The Detroit Tigers were not a good baseball team in 2020.
They were among the worst teams in baseball not only in record at 23-35, but also in on-base percentage (.303), on-base plus slugging (.700), strikeouts (567) and were the worst in walks drawn (147).
Their pitching metrics were especially abysmal. They had the single-worst team earned run average (5.63) and ERA+ (84) and were in the lower tier of home runs allowed (91) and strikeouts (444). Outside of Spencer Turnbull, the rotation was worse any the team has had in a long time.
They will once again hold a top-three pick in the MLB Draft and their manager decided to retire before the season ended in a spur-of-the-moment decision because the job was quite literally bad for his health.
So... why have I come out of the season feeling better about the Detroit Tigers?
Several young players came into the COVID-abbreviated season with plenty on the line as far as their professional careers go. Some have shown flashes but can’t stay healthy. Some were highly regarded prospects but haven’t performed. Some started strong but fell off a cliff. Some are the only hope at their position throughout the entire organization.
With all that considered, lots of the young players flopped hard.
Catcher Grayson Greiner was among the worst at his position in the league for the second straight season, clocking a -0.2 fWAR to bring his career mark to a dreadful -1.1. He is already 28 which, honestly, should eliminate him from even being considered young in the league, and hit a putrid .118 and slugged .333. The Tigers have already committed to Jake Rogers being “with them” next season... whatever that means.
Outfielder Christin Stewart was even worse according to FG, accounting for -0.3 fWAR. Once a fringe top-100 prospect, the supposed all-offense-no-defense slugger hit just .167 with absolutely no power before being demoted to the taxi squad for two-plus weeks in September.
Outside of those two, though, the position player group saw signs of life.
After making the leap from third to first base following C.J. Cron’s injury, Jeimer Candelario turned in the best offensive season of his career, and by no small margin either; “Candy” reached career bests in K%, .AVG, .OBP, .SLG, .OPS, .wOBA and wRC+ with a 50-game minimum.
Additionally, outfielder JaCoby Jones started the season as well as anybody else in baseball, ripping five home runs in 13 games with an 1.177 .OPS.
Also, his mom liked this tweet of mine.
I hope y’all are prepared for American League MVP JaCoby Jones— Brady McAtamney (@bjmcatamney) July 30, 2020
Jones inevitably cooled off before his season was tragically cut short by yet another fractured wrist in Milwaukee.
Hell, even Victor Reyes has made a believer out of me.
But these are not even the young guys that we should be most excited about.
To me, the best part of the 2020 Detroit Tigers season was that GM Al Avila and manager Ron Gardenhire let their coveted prospects play at all.
With the unfortunate absence of a minor league season, the prospects arrived in droves from Willi Castro to Casey Mize to Tarik Skubal to Isaac Paredes. And while not all of them looked like the superstars we hope they can become, it is beyond encouraging that all of these guys who will be 24-years-old or younger by Opening Day 2021 have MLB experience in tow.
Former first-overall pick Casey Mize dazzled at times, including taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning against one of the best offenses in baseball. He also proved handy in giving Rob Friedman some A-plus content with his beyond-this-world splitter.
Casey Mize, Ankle Breaking 87mph Splitter. pic.twitter.com/rReuvVo4xy— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 30, 2020
Isaac Paredes was one of the youngest players in baseball and looked like it, but managed to deliver one of the most electric moments of the Tigers’ season.
Tarik Skubal is looking like he will be the crown jewel in Al Avila’s drafting crown. The ninth-round pick in 2018 certainly had his bumpy outings, but was absolutely nasty when he needed to be and it showed when he struck out 20 batters in his final 14 2⁄3 innings of work.
The king of the 2020 Tigers’ rookie class, though, was clearly Willi Castro. At only 23 years old, the shortstop produced 1.3 fWAR in just 36 games and did massive damage with his bat. Though his K% was high and his BB% was low, he mashed his way to a 150 OPS+ and .381 .OBP, mainly bolstered by an exceptional .349 .AVG.
The BABIP gods were certainly on his side and his defense has plenty of room to improve — perhaps long-term at second base — but Castro will end up near the top of AL Rookie of the Year voting and deservedly so.
The main takeaway here is this: even if all the young guys did not perform their best, what matters is that the organization, which has been blatantly manipulating service time and holding young guys down longer than they may need to be, let the kids play. That act alone could serve the franchise well as we (hopefully) near the end of the rebuild.
But that’s not all! Avila had perhaps his best offseason in terms of signing free agents since he took over for Dave Dombrowski.
Second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who came in on a one-year deal, was the team’s MVP in the 44 games he played and likely would have been their all-star representative had the game actually been played. First baseman C.J. Cron, also on a one-year contract, mashed for 13 games before suffering a season-ending leg injury. But in the time he did play, he was the “battery” in a well-producing Tiger offense.
Catcher Austin Romine played well himself, slashing .291/.309/.418 before falling off a cliff in September. Even outfielder Cameron Maybin, who was brought in primarily as a clubhouse leader, fetched the team a prospect at the trade deadline.
On top of that, the team utilized some of their best bullpen arms of the past decade in Bryan Garcia, Gregory Soto, Jose Cisnero and the resurgent Daniel Norris. Had they not been surrounded by the drab seasons of Kyle Funkhouser, Beau Burrows, Rony Garcia and, unfortunately, Joe Jimenez, the group had a chance to be the best combination of relievers the team has had in the last decade.
Even Miguel Cabrera played along, inching himself closer to a pair of milestones with 10 home run and 51 hits. He now sits just 13 dingers shy of 500 and 137 hits behind 3,000 — both numbers that suddenly seem more attainable than they did when he was hitting .169 in August. In fact, he almost looked like himself across the final 40 games, slashing .280/.354/.427 with six homers and 27 RBIs... almost.
Unfortunately, the Tigers likely will not be a playoff contender in 2021 or even 2022, even if it looked like they might be in the wacky 2020 postseason hunt for a hot minute. After all, they still are one of the worst teams in baseball.
But these fleeting moments of joy matter. When Casey Mize makes you gasp with a splitter or when Miguel Cabrera hits a baseball to the moon, savor that — because baseball is at its best when you are having fun with it.
And for the first time in years, I felt myself having genuine fun with the Detroit Tigers this season.