The 2018 season was a forgettable one for the Detroit Tigers. Most expected that it would be. So while the return of Tigers baseball is always hailed, and fans never stop caring about their team, it was a bit of a slog last year as they staggered to a 64-98 record.
As fans, we’re pretty good at making the best of things. Every season is gilded with fun stories even amid the losing. A young player goes on a tear and sets talk radio ablaze with outrageous pronouncements of future greatness. A poor goose brains himself on the scoreboard and becomes a mascot and rallying cry. Whatever it takes, baseball fans know how to enjoy our game even in dark times. But the 2018 season offered too many ghosts of a great era past, and not enough glimpses of a future. That should change this year.
BYB’s 2019 predictions came out on Tuesday, but we won’t get into them here. Frankly, the Tigers record doesn’t matter much. The team’s overarching goals this season are to improve their players, do well in the June amateur draft, and hopefully make some winning deals for prospects at the trade deadline. Development on the farm system will again be a key component of the story. But while the goals remain long-term, the potential for some fun baseball seems likely if we keep our expectations reasonable.
The Tigers will hit for more power
The Tigers hit the third-fewest home runs in baseball last year. In an era of home run power, they simply did not have the power to compete consistently. There is a solid chance that changes this season.
While Miguel Cabrera was not a source of many home runs in 2018, he’s still Miguel Cabrera. Most of the projection systems estimate him to hit 20-25 long balls this season, but it all depends on his health. Cabrera has been mashing the baseball so far this spring, but it is anyone’s guess how he will hold up. If he can stay in the lineup for most of the year, the Tigers will have a stronger core to their lineup than they did in 2018.
Nicholas Castellanos seems a lock for another strong offensive campaign, and rookie Christin Stewart is one of the better hitting prospects to hit the league this season. With any luck, those three will spend an awful lot of time together in the middle of the order. Jeimer Candelario and Niko Goodrum are the wild cards here, but it’s not so bad to have a pair of young switch-hitters with average power and on-base ability either. Beyond that, things aren’t liable to improve from last season, but overall, the lineup figures to be much more fun to watch.
Matthew Boyd could be a breakout candidate
Boyd Wonder? It feels like Matthew Boyd should have a nickname. No, not that one. The 28-year-old lefthander has come into his own, personally and professionally, over the past two seasons. While Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris have been waylaid with injuries, Boyd has developed into a leader on and off the field, and appears primed for his best season yet. While he probably won’t be mistaken for an ace, his durability, consistency, and sheer likability make him the new face of a thin Tigers rotation.
Boyd had kind of a wild ride in 2018. He rebuilt his slider in the offseason, and leaned on it heavily to generate the best strikeout rate of his career. On the other hand, his fastball velocity was noticeably down early in the season, and didn’t recover until the summer months. He leaned into his fly ball tendencies to an extreme degree, and paid for it with pronounced home-road splits in terms of home runs allowed. When the dust settled, he produced a season with several lengthy stretches of dominance, but also one that featured too many eruptions to grade as much better than an average campaign.
So far this spring, Boyd has had the best of both worlds. He is throwing hard, touching 94 miles per hour, and he is now armed with a nasty breaking ball. If he is ever going to put it all together and post a top-25 season, this seems like a good bet to be the one.
The bullpen will probably be better
There’s a good chance the Tigers’ bullpen is actually something of a strength in 2019. The core group of closer Shane Greene, setup man Joe Jimenez, and lefty Blaine Hardy should have some support. Daniel Norris looks to be penciled into the bullpen, at least to start the year, along with fellow lefthander Daniel Stumpf. Victor Alcantara pitched well in relief last year, and Drew VerHagen was another hard-throwing reliever who finally put things together last season. VerHagen’s injury status is a bit uncertain at the moment, but manager Ron Gardenhire will have a slate of interesting arms behind Alcantara to fill out the final spots.
This still might not be a particularly good unit. But they should be able to protect leads, and the crop of arms the Tigers will be experimenting with should have more to offer than we’ve seen from their depth chart in years past.
The defense will be...
Nah, we’re kidding.
[Ed.: To be fair, they were worth +24 Defensive Runs Saved last year, 16th in MLB.]
Grayson Greiner will get plenty of starts at catcher
For some reason, new starting catcher Grayson Greiner seems like fun. Maybe it’s the mix of dour and droopy expressions combined with his enormous 6’6 frame. Greiner is the tallest catcher in major league history, but a good defender to boot. He is projected to be the eventual backup to Jake Rogers, the Tigers’ long-term heir apparent, but Greiner will have the reins to himself this season. For those who had long wearied of James McCann’s work behind the plate, Greiner should be a bit of a relief. He is not expected to do any better than McCann with the bat, but draws solid marks for his receiving, throwing, and game-calling, and should be a solid defender behind the plate.
Their AL Central competition isn’t all that great
This does the Tigers no credit, but may make for a pretty watchable season for a while. The Royals and White Sox project to be better than the Tigers, but not by much. Both are rebuilding clubs experiencing a lot of growing pains of their own. Those matchups are likely to be pretty even. The Minnesota Twins are in contention, but still probably a year away from really threatening to seize the divisional crown. And that’s with a relatively low bar to do so.
The Cleveland Indians will once again be the unanimous choice to win the division, but that’s only a function of how good their starting pitching is. Beyond the dynamic duo of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, the Tribe could be desperate for sources of offense. Meanwhile, the days of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen in the bullpen are over. Brad Hand is a quality closer, but the rest of their ‘pen is a total crapshoot. They aren’t likely to run away from anyone, and with no dominant team in the division, the standings could be wild and woolly for much of the season.
September = prospect time
The problem with most of these positives is that even the best case scenarios are probably doomed to be short-lived. If Matt Boyd or Nicholas Castellanos are having good seasons, they are going to seen as trade chips no matter the team’s record. The Tigers may be capable of playing a fun brand of baseball for a few months, but in the end, will likely cash out their proven veterans for prospects where possible to continue stocking the farm system. Still, while we went through this in 2017 and 2018 as well, there will be a different vibe this September.
The Tigers’ top prospects, assuming things go well for them, could finally announce their presence late this season. Daz Cameron, Jake Rogers, Isaac Paredes, Willi Castro, and Casey Mize are all on the table as possible late season call-ups. While Mize may be unlikely — given a 40-man roster crunch, it may make more sense to keep him down in the minors — Kyle Funkhouser or Beau Burrows could see a few innings here or there. Most of the club’s top prospects are now in the upper levels of the minor leagues, and odds are that at least a few will play their way to a cup of coffee in September (if not sooner). While the Tigers aren’t projected to reach the playoffs, we may be able to see signs of better days ahead by the end of the year.