Consider this an exercise in futility. For the past few years, we have stuck our necks out, making bold predictions for the season to come. Our 2018 picks were downright awful, and the seasons before that haven’t gone much better.
But that’s not the point, really. With Opening Day just a few days away, we’re throwing caution to the wind. Rather than relying on statistical projections and other more measured approaches, we want to take a few wild stabs at what will happen in the season ahead. Baseball is weird — wonderfully, wonderfully weird — and not everything in a given game, series, or season will go to plan.
So, without further ado, here are a few bold picks for what will happen to the Tigers in 2019.
Miguel Cabrera returns to his old self
This one might not be particularly bold — Cabrera looked good in his limited playing time last season before rupturing his biceps tendon — but his spring training form has us excited. Cabrera is hitting a robust .348/.426/.739 through 19 games, displaying the kind of power he lacked when he was on the field in 2018.
We can’t quite expect Cabrera to return to MVP form — if only because voters have wisened up, recognizing all-around talents like Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. But Cabrera will avoid the injury bug this year and return to something approaching what he achieved in 2016: a 153 wRC+ and 4.8 fWAR in a full season’s worth of plate appearances.
Consider this a win if: Cabrera puts up at least 4.0 WAR.
The bullpen is a top-five unit in the American League
It has to happen at some point, right? The Tigers have had one of the league’s worst bullpens for over a decade now, with both splashy signings and homegrown flamethrowers failing to gel into an above-average unit year after year.
That stops this year. The Tigers have arguably more raw talent in their ‘pen this year than they have had for several seasons now, with a one-two punch at the back end in Joe Jimenez and Shane Greene that could legitimately develop into a lockdown pairing. Greene was lights out as a reliever in 2017, and Jimenez looked every bit as the scouting reports suggested in the first half of 2018. Add in Blaine Hardy’s reliable innings, Reed Garrett’s high-90s fastball, and Daniel Norris pumping angry 94 mph heaters, and the Tigers could finally find themselves with a unit that fans trust once Ron Gardenhire begins that slow walk out to the mound.
Consider this a win if: the Tigers’ bullpen ERA finishes among the top five in the American League. Or if Daniel Norris becomes the next Josh Hader (minus the bad tweets).
Jordan Zimmermann is traded in July
Despite how bad he has been over the past few years, Zimmermann is the rare player that will see his trade value go up as he gets closer and closer to free agency after the 2020 season. The reason? His contract, now an albatross in the eyes of trade suitors after three injury-plagued seasons, becomes less expensive the more time he spends in a Tigers uniform.
And while Zimmermann’s ERA wasn’t all that great in 2018, his peripheral numbers were among the best he has ever posted — yes, even prior to arriving in Detroit. He only walked 4.7 percent of hitters, and his 9.1 percent swinging strike rate was his highest since 2014. He wasn’t exactly Max Scherzer out there, but if he can cut down on the homers, he could approach being a league average pitcher. If the Tigers are willing to eat a significant chunk of Zimmermann’s contract — there will be roughly $35 million remaining on the deal come July — another team might be willing to take him on to help bolster their roster for the playoff run.
Consider this a win if: Zimmermann is dealt for anything other than another bad contract.
Christin Stewart is a deserving AL Rookie of the Year candidate
I’m all for bold predictions, but guessing that Stewart will win the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year Award over both Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jimenez is a step too far, even for this exercise. That’s not a knock on Stewart — he looked like a seasoned veteran in his small handful of MLB plate appearances last year, and new metrics suggest his minor league numbers are even better than they appear.
But beating out both Guerrero and Jimenez? I don’t know, man. Those guys are really, really good.
Plus, if it’s even remotely close, the more heralded prospect will win out every single time (see: Wil Myers’ victory in 2013).
Consider this a win if: Stewart finishes ahead of either Guerrero or Jimenez in Rookie of the Year voting.
The Tigers finish in second place
This one is somewhat context-dependent, and will fly in the face of most of our season predictions coming later this week, but what’s the fun in predicting another 90-loss season and fourth place finish? The Tigers likely won’t challenge for a playoff spot, but if things break correctly (namely, the Twins’ pitching staff), the Tigers could weasel their way into the top half of the division.
And if that seems far-fetched? Remember that they finished third in the AL Central in 2018.
Consider this a win if: the Tigers finish in second place, record be damned.