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Tigers vs. Blue Jays series preview: The 2019 season begins north of the border

The Tigers will open the season in domed comfort for a four game series.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 Detroit Tigers will take the field for the first time on Thursday, and get to do so with a sense of confidence not shared by many Tigers teams in recent memory. No, we’re not talking about a club with high preseason expectations — these Tigers are projected to finish in last place, unfortunately. But for the first time in a couple years (and only the second in the past decade), the Tigers will play their season opener in a domed stadium.

Yes, the Opening Day festivities will go unspoiled.

This will be a welcome respite for the Tigers and their fans, who have seen their Opening Day game rained out for two years running. The Tigers and White Sox had to wait a day to open their season back in 2017, and then Mother Nature spoiled Detroit’s first game again last year. If you include the random day they had to wait to kick off their season in Miami back in 2016, Thursday will mark the first time in four years that the Tigers have played their opening game on the same day as the rest of baseball.

And it gets better from there! Thanks to Toronto’s wonderful dome — I feel weird for actually praising one of these things — the Tigers don’t have to worry about that stupid off day after Opening Day either. It’s nothing but baseball for Detroit for the next week!

While that is great news for us, it presents a different challenge for the team itself. Instead of working around rain delays and planned days off, the Tigers will have to navigate games on eight consecutive days to open the season. They are already carrying eight relievers on their Opening Day roster, and lefthander Daniel Norris is stretched out to handle multiple innings if needed.

They may need him, too. Even though the Blue Jays’ lineup isn’t at full strength yet, they will still present a solid challenge for the Tigers’ pitching staff as we open the 2019 season.

Statistical comparison: Tigers vs. Blue Jays

Overview Tigers Blue Jays Advantage
Overview Tigers Blue Jays Advantage
Batting (wRC+) 84 (15th) 101 (8th) Blue Jays
Fielding (DRS) 24 (7th) -100 (15th) Tigers
Rotation (ERA-) 109 (10th) 121 (14th) Tigers
Bullpen (ERA-) 105 (12th) 104 (11th) Blue Jays
Total fWAR 16.9 (14th) 21.3 (11th) Blue Jays
All stats from 2018. American League ranks in parentheses.

Game times, TV listings, streaming info, etc.

Game 1: Thursday, Mar. 28, 3:37 p.m.
Game 2: Friday, Mar. 29, 7:07 p.m.
Game 3: Saturday, Mar. 30, 3:07 p.m.
Game 4: Sunday, Mar. 31, 1:07 p.m.
Venue: Rogers Centre, Toronto, Ont.
SB Nation site: Bluebird Banter
Media (all games): Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network

Blue Jays lineup

Player Pos. PA HR RBI wRC+
Player Pos. PA HR RBI wRC+
Brandon Drury 3B 86 1 10 44
Randal Grichuk RF 462 25 61 115
Teoscar Hernandez LF 523 22 57 107
Justin Smoak 1B 594 25 77 121
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. 2B 263 11 35 103
Kendrys Morales DH 471 21 57 108
Kevin Pillar CF 542 15 59 89
Danny Jansen C 95 3 8 115
Freddy Galvis SS 656 13 67 85
All stats from 2018. Lineup projection based on exhibition game vs. Brewers, 3/26/19.

The Blue Jays had a decent lineup a year ago, finishing just north of league average as a group with a 101 wRC+. They have a chance to be even better in 2019, with five regulars projected at a .323 weighted on-base average (wOBA) or better. They will need to wait a few weeks for the real fireworks to arrive, however, as Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s service time oblique is still bothering him. Bo Bichette should also arrive at some point this year, and he isn’t even included in the 19.8 fWAR their hitters are expected to produce in 2019 — a six-win improvement from last season.

Even without their prized prospects, the Jays have a solid group. Smoak, Grichuk, Morales, Hernandez, and Gurriel all hit above league average (per wRC+) in regular playing time last year, and young catcher Danny Jansen added a 115 wRC+ in a handful of plate appearances. They finished third in the American League with 217 home runs, and only three other MLB clubs hit more dingers at home. Given the struggles some of Detroit’s pitchers have had with the long ball in prior seasons, this could make for a rough matchup to open the year.

Pitching Matchups:

Game 1: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (7-8, 4.52 ERA) vs. RHP Marcus Stroman (4-9, 5.54 ERA)

If Stroman was due to regress after posting a 3.09 ERA and 3.90 FIP in 2017, he is more than due for a swing in the other direction after last season. Stroman allowed a career-worst 5.54 ERA in an injury-riddled season that limited him to just 102 13 innings. He posted the worst strikeout and walk rates of his career, along with the highest hard-hit percentage (33.2 percent) he has ever surrendered. But despite all those “worsts,” Stroman’s peripherals — a 3.91 FIP and 3.84 xFIP — were nearly identical to what he posted the season prior. He looked as sharp as ever this spring, allowing just six hits in 12 13 innings, and is a good bet to rebound with an improved infield defense behind him.

Game 2: LHP Matthew Boyd (9-13, 4.39 ERA) vs. RHP Matt Shoemaker (2-2, 4.94 ERA)

Many were hoping the Tigers would pick up Shoemaker, a Michigan native, as a buy-low candidate this offseason, but the Jays came calling instead. Despite giving up a 4.94 ERA in seven starts last year, Shoemaker still managed 33 strikeouts in 31 innings of work. He has missed significant time over the past two seasons due to injury, but the forearm strain that sidelined him for five months last year didn’t affect his velocity one bit. Like Stroman, Shoemaker wildly underperformed his peripherals last season (in a limited sample, admittedly). But it remains to be seen if his high fly ball rates will translate well to the cozy confines of the Rogers Centre.

Game 3: RHP Spencer Turnbull (0-2, 6.06 ERA) vs. RHP Aaron Sanchez (4-6, 4.89 ERA)

Sanchez looked like a Cy Young candidate for the better part of 2016, but saw his innings throttled by the Jays towards the end of the year. He didn’t win the award, but took home the ERA title with an even 3.00 mark in 192 innings. That breakout has been short-lived, unfortunately; Sanchez has struggled with injuries over the past two years, nearly all of them related to finger and blister issues. He remained healthy enough to throw 105 innings at the major league level last year, but they were largely forgettable — he allowed a 4.89 ERA while walking over 12 percent of the hitters he faced. He limited opponents to just three runs in 17 23 frames this spring, but his strikeout and walk numbers were not all that great.

Game 4: LHP Matt Moore (3-8, 6.79 ERA) vs. RHP Trent Thornton (9-8, 4.42 ERA in Triple-A)

The Blue Jays picked up Thornton from the Houston Astros during the winter in hopes that he builds upon the underlying improvements he made in the minor leagues last year. Thornton’s ERA went down by nearly a full run from 2017 to 2018, but more importantly, he upped his strikeout rate by a fair margin without sacrificing much in the way of walk rate. Scouts were smitten with his stuff, which spins like crazy — FanGraphs noted his curveball can get north of 3,000 rpm, which is nuts — but are concerned about how his unique arm action and smaller build will hold up to the rigors of a big league schedule. He struggled against lefties last year, but his power fastball-slider mix should play well against the Tigers’ lineup.

What we’re rooting for: baseball!

The Tigers are not projected to be very good in 2019, but the numbers and projections don’t matter this week. Optimism is abound as the season kicks off, and every team begins the year in first place. Baseball is back, and we are excited for the season to get underway, no matter how many games the Tigers win or lose. We may feel differently in a week or a month, but nothing — not even late March weather this time! — can dampen our spirits. Bring on the baseball.