a double-edged sword, but one of the most notable things about this year’s edition of the Tigers’ ZIPS is the placement of a lot of the Tigers’ top prospects. While this is largely a reflection of the weakness of the major league roster, there are a few players who are crucial to the Tigers’ future who come off quite well in ZIPS’ eyes. The overall picture is of an organization whose pitching prospects are viewed as similar or even better options than many players on the 25-man roster.

For example, Matt Manning, BYB’s second-ranked Tigers’ prospect, is projected to be worth 1.1 fWAR in just over a 100 innings of work. That’s about league average. Obviously no one expects to see Manning in Detroit this season, but it’s impressive to see how his minor league numbers translate in a major league projection. Spencer Turnbull is viewed similarly, and is as major league ready as he’s going to get. Both are rated as more valuable than Zimmermann and Ross. Meanwhile, Matt Moore trails far behind, with Matt Hall, Beau Burrows, and even the now departed Alex Wilson all projected to provide more value in 2019.

Overall the Tigers pitching staff is likely to be even worse than in 2018. The only silver lining is the fact that the farm is finally capable of providing help that may be better than the organization’s actual major leaguers. We can debate workload and usage this season, but for a simpler look at how ZIPS views the Tigers’ pitching talent, let’s just look at the 12 best arms by FanGraphs wins above replacement (fWAR), and fielding independent pitching (FIP) projections.

2019 ZIPS Pitcher Values

Player fWAR FIP
Player fWAR FIP
Michael Fulmer 2.1 4.12
Matt Boyd 1.9 4.41
Blaine Hardy 1.5 3.86
Daniel Norris 1.3 4.26
Drew VerHagen 1.2 4.17
Joe Jimenez 1.1 3.20
Spencer Turnbull 1.1 4.65
Matt Manning 1.1 4.70
Matt Hall 1.0 4.67
Tyson Ross 0.9 4.62
Jordan Zimmermann 0.8 4.74
Beau Burrows 0.8 5.02

The offense looks terrible

It’s a bad sign when your most valuable position player doesn’t really have a position, and is being rather desperately shopped by the front office. Nicholas Castellanos, projected to a 1.9 fWAR season, appears the only legitimate major league starter on the roster other than Miguel Cabrera, whose own projections are based on a predicted 106 game season. Castellanos is expected to post a 120 OPS+, essentially 20 percent better than a league average hitter. Cabera checks in with a 118 OPS+. New left fielder Christin Stewart, and third baseman Jeimer Candelario, are the only other players expected to be anywhere near league average at the plate, projected to a 98 OPS+ and a 93 OPS+, respectively.

Probably the most interesting assessment belongs to the Tigers’ top catching prospect, Jake Rogers. Already widely valued as the best defensive catcher in the minor leagues, Rogers’ defensive helps carry him to the fourth highest fWAR projection of any position player in the organization. The Tigers want Rogers to spend another year in the minors to work on his swing and approach, but he’s probably the most valuable position player in the organization according to ZIPS’ approach.

The fWAR projections in the following graphic are based on ZIPS, but with slightly different assessments of workload. The Tigers’ expected futility at all the key positions up the middle stands out. As do the rather pointless options for designated hitter beyond Cabrera himself. Things look pretty grim.

ZIPS impressions

Overall, the projections look really bad, but that’s to be expected. What really stands out, is the possibility that the Tigers are doing the wrong thing by giving their veteran starters priority in their rotation. The bullpen actually has the makings of a quality unit with Jimenez, Greene, and VerHagen leading the way. Near major league ready prospects like Spencer Turnbull, Zac Houston, Matt Hall, and John Schreiber all appear to have more potential than arms like Daniel Stumpf or Buck Farmer. And in the rotation, Blaine Hardy and Daniel Norris should be getting priority over everyone but Fulmer and Boyd. The lesson is that the Tigers should have a short leash with guys who’ve already had plenty of time to establish themselves, and start turning things over to the kids in the second half of this season, if not sooner.

Offensively, this is going to be a tough group to watch. The Steamer projections were a little more optimistic on some of the Tigers bats, but with Nicholas Castellanos status quite uncertain at this point, it’s hard to imagine this isn’t one of the worst offenses in the game. It’s possible that a healthier Cabrera outdoes expectations. Jeimer Candelario and Christin Stewart are point at an age where one could expect them to settle in at the major league level and be pretty productive hitters. But overall, the Tigers are going to struggle in just about every facet of the game.