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Tigers vs. Blue Jays Preview: Tigers still looking for answers offensively to open the season

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The Tigers will aim for a series split at Rogers Centre on Sunday.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Minnesota Twins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers are starting to look a whole lot like Schrödinger’s lineup. As of yet, we don’t have any proof that they are capable of scoring runs during a standard nine-inning game. The lone baserunners to cross home plate thus far have been courtesy of Christin Stewart’s home run, which came in the 10th inning on Opening Day. They have been rather toothless since; games two and three on the season ended the same way — a shutout effort by the Jays’ pitching staff.

Things aren’t looking particularly shiny heading into the fourth and final game of the opening series, either. Miguel Cabrera’s budding comeback was derailed when Aaron Sanchez, who was otherwise excellent in Saturday’s action, hit Cabrera in the hand with a high-and-inside fastball. While the x-rays came back negative and he likely won’t spend time on the injured list, odds are the Tigers’ slugger won’t be in action on Sunday.

That leaves the lineup looking particularly wilted. Without Cabrera’s presence, the Tigers will be forced to turn to the bench. Any combination of John Hicks, Niko Goodrum, or Dustin Peterson could probably fill in for Cabrera capably enough for a brief spell. Unfortunately, the designated hitter is also going to be drawn from the same pool of players, putting more pressure on less offensively-minded regulars like Grayson Greiner, Mikie Mahtook, and Josh Harrison.

In contrast, Toronto’s performance in games two and three was unimpeachable. While Detroit’s offensive unit has its problems, credit also has to go to the Jays’ pitching corps. Despite a bit of a wild streak that has led to some walks, their staff has put on quite the display. Strikeouts have been no rarity; Toronto can lay claim to several high-octane fastballs and outstanding off-speed offerings.

From top to bottom, the Jays’ bats have also showed up in style. Quick adaptation and in-game course corrections are the hallmark of top-flight offenses, and this Blue Jay lineup has done just that. Although Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull were both lights-out to being their respective ballgames, the opposition was able to catch up to them. Intelligent gameplay on a day-to-day basis is what separates a club from the pack, and it’s what Toronto has been showing.

Will they keep up the torrid pace? It seems unlikely. The Tigers are a relatively soft introduction to the season. Treading water will become far more difficult when facing teams like the Red Sox, Rays, and Astros. The Blue Jays aren’t a club built to run with the big dogs. Adding Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to the roster will help, but one player can only do so much.

As to whether the Tigers offense is alive, Schrödinger dictated that we cannot know for sure until we open up the box [scores]. That’s something I’m more than a little nervous to do.

Detroit Tigers (1-2) at Toronto Blue Jays (2-1)

Time/Place: 1:07 p.m., Rogers Centre
SB Nation site: Bluebird Banter
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Matt Moore (3-8, 6.79 ERA) vs. Trent Thornton (9-8, 4.42 ERA in Triple-A)

Game 4 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Moore 102 18.3 % 8.7 % 5.25 0.2
Thornton (AAA) 124.1 23.6 % 6.0 % 4.01 n/a

Matt Moore’s career has not gone as planned. His lofty prospect status and promising entry into the league were derailed by injuries, and he has been an ineffective option since. General Manager Al Avila acted quickly this winter to bring Moore into the fold, and the organization likes his chances of rebounding into a useful back-end piece of the rotation. Despite a shaky spring, Moore’s spot in the rotation was cemented by Micheal Fulmer’s season-ending injury.

While Tigers fans will be intently watch how Moore does in his season debut, the more captivating story is Trent Thornton’s. He was dealt from Houston to Toronto after an outstanding showing in the Arizona Fall League, and will be making his first major league appearance in this game. While there’s an argument to be made that he isn’t really ready for action at this level yet — his Triple-A numbers don’t scream “I’m too good for this level” — his power stuff and elite spin rates make for a compelling argument otherwise.

Key Matchup: Tigers vs. spin rates

Few teams in the majors present a better opportunity for Thornton as he makes his MLB debut than do the Tigers. Not to beat a dead horse, but it’s a lineup that has struggled with strikeouts to begin with, and may be missing a key element of its backbone in Miguel Cabrera. Thornton’s wicked trio of plus offerings in his fastball, curveball, and slider combined with his aversion to walks are custom built to Detroit’s weaknesses.

For example, Jeimer Candelario’s trademarked mature approach at the plate hasn’t showed up yet — he has offered swings at 63.6 percent of the pitches he has seen thus far and whiffed nearly two-and-a-half times more often than in 2018. What’s more, he’s offered at a colossal 53.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone! Three games is far too small a sample size to draw a fully fledged conclusion. However, it is enough to be concerned about how he will perform against a player like Thornton — especially right now, because it seems like he isn’t seeing the ball well so far this year.

Moore, on the other hand, is going to be looking to recapture some of the mojo that makes Thornton an interesting prospect. Only eight staring pitchers with over 100 innings in 2018 had worse fastballs than Moore, per FanGraphs’ pitch value leaderboards. That means he will be relying on his off-speed pitches to get him out of trouble, but of those, only his changeup offered positive value.

There are signs that he’s bound for a comeback, and the Tigers will likely give the veteran plenty of chances to make one. He has above-average movement on all three of his off-speed pitches. The trick here will be using that movement effectively. Expect to see him lean on the changeup as he tries to get swings-and-misses from a powerful Jays lineup that will feast on below-average fastballs.

Prediction

The Jays keep their momentum and send the Tigers packing with another loss.