The Detroit Tigers’ offense stinks. I’m sick of writing about it. I’m sure you’re sick of reading about it. Unfortunately, the fact persists. Tigers hitters were worth a combined -2.6 fWAR in 2019, the lowest in baseball. They were 5.2 fWAR below the next lowest-ranking team, the Miami Marlins. Looking at pure hitting, Detroit’s 77 wRC+ was also last in baseball. So were their 114 losses. There’s literally nowhere to go but up.
The Tigers offense will get better as their prospects mature, but they could use some help. There are a number of MLB free agents available, but one outside-the-box idea is Japanese 1B/OF Yoshitomo Tsutsugo. The Tigers have not historically signed many players directly out of Asia, but their recent interest in Korean lefthander Kwang-hyun Kim hints that this may change.
What does Tsutsugo bring to the table?
The 27-year-old Tsutsugo is a slugger, first and foremost. That power has propelled him to stardom in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). His career there has spanned 10 seasons and exactly 4,000 plate appearances, starting with a three-game cameo as a teenager in 2010. Over that time, he has hit .285/.382/.528. His best season was logged in 2016, when he hit an impressive .322/.430/.680 with 44 home runs and walked almost as often as he whiffed.
Clearly, he has nothing left to prove among the ranks of the NPB.
Tsutsugo is exactly what the Tigers were missing in 2019 (well, some of it, at least). His power-first approach seems to produces results. Even more encouraging is his willingness to draw walks; it’s a skill often translates to higher levels better than power, and declines more slowly.
In the dim light of a season that was unkind to Tigers viewers with regards to both home runs and plate discipline — the Tigers were among MLB’s worst offenses at both drawing walks and hitting home runs — any improvement on this front would be a welcome change. Tsutsugo would compliment a group of young offensive pieces in the organization like as Christin Stewart, Travis Demeritte, JaCoby Jones and Jeimer Candelario. All of these players have shown flashes of a similar skill set as Tsutsugo’s, but have been unable to put it all together with consistency.
Although Tsutsugo’s offensive upside would probably beat out what the Tigers have to offer at most positions, it’s convenient that he plays at first base and in the outfield. The Tigers have few (if any) good options to take over at first for Miguel Cabrera as he transitions into a role as the primary designated hitter. And while there are plenty of options for the outfield corners, there are almost always at-bats to be found at those spots.
At first blush, the idea that we might see Tsutsugo at Comerica Park next season seems somewhat like a pipe dream. After all, why would a successful player in his prime sign a contract with the reigning worst team in the sport?
For one, according to an article written by the very talented Sung Min Kim for FanGraphs, Tsutsugo is not an especially well-rounded player. “The main concern with Tsutsugo,” Kim wrote, “is that some believe he might end up being a one-dimensional strikeout-or-home-run player in the MLB.”
A slugger’s value on the open market has reached a low point among recent years, especially if he is overly reliant on that power. Power is always a useful attribute, but the majors is virtually teeming with players capable of putting up 20 or more home runs in a single season — especially as the new baseball has taken effect over the past two seasons. As with any product, the availability of players with that skill boomed and their demand diminished accordingly.
Also, Tsutsugo isn’t a noteworthy defenseman, which puts extra pressure on his bat. That means that if the discipline that has buoyed Tsutsugo in the NPB fails to show up in the states, his value takes a major hit.
The ability to put up big numbers in a foreign league doesn’t guarantee that a player will succeed in Major League Baseball. Former Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) superstars Hyun-Soo Kim and Byung-Ho Park couldn’t make the leap after posting monster numbers abroad. But it’s that inherent risk that makes it possible for Tigers fans to dream about coming to terms with the Japanese star.
How can the Tigers land him?
Bottom-rung teams like Detroit are often pitched as good landing places for an unknown quantity. Tsutsugo would get plenty of playing time in a low-pressure environment. It’s almost impossible to think of someone with as much raw talent as Tsutsugo being a downgrade from last year’s lineup. He would almost assuredly become a fan-favorite, if only because of the tape measure home runs he would hit.
The Tigers could also offer him a lot of guaranteed money. Often, players in his situation take a short-term deal, signing a one- or two-year contract at a somewhat modest price to establish a track record in the majors in hopes of cashing in later. The Tigers could simply offer him big money up front on that same short-term deal, possibly with a generous buyout clause in case things don’t work out.
Here’s the bottom line: it’s time for the Tigers start investing in their long-term offensive core. The plan has always seemed to be to rely on homegrown pitching, and then buy (or trade for) bats later. The first part of that plan has almost come to fruition. That’s the cue to lay the groundwork for an accompanying offense, of which Yoshitomo Tsutsugo could be a key part.